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Our Special Branch and their 'license to torture'

On the June 26, the world celebrated the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. June 26 is the day the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This treaty was adopted by the United Nations in 1984 after years of campaigning by various human rights organisations and came into force in 1987. Today, over 145 states are party to this convention including countries in this region such as Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. When a country ratifies this treaty, it makes sure that laws in the country are in conformity with the treaty

Despite this global acceptance that torture is wrong, illegal under international law and unacceptable in all circumstances, Malaysia, which is currently a member of UN Human Rights Council, has refused to ratify this international treaty.

One particular agency which has benefitted from Malaysia’s continued acceptance of torture is the Malaysian police intelligence or Special Branch. They have systematically employed techniques of interrogation including a combination of physical assaults, deception and coercion, and intense mental and physical pressure at times amounting to torture, which became entrenched over the years.

One piece of legislation that has given the Special Branch a ‘licence to torture’ is the Internal Security Act (ISA), which was originally enacted in 1960 to counter a specific threat of communist insurgency but was made permanent. The legislation was amended incrementally to remove key safeguards, including effective judicial review of the lawfulness of ISA detentions.

Patterns of torture and other ill-treatment of ISA detainees have been documented by various human rights organisations since the 1970s against opposition, politicians, journalists, educationists, community workers and other civil society members. In most cases, torture and ill- treatment of ISA detainees take place during the initial 60-day investigation period.

Detainees have been assaulted, forced to strip, deprived of sleep, food and water, told that their families would be harmed, and subjected to prolonged aggressive interrogation to break them down (referred to as ‘turning over’, ‘neutralisation’ or ‘brain washing’) coerce confessions or elicit information.

Many have claimed the situation under ISA detention has improved compared to the 1970s and 80s but recent complaints lodged with Suhakan in 2004 by ISA detainees illustrate how things have remained the same.

Detainees detailed how they were forced to describe how they made love to their wives, being hit across the face with a newspaper; spat at and forced to drink the spittle; and being forced to sit in the cold blast of air conditioners during interrogation.

Two ISA detainees, Abdul Razak Abdul Hamid reported that he had been stripped naked, beaten by his interrogators and forced to drink water poured onto the floor while Sulaiman Suramin reported he was stripped, sexually humiliated and forced to kiss rubbish and cigarette ash. They were both accused of ‘links to terrorism’.

During this period, ISA detainees are usually held in solitary confinement, often in a windowless cell where they lose all sense of time. Within a context of actual or threatened physical assault, the interrogation procedure is designed to induce a feeling of complete disorientation and dependence on the interrogators as the only point of human contact.

The sense of helplessness is exacerbated by their knowledge that access to effective judicial protection has been blocked, and that visits by lawyers and family members are entirely at the discretion of their interrogators.

Despite committing systematic abuse against ISA detainees, none of these Special Branch officers has ever been charged and brought to justice. Even a royal commission, which was set up in 2005 to examine the conduct and management of the police, recognised the lack of accountability of this agency.

The royal commission recognised that there appears to be no legal provisions dealing with the functions, powers and duties of the Special Branch.

The royal commission, in their inquiry, were not given access to the Special Branch Charter which governs the Special Branch and issued by the prime minister and called for it to be made under the authority of the law.

The commission also called for greater clarification of what spelled out ‘security intelligence’ and recognised the agency as a ‘fearful organisation’.

Therefore as the world commemorates this day for victims of torture, it also time for the police reform process to move forward and that this body which has operated with impunity be scrutinised in a public setting.

There is a need to set up an independent body to investigate all the abuses and torture committed by this agency over the last 40 years and brings those responsible to justice.

While many recognise the need for police organisations to have an intelligence arm in tackling crime, there is a crucial need to bring this agency under the rule of law with clear and transparent functions and powers free from political influence and manipulation.

As the royal commission has recommended, report of Special Branch’s activities needs to be submitted to the prime minister at the end of each year and then presented in parliament.

And finally, as we condemn governments which have employed torture as part of the so-called global ‘war on terror’, we Malaysians must call on our government to immediately send a strong message that torture is unacceptable and ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

It must also immediately abolish the ISA and other preventive detention laws which have become a training ground for torturers

I believe we, as a country, will never be secure as long as we allow this department of institutional torture to continue to operate with impunity outside the rule of law.