KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 10 — On July 31 earlier this year, roughly 100 people camped in front of the Sungai Buloh Prison. They were kin to 69 individuals detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) 2012, which allows detention without trial in renewable 28-day blocs.
The crowd was there to join in the hunger strike by the 69 detainees, and urging the government to either release the detainees or charge them in court.
Among those, 20 were children — the youngest of them aged merely three. The hunger strike by the detainees only ended at 2pm on August 2, roughly three days later.
The lengths that the family members went to reflect the impact that Sosma detention had on them during the lengthy period of custody, as illustrated in watchdog Suara Rakyat Malaysia’s (Suaram) 2023 report on human rights launched on Friday.
Following interviews with former Sosma detainees and their family members, Suaram said it found “the negative cascade effect is all-encompassing, infringing on civil, economic and social rights of families of these detainees”.
This included resulting in their children being bullied and suffering from sleeping problems, their families being forced to move due to being ostracised and financial ruin leading to divorce.
The report highlighted how due to the prevalent social stigma against Sosma detainees, the families of the detainees are more susceptible to negative treatment and discrimination by the public and the authorities.
“Some families had to move to different cities or even states, due to community stigma,” the report revealed.
It also found that those in the public would even go to the extent of violating the privacy of the detainees’ families by disseminating their personal information to the public.
Suaram Executive Director Sevan Doraisamy addresses the audience during the launch of the Suaram report on the Socioeconomic Impact of Sosma Detention in Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Hall (KLSCAH) September 26, 2023. — Picture By Raymond Manuel
Even worse, their innocent children had to bear the brunt of the stigma as they suffered from sleeping problems and long-term emotional distress, the report disclosed.
The weight these children were forced to carry resulted in difficulty in keeping up with school and absenteeism.
“Bullying by peers due to the detention status of their parents was also a contributing factor to school absenteeism by children of Sosma detainees,” the report said.
Having to deal with the stigma and treatment by the community around them, sometimes the relationship within the family and detainee becomes so brittle it breaks and leads to divorce.
“In cases where such deterioration was irreversible, divorce was the end result,” the report said.
Their absence in the household was not only felt emotionally but also financially.
Most Sosma detainees were previously breadwinners before arrest and although other members of the household may have taken over the role of breadwinner, the burden to support the family is still heavy as they are slapped with expensive legal fees and high costs to visit their loved ones in prison.
“Even if the detainees were to be acquitted, no significant improvement in socioeconomic status was observed, due to persisting difficulties in securing employment and accessing basic financial services such as bank accounts,” it said.
In March this year, Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail told the Dewan Rakyat that 624 people were arrested under Sosma last year — with 195 offenders currently on trial for criminal conspiracy (147 people), human trafficking (47), and terrorism (two).
Meanwhile, in August, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Ramkarpal Singh said Putrajaya has no intention to repeal the controversial Act.
Instead, he said the government plans to introduce two amendments to the law, one of them being the issue of bail.
At present, Section 13 of Sosma only allows for bail if the offender facing a security offence is one who is below 18 years, a woman, sick or infirm person.
Introduced in 2012 as a replacement to the colonial-era Internal Security Act (ISA), the equally controversial preventive detention law retained its predecessor’s clause which allows for suspects of an investigation to be detained without trial for up to 28 days at a time.
Hamzah had last year defended the retention of Sosma, saying “the law allows the court process to take place,” which led to much criticism from political figures and rights groups over the country’s stance on the protection of human rights.
His stance has put him in conflict with some allies in Pakatan Harapan as well as civil society groups that have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy in defending the preventive detention law that the coalition previously rejected when it was in Opposition.
Saifuddin Nasution’s predecessor, Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin had in March 2022 said parties who do not agree with Sosma are those who want to make room for criminals and terrorists to dominate the country.
Hamzah had then too defended the government’s stance of retaining Sosma with further amendments to extend enforcement of the 28-day detention period, noting that the law is still relevant and crucial to ensuring public order and national security.