Treated as deviant even before court hearing

It was meant to be a Hari Raya gathering-cum-dinner attended by staff, employees and guests of Rufaqa’ Corporation Penang. But the Penang Islamic Religious Department saw it differently and raided the venue, turning a happy evening into a nightmare. A Detainee recounts his experience at being detained and treated as an Islamic deviant – even before he had a chance to be heard in court.

I would like to report on the violations of human rights perpetrated by officials from the Jabatan Agama Islam Pulau Pinang (JAIPP) (Penang Islamic Religious Department).
On the night of 1 November 2007, at a house in Taman Desa Ara in Bayan Lepas, Penang, a Hari Raya gathering-cum-dinner attended by staff, employees and guests of Rufaqa Corporation Penang was in progress.

Present at the gathering was Khadijah Aam, wife of Ashaari Muhammad. Khadijah was thanking Rufaqa’ Penang for inviting her to the function, coupling her words of gratitude with spiritual remembrances (tazkirah) on the subject of ‘life after death’ at the precise time when the raid started

Now, Rufaqa’ is a private limited company owned by Ashaari Muhammad, former leader of the banned Darul Arqam movement. The firm employs mostly former Darul Arqam members to manage its economic projects all over the country. The Penang branch has existed since 2001. 

Suddenly, at about 10.15pm, the gathering was interrupted by around six or seven male and two female JAIPP enforcement officers, accompanied from behind by several policemen. The JAIPP spokesman and religious enforcement officer (PPA), Aqim, announced that those who were at the gathering had violated sections of Islamic enactments which had purportedly gazetted Rufaqa’ as an illegal organisation.

JAIPP officials then conducted an intense search of the bodies and belongings of those present (around 50 altogether, excluding children). Confiscated were personal belongings which allegedly proved the gatherers’  intention to adhere to the teachings of Rufaqa’ (which is nonsensical since Rufaqa’ is a commercial company, not a religious organisation) and/or to revive Darul Arqam. Among things confiscated were photos of Ashaari, big and small, even those kept in the purses of those present.


Human rights abuses

Notwithstanding the theological disputations which have so long driven a wedge between the legalistic state-sanctioned official Islam and the sufistic Islam of Darul Arqam (possibly continued by some employees of Rufaqa’ on an individual basis), adherents of the latter deserve to be treated as human beings who have rights that cannot be trampled upon. I wish to report on the following possible violations of human rights that possibly occurred during the operation.

 After the body search and confiscation of personal belongings, 51 individuals were ordered to report to the Bayan Lepas police station to sign surety letters to grant them bail on a personal basis. They were not given clear instructions whether they could leave their children (under the liable age for prosecution) behind or not.

Apparently, some said that children could be left behind, some others said that children had to be brought along. As a result, some brought small kids along. Understandably, the crowded conditions of the vicinity in which the alleged offenders were hounded into caused extreme discomfort for them and led them to shed tears. This sight did not arouse sympathy from the JAIPP officials or the police.

 One of the gatherers took the initiative to call a friend to come to the police station and transport the children back to the place of the gathering at Sg Ara, where some adults (not the original gatherers) had been stationed to take care of the children. No sympathetic offer came from the JAIIP and the police to transport the children, despite it being their mistake in giving unclear instructions. The process of signing letters of guarantee and releasing the gatherers on bail ended at 3.00am.

The JAIPP officials had prohibited the gatherers from going to the police station in their own cars; instead, they had to board JAIPP vehicles, driven by JAIPP officials. Some officials guaranteed that the gatherers would be transported back to Sg Ara (where their respective cars had been parked) once the bail process was completed. This promise was flouted.

Thus, at 3.00am, some of them with their children away at Sg Ara, were left to their own devices as to how to get from Bayan Lepas police station back to Sg Ara. The police showed apathy to the gatherers’ plight once the official process was over. The gatherers had to call some friends at 3.00am to pick them up at Bayan Lepas.

