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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Uthayakumar fights from the inside


"Prison Department's task is to control them with a feeling of humanity and help them lead useful and law-abiding while in custody and after release."

Official portal of Prisons Department of Malaysia


When a person is imprisoned for his or her views, they do not go to prison alone. Their families are in prison with them. This reality came sharply into focus when I was talking to Uthayakumar's wife, S Indra Devi.

Her anxiety about Uthayakumar's condition in prison flows in a torrent of words that is a mix of fear, anger and sadness. She is proud of him but at the same time fearful of what may lie ahead. She understands his cause and has been through his incarcerations before but this time it is different. This time she fears for his very life brought on by physical ailments he suffers and uncaring prison system which by all accounts is more soul destroying than being incarcerated under the ISA.

uthayakumar wife indraShe is very aware that at the end of the day there is only so much help that she can get. The news cycle works against her and she alone is the human face that represents her husband. She talks of closing up his law practice and wonders how she will carry on now that he is in prison. She constantly fears of how he is coping in a system that by his own admission he has waged a lonely crusade against.

She knows that as a lawyer, it would have pained Uthayakumar a great deal that his appeal papers were confiscated. She worries that his emotional state will not hold up and this will take its toll on his physical well-being. Indra is furious that her allegation against the prison system that holds her husband, and was collaborated by another prisoner, was dismissed as pleadings for special treatment.

She always knew that Uthayakumar fought for the downtrodden, specifically the Indian disenfranchised, but is helpless when he has become one by virtue of his social and political activism. However, what she fears most is the "dark room".

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi claimed that there was no VIP prisons and all prisoners are treated equally. However, Indra is not asking for special treatment for Uthayakumar. All that she is asking for is that her husband be given the medical treatment that he requires.

The prison doctor himself has claimed that he has "no power" to refer Uthayakumar to a hospital. Which begs the question what kind of treatment is Uthayakumar getting in prison? What kind of prison is this when a pillow and chair are substitute for medical treatment and that if a prisoner complains, he or she would be banished to a'dark room'?

Uthaya not asking for a waterbed

Indra scoffs at the doctor's powerlessness. The Indian community knows what it means to be without power, she says. This is what Uthaya has been fighting for, she continues.

"If he is ill, medical treatment will be given according the SOP (standard operating procedure) of the Prisons Department," said Zahid. However, he neither elaborated on what constitutes the SOP of the prison system nor assured those concerned for Uthayakumar's welfare that he was getting the treatment necessary for his physical condition.

Instead, what he did was to dismiss Indra concerns as pleas for special treatment. I would like to remind the honourable minister that Uthayakumar is not asking for a waterbed like a certain Abdullah Ang, only that he be accorded the same rights as any other prisoner in a prison under the ambit of a political party that wants to be the best democracy in the world.

Of course, the irony here is that Uthayakumar continues to raise uncomfortable questions while he is imprisoned as when he was free. Questions like how prisoners are treated. Alternatively, the responsibility of the state in ensuring that prisoners are treated humanely and not be subject to a vengeful system.

NONE"I assure you that the facilities being accorded to Uthayakumar are the same (as those made accessible) to other prisoners," claims Zahid, but this assurance means very little when stories of dark rooms, assaults and other kinds of ill treatment filter through the narratives of former prisoners.

The very fact that judges continue to hear allegations of mistreatment by the security forces of this country points to a reality that the security apparatuses in this country willfully ignore. Credibility is lacking when it comes to how the state handles issues of security and it becomes even more difficult to trust the words from authority on issues that involve the prison system because it is a whole other world, which many Malaysians are not privy to.

Most people do not pay attention to the human rights violations when it concern prisons or immigration detention camps. Social activist Irene Fernandez has spent a good part of her life at great expense to herself exposing what goes on in these places. For this, she has been vilified as a troublemaker or worse, and her narratives of those on the margins should be read by anyone interested in how we treat the outcast of our society.

PDRM at its lowest point

At this very moment, the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) and the security apparatus of the state is at its lowest point.

The so-called Sulu invasion, the numerous deaths in custody, the allegation of police corruption, the public assassinations of government officials (deputy custom head) and former bankers (Arab-Malaysian Bank founder), points to a level of lawlessness not seen in this country for some time now. You cannot blame the opposition for this.

When you have an activist who was gunned down and in critical condition because he allegedly wanted to expose police corruption at the highest levels, those in power must concede that this old way of doing things must change. This of course will fall on deaf years. Critics will be accused of exaggerating the problem or worse attempting to gain political mileage.

NONESo with all of this going on, can we really be assured that prisoners are being treated fairly by the system. Does anyone really care?

The reality is that Uthayakumar lost his war with the state.
He lost the war of perception for his cause. He lost Hindraf to the establishment. He has very few supporters who will speak out for him and the oppositional forces in this country are waging their own war against the establishment and have very little time for Uthayakumar who made no bones about the fact that he considered both alliances, more of the same.

The state won as Uthaya always predicted they would. It is pointless making a martyr out of him. If the state cannot see the nobility of what Uthaya did on his own at least be cognisant of the fact that if anything happens to Uthayakumar in prison, down the road, some young man or woman, will be inspired to pick up his cause, knowing the consequences.

And one fine day you will see another Hindraf bloom from the ‘compassion' of the state.


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (rtd) of Royal Malaysian Navy.

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