The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

The Accused March 20th, 1999

".... Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression; All citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; ...."
Paragraph (a) and (b), Clause 1, Article 10, Part II (Fundamental Liberties) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia
  Today, Saturday March 20th, is exactly six months since police stormed into the home of Anwar Ibrahim, arrested him and beat him senseless. Over a month later, he was brought to trial on four corruption charges. A lot has happened in that time. Even the Prime Minister himself was surprised that it took 72 days - but then he’s had quite a few surprises this past six months. In that time, Malaysians have been exposed to every minute detail of every single day of the Anwar trial - from the number of stains on the infamous mattress to the colours of the polka dots on the rather gaudy dresses of the prosecution’s star witness Ummi Hafilda Ali. We have heard almost everything - shocking testimonies, fiery rhetoric, impassioned defence pleas, stony irrelevance.

The Anwar Ibrahim trial will come to its expected conclusion in just a few days time. But amid all the twists and turns of the Anwar trial, just across the river from the Federal High Court, another drama was unfolding - almost unnoticed, almost forgotten.

Police arrested a total of 331 people in connection with massive street demonstrations that erupted, following Anwar’s arrest on September 20th. In a series of eight ‘reformasi’ trials, these people were being charged with illegal assembly, under Section 27 of the Police Act. If found guilty, they are liable to a fine of not less than RM 2,000 and up to RM 10,000 - and imprisonment for up to a year.

They’re known as the OKTs - Orang Kena Tuduh or the accused. Because most of them spent many traumatic days in police-lock-ups before bail could be raised for them to be freed, others preferred another meaning to the acronym - Orang Kena Tahan, the detainees. One bitter cynic among them said it also stood for "Orang kena terajang" (the beaten-up).

Today, the significant other and I were fortunate to join about 80 of the OKTs at a small tea party held for them at the Bar Council Auditorium. It was a humbling experience.

The first thing that struck me was the number of ladies among the OKTs - shy, demure young girls in veils whom we thought were family members were, in fact, OKTs themselves! "There were 17 of us from October 17th!" chirped one young girl proudly, referring to the day when police unexpectedly attacked demonstrators dispersing from Royal Palace and pursued them all the way across town to Independence Square. Police bagged 130 people that day.

The significant other seemed shocked that there were so many ladies taking part in the demonstrations. I kicked her heel to remind her of the shoe that she herself lost fleeing from water cannon.

It was indeed a mixed group. Reading the local newspapers and the dark warnings from the government’s politicians, one would have expected to find a group of tough, mean, muscular young men just out to loot shops, burn shopping malls and rape women. But there were elderly men, middle-aged men and women, young girls. Some were parents who were beaten and arrested in front of their children. Some were senior managers in the private sector - others were executives or civil servants, teachers, businessmen, lawyers. Certainly not the kind of people I’d imagine running up to Sogo Department Store lobbing petrol bombs.

Despite all they had been through, they were a cheerful bunch - recalling anecdotes from the time they shared the same cells, talking of absent friends, sharing jokes, laughing, hugging. But their cheerfulness concealed a tragic sadness and quiet terror which only became apparent when I talked to them.

A young businessman recalled his arrest. "They told us to disperse, and so we turned around and were going home. I thought it was all over - until I felt a hard knock on the back of my head and fell to the ground. Seconds later, three or four policemen were surrounding me, beating me with their sticks. They continued the beating as they brought me to the truck. The beating continued in the truck. They didn’t even stop beating me when we were walking from the truck to the lock-up!"

"Was all that beating necessary?!" he said in a pained voice. "They’d already arrested and handcuffed me - why were they not satisfied with just that? If they want to arrest us, go ahead and arrest us - why did we have to be beaten? Why?" The confused look in his eyes told me that, even months later, he still could not understand.

"I still have nightmares now, months later," said another man. "I wake up at nights, and still feel the sores and bruises, as though I’d just received them. The wounds may have healed - but the scars are still there - in my mind, in my thoughts, in my nightmares."

One middle-aged man showed the various points on his head that had wounds. "Many had black eyes or cuts above the eye - but they only got these after they were knocked down. Almost everyone had deep gashes and cuts on the back of their heads. The back of their heads! Only cowards would hit you from behind."

