Six Iban villagers and two children have been remanded for six days at the central police station in Miri, Sarawak, for allegedly stealing oil palm from a plantation.
They were arrested on Nov 1 after Sachiew Plantations Sdn Bhd lodged a police report, accusing the individuals of involvement in a syndicate that steals oil palm.
Those arrested are Chaya Ak Abang, Sudin Ak Minggat, Elvister Ak Entir, Fabian Ak Jati, Robin Ak Siri, Adrian Ak Michael and two boys who are still in school. They are residents of the Rumah Gansor, Rumah Tarang and Rumah Ansang longhouses.
In a statement, Cassidy Ak Robinson of Rumah Gansor said a police contingent from Batu Niah, Miri and Kuching made the arrests at Sungai Sebatu, Suai.
Cassidy claimed that the police used excessive force by pointing their weapons at unarmed villagers, including women and children.
“One villager, Adrian Ak Michael, was assaulted before being arrested together with one of his sons who is nine years old. Eleven vehicles belonging to the villagers were seized and taken to the police station,” he said.
He claimed that the longhouse welfare fund amounting to RM10,500 - which was to be deposited at a bank in Batu Niah - has since gone missing from one of the vehicles.
Abang Ak Ramba of Rumah Gansor said the site on which the company is operating is within land to which native customary rights (NCR) have been exerted.
He said the people have been writing letters and holding meetings with the relevant authorities without resolution since the “encroachment and occupation” of the land, and that the matter is now the subject of a lawsuit.
“The police treated us as if we are dangerous criminals. They came in an aggressive manner and said harsh and insulting words and pointed their weapons at us,” said Abang.
“We are only farmers working on our own land and we have tried numerous times to dialogue with the company, but it has never kept its promises.”
Abang also urged the police to release the villagers unconditionally and to conduct a fair investigation into the cause of the dispute, rather than listen only to the company’s side of the story.
‘Why the harsh treatment?’
When contacted, their lawyer Abun Sui Anyit condemned the police for being “unprofessional” in arresting the villagers.
“The police were armed with M16 rifles and seized everything like ATM cards, licensed guns, farming tools and vehicles,” he noted.
“They treated the villagers like hardcore criminals and not natives who are defending and protecting NCR land.
“The villagers have made a number of police reports against the company, but the police have turned a deaf ear to these. But when the company made a report, the police immediately acted on it.”
On the dispute over the NCR land, Abun said this could have been worked out if the company had been willing to discuss the matter with the villagers over the last 17 years.
The writer, who uses a pseudonym, is based in Sarawak.