Saturday, March 17, 2012

Open letter to Teo Chee Hean on ISA safeguards

by Teo Soh Lung

My last response to Minister Teo Chee Hean’s speech in parliament that was reported in The Straits Times of 20 October 2011 was made on 9 November 2011. The sub-title to that reply was Making use of the Church and it drew a number of pretty angry comments. In between then and now, I was somehow distracted by other issues. The news-cuttings of Minister Teo’s memorable speech however, has not been misplaced all these months. It has suffered some severe damage under the claws of my cat, Angel though. She was probably more angry at the speech than me!

As the 25 anniversary of the 1987 arrest of “Marxist conspirators” approaches, I want to demolish once and for all Minister Teo’s specious assurance that there are sufficient safeguards under the ISA. These safeguards are summarised in The Straits Times at page A33 and I shall deal with them in the order set out by its writer or editors.

Only 30 days

The first safeguard is that a person can only be held for 30 days after which the minister or rather the cabinet have to decide if he or she should be issued the Order of Detention for a maximum of two years, renewable at the end of the period or released unconditionally or be subjected to a Restriction Order i.e. subject to conditions, such as restriction of movement or association.

I want to emphasise that 30 days in a prison cell or in a freezing cold room is not 30 days spent in one’s own house. Try putting the minister in a freezing cold room with two spotlights shining into his eyes. He is a military man and he should be able to take the cold better than me. Let him wear the prison garb of cotton top and trousers without his underwear. Make him stand 50 hours out of 72 hours in that room and subject him to continuous interrogation. Let ISD officers shout at him and tell him that everything he said are lies and that he is just good at telling fairy tales. Deprive him of sleep for just three days and nights.

If the minister survives these 72 hours (ISD officers don’t even need to lay hands on him) without making and signing a false statement, then he has my greatest admiration and respect.

From my experience and the experience of my friends, no one can survive three days and nights of continuous interrogation in a cold room in the basement of Whitley Detention Centre. From his account in To catch a Tartar, Mr Francis Seow, the former Solicitor-General could not too. I can say with confidence that even the director of ISD will not be able to withstand 72 hours of continuous interrogation in that cold room. Anyone in Singapore who can survive such treatment without writing a false statement, must either be a hardcore criminal or an imbecile who cannot write a statement no matter how he is threatened.

The cold room treatment is not the only experience all ISA detainees go through. For nearly a week, none of us was allowed contact with the outside world. On the sixth day, two family members were allowed to visit us. Imagine the panic caused to our families when they discover their children, spouses, brothers and sisters missing for 6 long days in a first world country. In this regard, ISA prisoners are accorded treatment worse than ordinary criminals for the latter are at least allowed to be produced in court within 48 hours and family members are informed of their whereabouts by the police.

30 days for ISD officers to investigate a conspiracy or fabricate a conspiracy is a long time. I thought we have the brightest scholars working in the ISD? Why do they need 30 days to decide whether to detain a prisoner or release him? Surely by the end of three days, they would have completed their investigation and either slam the order of detention on them or release them. Why do they need to fully utilise the 30 days allowed by the law? Is it to unnecessarily punish the innocent prisoner or is it because they are so inefficient or so daft that they cannot complete their investigation?

But if they are not able to complete their investigation, how is it that they could produce a script for detainees to appear on state television three weeks after our arrest? Shouldn’t they be putting all their attention on investigating our “crimes” rather than turn us into television stars? Worse, we or at least I was told that if I didn’t appear on television, they would “throw away the key,” meaning I would languish in jail for a very long time.

I shall pause here and continue at a later date because I feel sick remembering what 30 days mean to an ISA detainee. The ISA in allowing a person to be detained for 30 days is not providing him with any safeguard. Rather, the law in allowing 30 days for investigation is granting ISD officers and the government more than adequate time to fabricate a story for public consumption, to instil fear in them and to unnecessarily punish and intimidate a detainee.