A young man recalled how he saw an old man knocked down by a baton swing from a policeman. "Four or five of them would then swoop in like vultures and join in the beating. They didn’t arrest him - they let him go and just left him there. But why did they have to beat him?"

"Is this what they call polis mesra (‘friendly police’)?" asked another man, referring to the Home Minister’s call early this year for a ‘friendly’ police force. "Go to hell! Their idea of ‘friendly’ is beating you up with a smile on their faces!"

It was ironic that, on that very same day, the Home Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted in the newspapers as saying "policemen do not like to beat up people" and that they "should refrain from violence". He talked about ‘initiatives’ being undertaken by them to restore the image of the police. After hearing the accounts from these OKTs, I couldn’t decide if his remarks were just naive or cynical.

The trauma for the OKTs did not end once they were in the lock-ups. "Some of us did not have our injuries treated until hours or even days later," a man complained. "A friend of mine was complaining of headaches from his wounds. He later started vomiting from pain. But they didn’t take him away until he actually fainted in the cell."

A young lady told me of her friend who had been hit on the head and was suffering terrible headaches and giddiness. "A couple of days later, they finally agreed to take her to the hospital. But they insisted that she be taken there handcuffed. She refused. She was not a criminal, she had her dignity."

Detainees were continually abused - verbally. "They would constantly shout at you. ‘Is your Anwar going to help you now?!’. ‘So what do you get now being in a lock-up?’. ‘So how good does your reformasi feel now?!’. They wanted to break our spirit, break us down."

"I was in tears for over two days," said a middle-aged man. "Not from pain or fear. They were treating us like criminals and communists."

As it is, physical conditions were tough. Up to 15 and 20 people were cramped in a cell made for three. "At times, people would take turns sleeping - there just wasn’t enough room for everyone to lie down," said a young student.

Food consisted of plain rice and boiled salted fish. "It wasn’t even fried fish," said an OKT. "It would sometimes make you throw up."

Good food was available, though - at a price. "For fifty ringgit, you could get roti chanai (pancake) or Kentucky Fried Chicken," he said. "Phone calls cost fifty ringgit as well - and a pack of cigarettes would cost between RM10 to RM20 ringgit, depending upon which police station you’re at."

"There was a constant search for old newspapers," said another OKT. "They were the only things we could use as prayer mats. But they’d take them away as soon as we were finished, and we’d need to look for more."

Detainees also noticed other detainees who were, how should I put it, ‘special’. "All of us were pushed or kicked into our cells - but there was this particular detainee who was quite politely invited in! He was a very inquisitive fellow - asked all kinds of questions – why we were at the demos, who was with us, asking for names, addresses, phone numbers. And the police never shouted at him. Strangest of all, when it came to the day of the hearing at court, he just disappeared - none of us have seen him since!"

OKTs could spend days or even weeks in the lock-up until they could be released on bail - and even then, their troubles would not be over. A few returned to their offices and workplaces, only to find they’d been fired. One OKT admitted to losing one or two regular lunch partners at the office, but he was philosophical. "I got quite a few new ones instead - people who were interested in knowing why I did what I did. So it worked out for the better."

"While most people are supportive, there would be an icy silence from a few in the office," said another OKT. "A few would avoid you in public - it’s strange to see people walking towards you on the corridor turn around the moment they spot you. I hated that - it was like being treated like a murderer or rapist."

Students had their scholarships suspended. A few students from the National University will not even be able to receive their degrees from the university authorities at the coming convocation.

But when the trials began, it became worse.

The OKTs are being tried in batches - for example, 126 people at a time for the October 17th demonstrations, 178 people for the October 24th demos. Each and every OKT has to be in court every day during the trial - even if they are not called upon to testify on that particular day. If they are not in court, they would be arrested. The OKT is required to be in the courtroom from 9:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the evening - the OKT even needs to stand up in court and ask the for permission from the Magistrate to go to the toilet. They cannot move from that place for hours and days on end - and the trials can last for months. Being in court was like being in prison - the only thing missing were the steel bars.

As a result, many OKTs had to take no pay leave or even leave their jobs, so they could attend court. Those who were petty traders or had their own businesses have found the situation really tough.

"These are people who have to support families," said one of the lawyers defending the OKTs. "Some have lost their jobs, seen their businesses crumble, lost friends, they cannot find jobs ... their lives are being turned upside down."

