Sunday, December 12, 2010

Amnesty Urges Malaysian Government to Stop Caning

Burmese refugee Lai Pha calls Malaysia his home, but the government classifies him as an illegal immigrant, which exposes him to the risk of arrest, caning and deportation.

Three years ago, Lai Pha fled from his home in the mountainous area of northwest Burma, years after being forced into labor by the military.

But life is not easy in Malaysia either. The 35-year-old, living in a shabby room with his wife in downtown Kuala Lumpur, cannot find a job or get access to basic healthcare. He has been arrested twice by the authorities.

He was sentenced to jail each time for breaking the country's immigration laws, plus, one stroke of the cane each time.

[Lai Pha, Burmese Refugee]:
"I couldn't sit down after being caned, it was so painful. I couldn't sit down to eat, all I could do was pretend to sit, or squat on a chair. It took more than a month for the pain to ease. It was a very bad experience. I was very weak and couldn't walk after the punishment, so two police came and dragged me from the scaffold."

Judicial caning, a penalty from the British colonial era, is still in practice in some former colonial countries like Malaysia and Singapore for offences such as robbery, illegal immigration and drug possession.

At a recent news conference, human rights group Amnesty International showed footage of an offender in a Malaysian prison being tied to a wooden scaffold, lying face down before a prison official whipped the prisoner.

An Amnesty International report says prison officials can whip at speeds reaching almost 100 miles per hour.

The report also said that most prisoners lose consciousness after being caned – for some, the pain can go on for weeks or even years, both in terms of physical disabilities and psychological trauma.

Lai Pha could be counted as one of the few lucky ones. Although he has been traumatized by police officers, he now carries a refugee document issued by the United Nation Refugee Agency.

[Lai Pha, Burmese Refugee]:
"After being arrested twice, I was afraid to leave my house or walk in the streets because I might bump into police again. Now, I shiver when I hear a police car siren, no matter where I am, walking in the streets or at home."

According to Amnesty, tens of thousands of migrant workers like Lai Pha have been caned for immigration violations, after Malaysian authorities increased the number of penal offences punishable by whipping to more than 60 since 2002.

Amnesty International urged the Malaysian government to stop the practice of judicial caning that has now hit what it calls, "epidemic" proportions. It says the caning penalty is parallel to torture.

[Lance Lattig, Amnesty International]:
"Malaysian government has not ratified the convention against torture, which most governments in the world have, but under customary international law it is still bound."

Lattig said prison officers often get double salary by administering the punishment and sometimes take bribes to miss strokes intentionally.

Caning in Malaysia is carried out for criminal offences. The punishment can also be used for religious offences, where a much thinner cane is used.