Just before I took Hasan Ali on, between the period of 2012 to 2016, I had the good fortune to meet and establish friendships or working relationships with a few excellent people that would prove satisfying, enduring, and inspiring. I hoped Hasan Ali would continue to be a part of that run of good fortune.
Over the months of April and May 2017, my lawyers and I tried to make Hasan Ali feel welcome. He kept to himself; not speaking unless spoken to. When he wasn’t working he sat in the library and watched videos on his phone. He was obliging. He would attend to whatever was asked of him without complaint. We became more diligent about our firm lunches and dinners to have more opportunities to socialize with him. Asim Ng and Rafeeza, who sometimes exercised in the evening invited him on their runs. Asim lifted weights at the time so he had a little more room for conversation with him. Farhan and Aizat worked comparatively closer with him because they dealt with the daily dispatches. All four of my lawyers were gems. They contributed and took charge on their own accord without me saying a thing. It was like spontaneous order.
I tried to get a conversation going with him after work, at a makan, or if I saw him around the office, but it did not get far. He was not a talker. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we just smoked wordlessly together staring at our smoke tendrils blending together before us in a swirling grey haze. Perhaps he was not comfortable talking to me. He would, however, respond to all my questions; so our ‘conversations’ often found me examining him in chief.
Hasan Ali was one of the common many who ended up on legal aid for criminal cases. He was one of the multitude that slipped unnoticed through the cracks of the educational and social support system then surfacing like a leaping whale into society for a brief moment only for his conviction and sentence to be recorded; and then forever sealed within the cracks he fell through. He did not finish secondary school; worked a string of small jobs; never held on to anything that lasted more than two years at a time. His father passed away some time ago. His mother remarried. His step father had a much younger son whom Hasan Ali got along with. However, his step father picked on him and treated like an outsider too often. His mother would not defend him when he was being dressed down but tried to make it up to him later. He was unhappy about the situation but did not have enough money or stability to move out, especially since he gave his mother half.
After his first week with us I told Hasan Ali to visit his mother who lived in Klang to show her he was fine and working on a new start over in Petaling Jaya. He did so and returned to report that she was pleased to know he was well.
His time in prison was awful. He shared a prison room with at least seven others. It was cramped. As the new guy he slept on the floor closest to the communal toilet, which was open. He said the smell was something else. It was unforgettable and sometimes he would recall it involuntarily. There was no mattress. He slept on the dirty floor. Everything was a fight to keep. His personal rations and measly possessions would be taken from him if he could not defend himself. In his free time he would watch television with others. The television only showed religious educational programs. The food was bare sustenance – fish, rice, vege, and soup, of the poor quality. He stopped eating the rice after a while. He said it was hard or inedible. Although he knew other prisoners, he made no friends.
I digress a moment to consider briefly the unfairness in our prisoners having to suffer over and beyond imprisonment and a regimented lifestyle. With the pandemic we can now appreciate how we can all go a little nuts in our own home even with all that we have at our disposal – decent food, internet access, social media, streaming services, video conferencing, for example. Even in our own homes there is a tugging stifling sense of confinement and a natural desire to go out.
That is why the freedom of movement is a fundamental liberty enshrined in Article 9(2) of the Federal Constitution. It says every Malaysian citizen has the right to move freely throughout and reside anywhere in Malaysia. This liberty recognizes our human need to move about as we please without restraint. However, this liberty is subject to any law relating to national security, public order, public health or the punishment of offenders. That means our liberty of movement can be curtailed but only for very serious reasons.
Now, how much greater is that sense of confinement living in a cramped prison room without access to any of our customary luxuries with bad food, worse company, and filthy floors? Section 6(1) of The Corrosive and Explosive Substances and Offensive Weapons Act 1958 prescribes a prison term of a minimum of five years and a maximum of ten years. It does not prescribe that a convict should be treated poorly during his imprisonment because the incarceration and regimented lifestyle already is the punishment and the extent of the legal sentence.
Poor treatment cannot and should not form part of a prisoner’s legal punishment. It could be argued that poor food, poor living conditions, poor personal security conditions, etc. go far beyond the prescribed punishment that can be lawfully inflicted. Hasan Ali picked up scabies during his stay there which caused him immense discomfort. Is it fair or reasonable that he should be vulnerable and suffer that too (and god knows what else) in addition to his incarceration?