"The financial hardship some of them are suffering cannot be underestimated," said another lawyer. "During the trials, we actually discovered OKTs who skipped lunches and would just lie in a corner at the court and sleep - they had no money for lunch."

About 40 lawyers with the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centre are defending and assisting the OKTs - all volunteers, not being paid a single cent. "What has happened to these people is unjust, said one of these lawyers. "They were exercising their constitutional right to express themselves and to assemble peacefully. They were dispersed with brutal violence, detained under harsh conditions and are now being squeezed through the cogwheels of the legal system. It is unfair, it is wrong."

"Many of these people were badly beaten and had horrible injuries on their faces," said another lawyer. "Many of us were genuinely shocked beyond words. We just had to do something for them."

"Many of the arresting officers cannot even identify the people they arrested!" One of the lawyers said. "The police did not block off access to some of the demonstration areas and innocent people who had the misfortune of being in these public places were arrested. One person walking on the pedestrian pavement in front of the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station was accused of trespassing!"

"These people, their families, their loved ones, do not have to go through all this trauma," he pleaded.

But despite all they had been through, not one of the OKTs I talked to had any regrets. "If anything, the whole process has made me stronger in my commitment to seeing justice prevail," said one OKT. "The way I was arrested and beaten up. Their treatment of me in the lock-up. Their treatment of me now, in court. I am a living victim of injustice. How can I not fight it?"

"If they thought all of this was to supposed to break our spirit, they’re stupid," interjected another OKT. "The injustices and tyranny are there. This is no longer about what we read in the papers or what we heard in rallies. We saw it with our own eyes, we felt its pain, we smelled its evil, we saw what it has done to our other friends here. We are not going to turn our backs on them."

"You won’t read about this in the trash they call the newspapers," said another OKT, as a small group of people started gathering around me. "You won’t see any of those beautifully-manicured ladies on TV3 interviewing people like me. My Member of Parliament is more worried about his stocks and shares. We were driven to the streets. We were right to be out there."

"We are the true representatives of the people," said another. "People are sickened and fed up but afraid. We spoke up for them. For every OKT here, there are fifty, a hundred, a thousand others voices."

Around 6 p.m., in the middle of a briefing by one of the OKTs, I saw how strongly this spirit, this fire, was still blazing. As we sat listening to the speaker, we could hear distant shouts from outside the building. There was a low murmur in the room as the shouting got louder and louder, came closer and closer. One or two people started drifting out of the room and I could feel a tingle of excitement in the air. Finally, someone ran into the room, crying "Demo! Demo!"

There was a mad rush to the exits as almost everyone ran to the corridor. Outside, on the street, hundreds of people were marching towards Central Market from Independence Sqaure, chanting "Reformasi!", "Undur Mahathir Undur!" ("Mahathir resign!") and all the other old battle-cries of October. Protesters sang and punched their fists in the air, waving flags and banners reading "Charge Rahim Noor" and "Police Must Not Abuse Their Power."

Our group of OKTs ran from the pavement, shaking hands with the demonstrators, hugging them tightly, cheering them on. They knew what it was like, they knew what it was about. One middle-aged female OKT was sobbing in tears as she watched the hundreds of people file past us. I myself had to be forcibly held back by the significant other from rushing headlong into the stream of people as a flood of old feelings and emotions swept my mind.

We went back into the meeting, where the OKTs and lawyers discussed setting up welfare programmes for OKTs in need and support groups for new ‘inexperienced’ OKTs, as well as preparations for upcoming trials. They had fought the good fight last September and October. But they had other battles to fight now.

The procession continued marching, to Central Market, Pudu Raya Bus Station, towards the hallowed ground Kampong Baru. Along the way, PRM leaders and members - Dr Syed Husin, Dr Sanusi, Hassan Karim, Sivarasa - made fiery speeches at bus-stops to spur the crowd on, to remind them why they were on the streets, marching for justice.

Just before entering the junction into Kampong Baru, riot police and plainclothes policemen attacked and the crowd scattered by the thousands into surrounding side roads, lanes and alleys. In the charge, the police detained three foreign journalists and seven protestors.

Even after the current trials are over, it looks like we are not going to see the last of the brave OKTs. And we may yet see the day when the Accused become the Accusers.