Subject: Comarca Balide Prison: A monument of tragedy

The Jakarta Post

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Comarca Balide Prison: A monument of tragedy

Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Dili

A man dropped a pale brown book onto my lap, startling me and interrupting my interview with human rights activist Lita Sarmento in the hall of the CAVR (Timor Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) offices in an eastern suburb of Dili.

Soon Chiquito Guterres, a CAVR employee ­ as I learned his identity later ­ became engrossed in chit-chat with Lita, so I leafed through the pages of Penjara Comarca Balide: ‘Gedung Suci’ (Comarca Balide Prison: A ‘Sacred Building’), written by Emma Coupland, a historian working for CAVR in 2004-2005.

It’s quite a shock that this place was a dreaded house of torture the Indonesian occupation troops used soon after they invaded East Timor in 1975 until as recently as 1999, when locals opted for independence in a historic UN-sanctioned referendum.

This very hall used to be the prison’s main yard, where detainees were tortured and humiliated in public. From the moment I set foot at the unpretentious complex, I was continually distracted by the odd sight of barrack-like buildings with small windows reinforced with large steel bars.

So you didn’t know that, did you,” said the smiling Guterres, as I cut his chit-chat, demanding to know if the book refers to the very place we were in. “Yes it does.”

Guterres took me around the complex that reminded me of the maximum security Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, which was closed in 1991 after almost 140 years in operation and has been turned into a unique tourist attraction.

Like countless other buildings in Timor Leste, the prison complex was burned down at the heel of the tumultuous Indonesian troops’ withdrawal in 1999 and the remains were rebuilt by the Japanese government as the headquarters of CAVR, an independent body created by the UN.

The CAVR has produced the most comprehensive documentation of the 1975 ­ 1999 atrocities in East Timor.

Graffiti and paintings created by detainees were among items collected and displayed in the complex, which also functions as an exhibition venue and museum. Photographs of the tragedies that occurred there over the 24-year period are part of its permanent exhibition.

The ironic name “Sacred building” was coined by Filomeno da Silva Ferreira, a former political detainee, to describe the complex as a place where nationalists were locked up for a common cause, an independent East Timor.

The facility was built as an “ordinary” prison by the Portuguese colonial administration back in 1963, on marshy land at the foot of a hill notorious for its malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It replaced an older prison opposite to Palacio do Governo, the present-day government building complex.

The Indonesian military took it over after the Dec. 7, 1974 invasion to detain independence activists and regular criminals charged for minor offences as well as members of the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) that broke disciplinary rules.

From 1976 on, detainees were brought in from across East Timor. Until 1986, Comarca was Dili’s only prison. A new, more humane”, prison was built in the Becora area after Comarca authorities complained of an “intolerably crowded” prison. That same year saw female detainees moved to Becora.

Barrack-style building formerly housed prison cells. JP/PandayaBarrack-style building formerly housed prison cells. JP/Pandaya

Until 1990, the prison was under military police control and remained so until it was deserted in 1999, although Jakarta had ruled that all penitentiary institutions were under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry.

Written based on intensive research from international reports, the book portrays the Comarca prison as a notorious place of torture.

Detainees, who were held there for between a few days and many years, were subject to violent acts — including rape and blackmail — right from the moment they were dragged into the facility. Many told of severe beatings while they were taken there in a vehicle, handcuffed and blindfolded.

They beat us in the car until we got to the prison. Only when we had arrived did they take off our blindfolds and we realized we were at Comarca,” a former detainee said as quoted by a CAVR fact-finding commissioner.

In the 1970s, many suspects were detained without charge for many years. Some told commissioners they received even more beatings when they asked prison officers why they were being detained. The first trial only took place in 1983 in Dili, and only after 1990 were more people transferred to Comarca after having been convicted.

Detainees experienced varying degrees of torture. Newcomers were body searched, stripped of their clothing and interrogated about their activism. Women were subject to the same treatment as men.

Many ex-detainees said they were forced to go around in their underpants for days or even weeks.

They were taken into their cells with their thumbs tied together behind their backs after they had been made to stand under the scorching sun in the yard while others chanted “welcome to the prison” repeatedly. Those who passed out would be doused with water and ordered to continue the “ritual”.

According to the book, in the early 1980s, the wife of the prison warden was so horrified by the midnight screams that came from isolated cells where military police officers interrogated and tortured detainees that she returned to Indonesia after four months. As a civil servant, her husband was powerless to stop the violent interrogations.

Detainees detailed their accounts on pieces of smuggled paper and passed the notes secretly to Catholic priests during routine visits, and the priests passed the messages on to international bodies such as the London-based Amnesty International.

Most detainees taken off during the night would never come back and were believed to have been killed, they said. During the 1970s and 1980s, death from torture was reported to be commonplace. Beating was said to be the most common form of physical torture. There were reports of detainees being ironed, electrocuted, scolded with a burning cigarettes and boiled in a barrel of water.

The book also details sexual assault women detainees experienced. Some women claimed they were raped by their interrogators. Others said they were forced to undergo their interrogation naked. Some women were reported to have opted for sex with prison authorities for their release.

Among the rows upon rows of cells were eight steel doors belonging to the cells dreaded most because many of the inmates incarcerated in them often ended up dying horrible deaths. These cells were known as the “dark cells” because they did not have windows.

In the 1970s and 1980s, detainees were locked up there for up to eight months but the period was reduced to only a week in the 1990s. Detainees slept on the floor and water was not provided. They would lose orientation and lose track of time during their confinement.

Former detainees say the overcrowded dark cells were extremely dirty. The toilets were clogged and garbage piled up inside and they had to live with it. Each person breathed the same air everybody else breathed and when one person fell sick others would follow.

Things changed for the better in the 1990s thanks largely to interference of international organizations such as the International Red Cross and human rights groups such as AI. Detainees were taken to court and came back for better treatment. Convicts received favorable treatments in return for their good conduct or services they offered in accordance with their skills. They were allowed to take part in soccer or volleyball competitions along with soldiers and police officers.

After touring the complex, reading the book and reviewing Chega!, the newly published CAVR report, I know why many people in Indonesia implicated in East Timor atrocities would do anything to thwart any efforts for an international tribunal.

They must be scared at the prospect of being locked up in a Comarca Balide-style prison.

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