NGO leader in Malaysia Alleges Prison Torture

P Uthayakumar, the de facto leader of the Hindu Rights Action Force, a Indian rights organization protesting mistreatment of Malaysia’s Indian population, has issued an open letter to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and other officials alleging horrific treatment at the hands of prison guards at Kajang Prison, where he has been locked up since June on sedition charges.

“I have and am being tortured…at the most feared and dreaded closed isolation lock-up of Kajang Prison all in for 27 days and to continue indefinitely,” Kumar wrote. “I am locked-up under solitary confinement alone, 24 hours a day not seeing sunlight or fresh air [in a] dimly lit cell and [with] just one set of prison pants and shirt in an empty lock-up."

The prisons department denied mistreating the Hindraf leader, saying he had been put into solitary confinement for 13 days on two separate occasions for disciplinary problems. Uthayakumar was described as a “rebellious prisoner who caused ‘tense situations’ with the prison staff.

The 52-year-old Uthayakumar is the legal advisor to the NGO, which supported the Barisan Nasional in May 2013 national elections. In recognition, Najib appointed Hindraf chairman P Wayathamoorthy a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office. Hindraf members have since called for Wayathamoorthy to quit, alleging the government has done nothing to bring poor ethnic Indians into the country's mainstream.

Uthayakumar was first arrested in 2007 for taking part in a demonstration against the demolition of a Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. A few weeks later police raided his office and confiscated fliers that were described as seditious. He previously served two years in prison under the country’s Internal Security Act, which has since been replaced by a less draconian security law. He began serving a new 30-month sentence on June 5.

In his letter, which was sent to Asia Sentinel and other publications, he said he was denied reading and writing materials, a toothbrush, toothpaste, bathing and washing soap, towel, blanket, pillow and even a half-inch foam mattress to sleep on the cement floor and that he was denied medical treatment for his diabetes.

“I am forced to sleep on the bare cold cement floor despite also suffering from arthritis, forced to drink rice porridge using a dipper that hundreds, if not thousands of other prisoners use/have used to wash their backsides. My sole shirt and pants remain unwashed (even with plain water) for days, as it will take days to dry with the very small only one feet x 1½ feet ventilation grille.”

After being returned from a court hearing on Sept. 24, he said, he was locked up for eight days “in a dirty, dark, hot and stuffy 10 feet x 10 feet ‘quarantine’ lock-up at the death row with another open (no partition) squatting toilet bowl and bath area of 2 feet x 10 feet with no bathroom privacy even during early morning long calls together with five other dangerous and violent criminals.”

Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar denied in Parliament that Uthaykumar was treated harshly, saying his cell in solitary confinement has a mattress, blanket and toiletries just like other cells and that he is being given the same food as other prisoners. He is being served bread and vegetables instead of rice as he is diabetic, the deputy minister said.

It is difficult to check Uthayakumar’s charges although there seems to be some indication that conditions in Malaysian prisons are hardly ideal. The US State Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report on Malaysia said prison overcrowding is a serious problem, with local and international NGOs making “credible allegations of overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, lack of regular access to clean water, poor medical care, improper sanitation, and lack of bedding in Immigration Detention Centers,” although the report didn’t address conventional prisons. Accusations of rape of prisoners while in prison or detention have occurred. The Prisons Act does not provide a process for prisoners to submit complaints to judicial authorities, nor are NGOs generally allowed to monitor prison conditions.

On June 19, 2012, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission began investigating information from a staff member at the Kamunting Detention Camp who claimed the 45 prisoners still in custody under the ISA had been subject to various forms of torture before arriving at the camp.

A police spokesperson denied the allegations as “baseless and malicious.” On June 25, a lawyer for one of the detainees claimed her client had been subject to cruel and degrading treatment such as beatings, being forced to stand naked for pictures, and the application of chili paste to his body.

Inmates charged that camp authorities assaulted and placed them in solitary confinement with no ventilation. On July 21, after continued protests held by NGOs and families of the ISA detainees outside the prison, Home Minister Hishammuddin stated the detainees would be released in “due time” when “all the capacity building” of the police was in place to protect the public.

“For complaining about the above and other prison conditions and abuse of other prisoners, I have been scolded with the words "kurang ajar" (ill mannered) by DSP Mohamad Noor and ‘you are a bloody prisoner’ by prison Superintendent Ranjit Singh and repeatedly shouted at,” Uthayakumar wrote. “After almost four months being treated with at least some semblance of a security prisoner, the prison authorities are now forcing me to squat in line in muster (roll call) with other dangerous and violent criminals. Earlier I was allowed to remain in my cell for the other three i.e. 11 am, 2 pm and 4 pm musters.

“Despite my appeal letter to the Prison Director dated October 2, 2013, not only has there been no positive action but this latest torture of 27 days (plus eight days quarantine) in the most feared and dreaded isolation cell, for citing my safety and not wanting to muster with the other dangerous and violent criminals,” the letter continued.

Uthaykumar appealed to be transferred to the hospital wing in view of his illnesses and for officials to stop prison torture and abuses of all other prisoners.