Some gatherers reported that when faced with the letters of surety, they were urged (intimidated?) to sign them even before they had read the conditions stipulated in the letters (Words such as “Sign je lah cepat, ramai orang lagi tu” – “Just sign quickly; there are many others waiting). JAIPP officials treated the alleged offenders as offenders whose rights were of trivial concern to them. Throughout the operation, they showed the impression that they wanted to get everything settled quickly, obviously as they wanted to go home to the comfort of their wives and kids, ignoring altogether that the gatherers had similar wants as well.
Throughout the operation (10.00pm – 3.00am), the gatherers were not given any food. The meal at our function had not yet begun at 10.00pm. Some of them had fasted during the day (part of the post-Ramadan six-day optional fasting), meaning that they had only little food after Maghrib (dusk) as the big dinner was coming at the end of the function. At the police station, they were given only small bottles of mineral water to quench their thirst; even these had to be shared among the gatherers. Although the gatherers had hinted about their hunger and thirst throughout the procedure, both the police and JAIPP officials were oblivious to their concern.
As a member of the Muslim community, I am ashamed of how JAIPP religious officials (all supposedly ustaz and ustazah) treated their co-religionists with impunity. Whatever the offences the gatherers might have committed, they should have been treated as innocent until proven guilty, and even then, they should have been given all rights due to them under both the law and human concerns. On the whole, the JAIPP officials’ behaviour throughout the operation smacked of the behaviour of licensed henchmen. The conduct of the police was slightly better; some of them apologised for the discomfort that had to be undergone by the gatherers. None of the JAIPP officials did.


(The following section was written on 8 December 2007)
At the mercy of JAIPP  

We were made to understand, on the night of our arrest on 1 November 2007 until the wee hours of 2 November that we were to report to JAIPP anytime between 9.00am and 5.00pm on 5 November to record our statements (51 statements overall). Some, including me, chose to come early. At around 9.20am, those of us present were instructed to gather in the JAIPP meeting room to be briefed by a JAIPP official.

He claimed that instructions had been given to all of us to arrive at JAIPP at 9.00am sharp. I checked with my friends who had arrived; almost all had understood JAIPP’s past instructions as meaning that we were given room to report at JAIPP anytime between 9.00am and 5.00pm, not necessarily at 9.00am. But now JAIPP officials were arrogantly denying their mistake, intentional or not, and ordering us to call all our remaining friends to come to JAIPP promptly.

We were horrified to read a report in Harian Metro that morning that we were going to be hauled to the sharia court that very day. JAIPP was obviously concealing from us vital information which affected our own lives and movements, but had divulged that same information to the media.

JAIPP officials never informed us that prosecution would immediately follow the interviews at JAIPP. We came to JAIPP anticipating that we would be released once our respective interviews were over and summoned to the sharia court at a later date. JAIPP officials seemed to enjoy the fact that we were at their mercy.

The interviews varied in length and nature from person to person. My whole life story was related to the JAIPP investigating officer in a two- and a half-hour interview. At times, I felt my arguments had defeated his, but this was of no consequence as he would record only statements which suited JAIPP’s intent of filing allegations against me. Arguments which had him on the defensive were left as unrecorded exchanges of opinions, which the officer ostensibly appreciated.

Some other interviewees were shown a list of their previous SMS messages which were allegedly evidence of past mischievous communication among plotters of a ‘Darul Arqam revival’. Our private lives had obviously been intruded by a collusion between state institutions (JAIPP, police special branch) and private telecommunications companies (Celcom, Maxis, DiGi), who might or might not have been coerced.

My interviewer took away my original surety letter issued on the night of 1 November 2007, promising that he would photocopy one for my retention. He broke his promise. The letter had stated the sections of Penang’s Syariah Criminal Enactments (1996) under which I was to be charged.


Double standards

By around 1.00pm, most of the interviews had ended. After Zohor at JAIPP, we were not allowed to leave the building until a chartered bus arrived to transport us to the sharia court.

By the time we were ordered to board the bus, we realised that some interviewees had been released by JAIPP for reasons unknown to us. From what we knew, they had certain official or unofficial connections to the state.

One Mrs F was the wife of an Umno strongman who, prior to the gathering on the night of 1 November had warned her that raids on Rufaqa’ functions in Penang were about to be launched.

Another Mrs R, who was freed with her husband Mr J, was on JAIPP’s payroll as a Kelas Agama dan Fardu Ain (Kafa) teacher in Balik Pulau.

