Tales of horror from Malaysia's camps

Government that once welcomed foreign workers is now using riot police against them
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The Independent Online
IT IS more than a month since the young man named Nasir was admitted to the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital but it is obvious he is still in a very bad way. The gashes and holes in his chest and arms have healed to white scars, and the plaster on his leg has been replaced with a bandage. But there is dried blood on his sheets and pillow, and the surgical scar on his belly is livid and raw. Nasir is not going anywhere but, just in case he should decide to take a walk, his skinny left wrist is handcuffed to the bed.

Two policemen guard him and, although they have slipped away for lunch, the presence of visitors makes him nervous. "I'm afraid to talk to you because the police will beat me up," he says. Nasir understands very well what his captors are capable of. The gashes on his chest and the break in his leg were caused by blows from police batons so violent that they broke the skin. The smaller, round patches are scars from bullet entry wounds - the one in his belly has never healed properly. Nasir was not tried or convicted of any crime. He was shot and beaten up by Malaysian riot police for a simple reason - because he ran away from a detention camp for foreign workers.

His is just one of the most dramatic cases. Over the last few years, according to a growing body of evidence, thousands of foreigners have been beaten, bullied, or have suffered medical neglect and torture in immigrant detention camps throughout west Malaysia. The abuse has killed some and left many more sick, impoverished and desperate.

The Malaysian government denies the allegations, and Malaysian human rights activists who document the evidence risk prosecution and imprisonment. But despite repeated requests, the government refuses to allow the media, non-governmental organisations and even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to enter the camps.

The tragedy of people like Nasir has its roots, paradoxically, in a success story. Until last year, under the vigorous leadership of its Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia was an Asian success story, with high growth and ambitions to rise from developing to industrialised status by 2020. But visionary determination was not enough to achieve Dr Mahathir's vision; the skyscrapers, roads and factories also required large amounts of cheap labour, much of it foreign, and much of it illegal.

For years police and immigration authorities tuned a blind eye to waves of poor foreigners - many, like Nasir, from Indonesia - brought over for a fee by highly organised "agents". But last year, along with most of its south-east Asian neighbours, Malaysia was struck by currency depreciation and economic crisis. The job of sending home illegal immigrants - Operation Go Away - suddenly became urgent.

But both the way in which they have been rounded up and the conditions in the camps have been severely criticised. In 1995, a Malaysian human rights organisation called Tenaganita published a report based on interviews with former detainees and detailing serious abuses. As a consequence, the head of Tenaganita, Iren Fernandez, is on trial for disseminating "false news". But interviews conducted this week indicate that little has changed.

Yesterday, outside Lenggeng detention centre, 30 miles from Kuala Lumpur, an Iranian man tried to get access to his compatriot, Gholam Reza Hosseni. Both are asylum seekers, he explained, who had been imprisoned for political reasons in Iran, and had finally managed to gain Australian visas. A month ago, Mr Hosseni was caught by the police without his papers and sent to Lenggeng. Since then no one has been able to visit him.

Mr Hosseni has written to a friend complaining of illness, a lack of water for bathing and about guards who demand bribes even for a drink of water. "We have tickets to go to Australia next week," says his friend. "I am afraid they will take him to the airport and put him on a plane to Iran. There he will be killed."

Local people whose homes overlook the Semenyih detention centre confirm many of the allegations in Tenaganita's report. "You could see through the fence when they first brought them in," said one woman. "They would make them stand in the sun and beat them with batons. Sometimes the sticks had barbed wire around them. "Their relatives who were visiting would complain about having to pay bribes to the guards."

It was at Semenyih on 26 March that the abuse reached its climax. Early that morning, Malaysian riot police entered camps across the country and began transporting their occupants to ports for repatriation. Semenyih contained several hundred detainees from Aceh, in Sumatra, where Islamic guerrillas have been fighting for independence from Indonesia since the 1950s. A riot broke out, and in the course of the fighting, hundreds of Acehnese break out through the fence. Nasir was among them, but was shot, captured and beaten up.

According to the official count, eight men from Aceh and one policeman were killed. Local people say the shooting began at 2am and went on for more than six hours. "I cannot believe such a small number were killed," said one local man.