Scabies is not an infection, but an infestation. Tiny mites called Sarcoptes scabiei set up shop in the outer layers of human skin. The skin does not take kindly to the invasion. As the mites burrow and lay eggs inside the skin, the infestation leads to relentless itching and an angry rash.https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/ss/slideshow-scabies-overview
Hasan Ali did well in his first two months. He was early to work. He enjoyed being back on a motorcycle. He said he was happy to be running dispatch. It gave him an excuse to ride around. By the second month, he didn’t look so dour. He even smiled occasionally. I tried him on as a driver in his early days with me but he was not a driver. He was more suited for the motorcycle.
He seemed religious. He said he spent most of his free time at the surau nearby the office. He said he felt peace there. I was happy to hear that. I hoped the religious influence would prove an additional buffer to keep him on the straight and narrow. What I felt he needed were anchors and boundaries. Religion served as both if genuinely practiced.
In June 2017, I rented out the two other rooms in the apartment Hasan Ali stayed to three young Bangladeshi Muslim men. The leader of the three was Rahman. He spoke the best English out of the three, was intelligent, and had a pleasant disposition. The other two with him merely smiled, nodded and followed his lead. The men, with legitimate working permits, seemed nice and friendly enough. They worked in various shops in the Tesco supermarket nearby. I was pleased about that because I did not want Hasan Ali to be lonely in the apartment and hoped they would get along. Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, it was a decision I came to deeply regret.
From June onwards we grew busier. Deadlines and hearings were coming up and happening. Hasan Ali appeared to have settled into a routine at the firm. He would come in to the office in the morning to collect the day’s work then return to the office once done. When requested, he would show his log book to the lawyers who set his work. We continued to share a smoke so I could ask after him and how his work was going. But these grew shorter and less frequent as the work grew heavier.
As a respecter of other people’s privacy, I largely left Hasan Ali to himself when he was not working for us or socializing with us. I would check in with him randomly to ask where he was and whom he was with. His leisure time and weekends were his to spend. I wanted him to have a life outside work. I did not intrude into his personal space and time. I supposed he thought it beneath me to invite me into his life. I remember a curious thing he said to me once when I remarked we had a nice long weekend coming up. He said he wished there were no holidays so he could work all the time. He did not enjoy having nothing to do on the weekends.
One day around mid to late July in the evening after work, Asim came to see me. He suspected Hasan Ali was drinking. I remember thinking, Wait, that didn’t jive with his hanging around the surau. I asked him what made him think so. He said there were a few days when he detected the scent of alcohol about him. If Asim smelled it on him that means it must have been before or during office hours. I said I did not notice it but would look out for it when I saw him next. I asked Asim to report on any more suspicious behaviour from Hasan Ali and to tell the rest about it.
Looking back, I should have investigated his suspicion immediately. Asim is sharp about people. He calls it right, by my count, most times in our cases together. Instead, I got back to work. Soon it was forgotten. July and August were a blur. We all were buried in our respective cases.
Then, at approximately 11 am., 30th August 2017, all hell broke loose.
The doorbell buzzer buzzed insistently. As soon as the front door unlatched, we heard the scuffle of footsteps scramble up the flight of stairs. They arrived at our welcome area panting, disheveled, and distressed. Tears streamed down their faces as they sobbed. I was completely shocked to see them like that.
“Rahman, what happened?!”
It came out in a torrent between taming his sobs and gasping for air:
“Sir, Hasan is crazy!! He locked us in the apartment and took away our keys. He did not let us out for the last few days! We could not go to work. And he took all our money. He kicked and punched me and my friends when we cannot give him any more money. Sir, he is always drinking and drunk. Everyday he is drinking! When he is drunk he becomes crazy and violent. We only managed to escape, sir. The moment he let us out, we run straight to your office. He said if we escape, he will kill us. Please, help us, sir. We don’t know what to do. And we haven’t eaten since yesterday day. There is no more food in the house.”
I was nonplussed and stood dazed for a moment. What the hell just happened? Once I faded back into autonomy I noticed my heart beating fast. I felt the hair on my arms and neck standing. A chill wound down the back of my neck and shoulders even as it rose up to the top of my head. This was bad.
“Sir, he said he was going to kill me with his sword, sir.”
And with that, we went from bad to worse.