From the gatherers of 1 November, one Mrs Z, who came with her three children, had mysteriously escaped action from JAIPP officials, although she had come along to the Bayan Lepas police station upon arrest. Her IC was not confiscated that night by JAIPP officials. She did not even have to turn up for the interviewing session at JAIPP on Monday. She turned out to be a teacher at a religious school whose staff were on JAIPP payroll. She appeared to have known some of the JAIPP raiders of 1 November 2007.

Were there double standards operating in the procedures of the Islamic bureaucracy at state level in Malaysia?

We arrived at the Penang sharia court at about 2.45pm, to be greeted by a throng of photographers and journalists at the entrance. This time, we were given packed lunches. Proceedings started at 3.30pm.

JAIPP’s prosecuting officer, Khairul Azman Azizan, called out our names and read out the sections under which we were to be charged.

Upon mention of our names, we moved from the spectators’ seats to face the judge, Mohd. Ridwan Ghazali, at the front. None of us pleaded guilty, and only one was represented by a lawyer. All had appealed to the court for a grant of bail lower than the amount demanded by the prosecutor. Most of us had large families, certainly by modern standards. In leaving our children behind in the morning, we did not expect the day’s proceedings to drag on until the evening. Other reasons cited included past services to the country in the capacity of a civil servant with an unblemished record.

All reasons cited seemed to have had little effect; the judge did reduce the amount of bail, but only a little. The court proceedings ended at around 5.00pm, when the court office accepting payments for bail was near its extended closing time. Only six (including four in a family) managed to post bail in time.

Even then, according to witnesses, the counting of the cash money was done slowly, perhaps intentionally, in order to deny the majority of us from gathering money and guarantors for the bailing process.

Apparently, JAIPP was intent that the majority of us got thrown into jail, even for a day. Altogether, 36 of us (20 men, 16 women) who did not post bail in time were hauled into a chartered bus headed for Penang jail.


Thrown in jail

We arrived at the Penang jail at twilight – Maghrib time. Procedures upon entering the jail as a new inmate were so lengthy that we were compelled to perform Maghrib together with Isyak prayers during Isyak time (using an allowance whereby prayers’ times can be combined in emergency circumstances) at the lock-up near the recording department of the Penang jail.

We were given prison food in special prison trays for dinner before being hauled deeper into the jail, the men separated from the women, to our destined lock-ups designed for remand prisoners. At the men’s section, two youths below 20 years of age were separated from us. The remaining 18 of us occupied two lock-ups, each holding nine of us. We had on us only what we were wearing and blankets given by the prison authorities. We were not allowed to bring into the cells our money, telecommunications devices and reading material.

The cell was about three metres by three metres; one can imagine such a space being occupied by 9 healthy adults, who had to share one open lavatory (without walls), a bucket of water and a pipe.

Bathing and ablution had to be done within the limited space just enough for one to squat in the manner of defecating. As we were not used to cleaning ourselves openly in the bare, two of us shielded one who was answering nature’s call or bathing. The environment was dark and eerie – it was near the cell which used to be the place for hanging. There was no arrow to show us the direction of Mecca; for our prayers, we had to ask for this from the prison guards. We relied on the calls for prayers from the nearby surau (prayer house) to tell us the prayer times. Big rats, perhaps as large as kittens, passed openly in front of our cell during the night. Everything was hygienically unfit for the performance of Islamic worship rituals, but we had to bear with such deplorable conditions. Ironically, it was the Islamic authorities who put us there. Were they concerned that we had not been able to execute our Islamic rituals properly since they began their crackdown on 1 November 2007?


Shocking goings-on in jail

Throughout the next day, 6 November, we joined in the daily prison routine, which included a medical check-up (with our wrists handcuffed) at the prison hospital, meals and occasional reports to the prison master outside our cell.

It was a revelation to us when we got to mingle with other inmates. Most were Malays, many were held for drug-related offences, some had been held in remand for many, many years and suffered seemingly unending postponements of court hearings. They could not see any prospect of release in the near future even though they had not been convicted in a court of law. They wondered how ‘decent’ people like us also got ourselves into trouble with the law. Conditions in the prison were not conducive to making them better citizens if ever they were released.

The inmates told us not to trust prison guards, who had actually treated us better than they treated hard crime offenders. They had overheard the prison guards’ conversations about how we, as a group with supposedly many professionals, were in a position to divulge the true nature of the dehumanising conditions of the prison cells. This would expose their abuse of powers within prison walls.