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While the whereabouts of the “Marxist conspirators” were unknown to their families for six days when they were arrested by the ISD at the dawn of 21 May 1987, the whereabouts of eight of us together with lawyer Patrick Seong on 19 April 1988 after the issue of the joint statement denying the government’s accusations and confirming ill treatment were unknown for more than ten days. Then Minister for Trade and Industry and Second Minister for Defence BG Lee Hsien Loong was so angry that he described the joint statement as a “full frontal attack on the integrity, honesty and reputation of the government.” Acting Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said: “They threw a hand grenade in our face. They were not out to seek redress for the alleged torture. They were out to harm the Government and to harm our political stability.” So even though the restriction orders did not prohibit us from issuing the joint statement, we were all re-arrested the following morning. It is laughable that an intelligent minister like Goh had to use the phrase “threw a hand grenade in our face.” What hand grenade was he talking about? Violence exude not from us who were and are law abiding peaceful citizens who did not and do not possess any weapon, but from the minister. Was he “rebel rousing” (to use the words of the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) the public by such words?

A day after our re-arrest, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that the government would set up a Commission of Inquiry. Senior lawyers, Francis Seow and J B Jeyaretnam as well as Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party welcomed the setting up of the Commission albeit with certain conditions so as to ensure independence. Chiam cautioned that all of us should be freed before the hearing so that we would not be under any form of duress.

Four days later, Goh Chok Tong informed the public that the Attorney General had been instructed to draft the terms of reference for the Commission which were:

(1) Whether the Marxist conspiracy was a government fabrication.

(2) The circumstances under which eight detainees retracted their previous statements.

(3) Their charges that they were assaulted and tortured during detention last year.

While the ministers were busy issuing public statements to justify the arrests, ISD officers were hard at work in the cold rooms.

For days and nights, the 9 detainees were interrogated in the basement of Whitley Road Centre. “Who was the leader? Who instigated the drafting of the statement? Who drafted the statement? Who typed the statement? Where were the meetings held? What were the reasons for the statement? … ” On reflection today, those were strange national security questions. Why was it necessary to find the author of the joint statement? All of us who signed it must be held equally responsible for it. There were no two ways of attributing responsibility. And strangely, we weren’t asked if we had planted bombs at the Istana or behind Parliament House or attempted to throw any hand grenade at any minister.

We were told to write statements and then to sign statutory declarations. Those who refused were advised to "think of the others." Words like “I know you don’t mind being detained, but think of the others. If you don’t sign the statutory declaration, the others will not be freed”. Those were strong persuasive or threatening words to one in the cold room. Those words coming from senior ISD officers cannot be taken lightly. In the end, all 9 detainees signed statutory declarations before a commissioner for oaths. Some who were ill treated, retracted their statements and swore false statutory declarations, subjecting themselves to prosecution. They regretted doing that subsequently but what else could they do? Get out and be useful citizens again or rot in prison like Dr Chia Thye Poh for 32 years? Already we were “martyrs without a cause” as one of the detainees puts it. Why do we want to make such huge sacrifices? Others who refused to retract that they were beaten up, omitted the deeds of ISD officers by not making any mention on how they were treated.

ISD officers were also busy with former detainees who were released on restriction orders. At least 5 of them had to swear statutory declarations after hours of “interviews” at Phoenix Park. And sadly, despite the co-operation, one of them was subsequently also re-arrested.

Any fair-minded person would have ignored sworn statements made by the 9 detainees. But that was not the case. Goh Chok Tong and Professor S Jayakumar, the Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Law (and a professor of Constitutional Law) proudly declared on the 10th day after our re-arrests that the statutory declarations had made it unnecessary for the setting up of the Commission of Inquiry. They told the public that we had retracted the charges made in our joint statement. As such, there was no longer a need for the Commission of Inquiry! That was it!

The government having concluded their business, the families of the detainees were finally allowed to visit them. It was already the 11th day after arrest/re-arrests. Patrick Seong who was arrested for the first time, was (I think) also not allowed to see his family until the 11th day. During the 11 days, I understand, he was taken to the hospital. Under ordinary criminal law, a person who is accused of committing a crime or re-offends must be produced in court within 48 hours and arrangements for family visits made soon after. ISA detainees can be held incommunicado for as long as the ISD deems fit. The ministers and the ISD decide everything.

And what about improvement in living conditions since we had all co-operated? There was none. We continued to be locked up in those 6ft x 10ft cells with smelly pillows and blankets.

Where were the members of the Board of Inspection during those 11 days? Were there any safeguards?

1 comment:

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