Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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A thought on prisoners detained under the Internal Security Act

by Teo Soh Lung

On 11 January 2023, the media reported that in October 2022, the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested and imprisoned Mohamed Khairul Riduan bin Mohamed Sarip, a 38-year-old teacher, under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

It took the Ministry of Home Affairs three months to inform Singaporeans that he had been detained.

Mohamed Khairul Riduan was not the only person arrested and imprisoned last year. Two others were similarly arrested and today languish in prison without trial. They are Radjev Lal s/o Madan Lal, a 29-year-old Mover in a logistic company and Mohamed Hassan bin Saynudin, a 48-year-old man alleged to be a member of the Singapore Jemaah Islamyah network. He had returned from another country where he had served a jail term and was presumably arrested at Changi Airport.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) does not inform the public about the number of prisoners they are holding without trial under the ISA. Written requests to reveal statistics do not even elicit an acknowledgement. It is like the ministry is so very, very busy that it has no time to practise courtesy even while it expects others to respect them.

But according to my record, there are today about 15 prisoners confined to tiny cells in the Changi Prison Complex. Three of the 15 have been in prison since 2001/2002 a very long period of 20 years. They were arrested at the time the Twin Towers were destroyed, and the whole world was up at arms against the poor Muslims.

Today’s detention of ISA prisoners is no longer the same as the days of our colonial master.

In those days, I am told, selected prisoners enjoyed the luxury of St John’s Island and bungalows along Changi Beach. Those imprisoned in the old Changi Prison lived in halls and were allowed to be together to organise daily activities such as language classes and take turns cooking meals in the communal kitchen. But there were, I am also told, heated cells located above burning ovens to punish so-called “communists” in the hope that they would go insane.

According to the memoir of Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, an Australian PhD student who was imprisoned from 2016 to 2020, they are today confined to tiny hot concrete cells in the Changi Prison Complex and treated like convicted prisoners. They sleep on mats and are monitored by CCTV cameras 24 hours. They are also denied reading materials and are not permitted to meet other prisoners.

In solitary confinement for 24 hours, their fate is as bad as death row prisoners who, I am told, are subjected to inhuman treatment. Even family members who visit them are deliberately made to suffer indignity. I don’t understand why the prison authority treats prisoners and their families so badly.

Why are ISA prisoners treated so harshly when they have not been tried in open court and convicted of any offence? The British though evil, allowed them to live in communities and share communal lives. Why cannot the PAP treat them humanely?

The Whitley Detention Centre was built and gazetted as a prison in the 1970s. Unlike Changi Prison under the British, communal halls do not exist. Three types of cells are known. The first is the Punishment Cell which is bare concrete with a cement block for a bed. The space is just sufficient for one prisoner to sleep in.

The second type of cell contains two cement blocks for beds and presumably can punish two prisoners. There are ventilation gaps at the top. The third type of cell is proudly referred to by ISD officers as the “Shangrila suite”. This is a big cell that can accommodate many prisoners. Half the cell opens to the sky.

Compared to today’s single cells within the Changi Prison Complex, Whitley is a luxury.

I don’t know if the Justices of Peace, whose duties include visits to prisons, have ever visited ISA prisoners today. If they do, they are perhaps under oaths of secrecy, and the public will never know what is happening there.

Singapore boasts of a government which respects the Rule of Law. If this is true, how is it that they imprison people without trial under so many laws – the ISA, Misuse of Drugs Act, Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act and the provisions that allow the prison authority to lock up prisoners in mental institutions at the President’s pleasure?

Do we have independent bodies like the International Red Cross to check how these poor prisoners are kept? What rehabilitation programmes do the prisoners undergo? Why is it that at least three ISA prisoners are still imprisoned for 20 years? Will they ever be released?

I think Singaporeans have to spare a thought about how our government treat people who have the misfortune of being accused of national security crimes. Do they have evidence to prove that they are terrorists and deserve to be locked away for decades?

This opinion was first published at Function 8’s Facebook page. Ms Teo is a lawyer and an activist in Singapore. She is also a former politician who contested in Singapore’s General Election 2011.

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