At 3.30pm, one Malay and three Chinese inmates, back from the court, entered our cell, making it altogether 13 of us in the now crammed cell. Toh (not his real name) disclosed to us the shockingly true picture of the goings-on in the cells. In Toh’s own words, they were treated like animals, without human rights. Unlike our cell, most cells were filthy. For their bath, they were allowed only four small bucketfuls of water. They were given rough, sub-standard blankets, unlike ours.

Prison guards rode roughshod over them at will, to the extent of using physical intimidation. In my opinion, there was innate racism as well, as most prison guards were Malay. If that was how they treated non- Malay prisoners, how could non-Malays ever respect the Malays’ religion and race?

We found these non-Malay inmates to be surprisingly tolerant. There was no hassle in their acceding to our request to make a little room for our Asar prayers.


Trust in religious bureaucracy shattered

At around 4.30 pm, news arrived to us that we had been bailed. We thanked our fellow cell mates for the brief acquaintance, left the cells and commenced procedures to leave the jail. Outside, JAIPP had prepared a bus to transport us to the Balik Pulau sharia court, where our bail had been posted.

The movement there was not as smooth as it should have been. Our bus encountered technical problems and stood stationary at the roadside at Sungai Nibong. Two police trucks had to be called to continue our journey. By the time we reached Balik Pulau, it was already nearly 8.00pm. We performed our prayers at the sharia court’s surau and signed our bail papers. I was astounded to find out that I had to sign three sheets (one for each accusation) when in the court the previous day, only two accusations were read out against me.

What kind of ploy is this? But we were all fatigued; if I was adamant about not signing them, it would only delay procedures for all of us. Out of sympathy for my friends, I reluctantly signed all three sheets. I enquired about the discrepancy, and the court officer-in-charge simply assured me that the matter would be looked into. But of course it was never brought up to me later, indicating that the matter had been put to rest.

Circumstances had forced me to deny myself my own human rights. On 6 December 2007, I am to be tried for an offence for which the prosecutor had not even filed and mentioned in front of the judge. My trust in Malaysia’s religious bureaucracy and the administration of sharia justice in Malaysia has truly been shattered.


Whither Islam Hadhari?

After signing the papers, it was still not over. We were transported to the Balik Pulau Police Station for interrogation by Special Branch officers. My interrogation took more than two hours. The Special Branch kept on apologising to us for the raid, which was at the instructions of JAIPP. The Special Branch merely assisted JAIPP, which had a shortage of personnel.

By midnight, most of us were eventually released. The Balik Pulau police did prepare some packed dinner, but those of us who finished our sessions late did not get our rations. I left the station with my wife in a friend’s car to get our car which was at the parking lot facing the Penang state legislative assembly, a stone’s throw from JAIPP.

I remember the parking attendant asking on the morning of 5 November, whether we were going to park there for long. We confidently answered, “No.” How wrong we were. It proved to be the longest two days of my life, with a lot of drama. How relieved I would be if I suddenly woke up to find out that it was all a nightmare. But it was not to be. After all these years of serving the country in a public institution, this is what I received in return from the state: the denial of my basic human rights, manipulation of my ignorance of the law, humiliation, and now possible conviction in an Islamic court.

In plaintive mood, I wonder to myself, “Is this Islamic justice?” For years, I have researched and written about Islam in Malaysia, sometimes in glowing terms, at other times critically. I never imagined that one day, I would be at the receiving end of the state Islamic authorities’ heavy-handedness, and to boot, in such a degrading manner. My humanity was consistently violated throughout JAIPP’s treatment of me and my friends, who had innocently agreed to attend a company dinner on the night of 1 November 2007. We have been treated as deviants even before our cases are heard in a court of law.

I have lost faith in Islamic institutions in Malaysia, particularly in those which are supposed to administer justice and solve society’s problems in a loving and caring way. If these are the types of institutions that are to be created by Islam Hadhari, I sincerely wish that we all do away with Islam Hadhari. Such an Islam Hadhari is not only unIslamic, but it is also oppressive. Such an Islam Hadhari cannot be Islam, because Islam dispenses justice to all, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

If even we Muslims have to undergo such despicable treatment at the hands of the coercive apparatus of an Islamic state, what hope do non-Muslims have of being dealt with justly by the state?

The author is an academic in a public university in Malaysia

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