by Dr Tan Seng Giaw, DAP National Vice-Chairman and MP for Kepong
in Kuala Lumpur
Yesterday, Tan Sri Abu Talib took over the chairmanship of Suhakam from Tan Sri Musa Hitam who had been the chairman since April, 2000. He says: "One thing I must state very clearly is that I am under nobody's directive. Suhakam is an important body and it has its missions and functions. It operates within the commission and I do not think the question of directive is relevant."
"I have retired from the Government. I am as independent as all of you. I have not been pressured by anyone to take up this post," he added.
We hope that he will fulfill his promise including continuing the good job of his predecessor and ensuring that human rights is practised without discrimination of sex, religion or race.
Lim Kit Siang has reminded Abu Talib of the latter's belief in the detention centres such as the Kuala Lumpur Police Remand Centre, PRC, as hotels. In November 1987, Abu Talib worked hard as Attorney-General for the High Court hearing on the application of detainees of the Internal Security Act, ISA, (Operation Lalang). He said: "Solitary confinement is like being put in a single room in a hotel." This is recorded in my book, The First 60 Days.
"The PRC is situated at a 50-acre disused mining land at the foothill of Batu Caves. It was built in 1977. There are supposed to be 15 complexes, each consisting of ten blocks. In some blocks, there are two, three, four or six detainees per cell. Many cells have been left unoccupied for a long time: they are sanctuaries for cats, rats and cockroaches.
For solitary confinement, each cell is 7' X 10' and 13' high. The door of each cell has a small, steel-plated (8"X14") window just above the centre, and it has a little sliding door. The opening itself is 6"X8". Through it, food and drink can be passed and a police constable, PC, can get a full view of the cell. Directly opposite the door lies a cement bed, built against the wall with a piece of plywood on top of it. At the 'free' end of the bed is a four-foot wall with the same width as the bed; it separates the sleeping area from the water closet, W.C., which has a toilet bowl, a cistern for flushing water and a standpipe. The W.C. has a three-foot door. There is an asbestos ceiling.
The wall facing the door has little horizontal holes formed by ventilation blocks to allow enough air to flow into the cell. At the top of the wall on one side of the ventilation blocks was a square area with glass blocks to provide lighting. The horizontal holes of the ventilation blocks serve as numerous tiny windows, which allow limited sunlight. It is only on bright sunny days that a person can read in the cell. (The police only allow holy books.) The 80-100 Watt bulb, which is 13 feet above the ground, gives better lighting than the sun. It is on the whole night. Some rain drops splash through the holes during heavy rain."
Abu Talib's view on solitary confinement 15 years ago has left an indelible impression on those who have the core of anger at all forms of injustice. The cell may be compared to the Black Hole of Calcutta except that it has only one detainee. But it is certainly not a hotel. As Suhakam chairman, what is Abu Talib's belief now? In what way can he be nonaligned?
[According to Collins English Dictionary, the Black Hole of Calcutta was a small dungeon in which in 1756 the Nawab of Bengal reputedly confined 146 English prisoners, of whom only 23 survived.]
There are many aspects of human rights. A government can infringe these rights in many ways. Solitary confinement affects the dignity and rights of a person. Carrying out his duties as Suhakam chairman, Abu Talib should let us know, among other things, his perception on solitary confinement.