Cops release Bidayuh villagers suspected of arson

By Keruah Usit | May 18, 11

Five Bidayuh defenders of Native Customary Rights (NCR) to land were released today after being initially suspected of committing arson at a logging camp in Tebedu, Sarawak.

The camp is owned by Alliance Bahagia, a logging contractor employed by the state-run Sarawak Foundation.

Papai Anak Atin, Barak Anak Kolol and Mani Anak Marin of Kampung Temang Mura, Karia Anak Daruh of Kampung Patah and Peter Anak Laiong of Kampung Mawang were arrested in Tebedu last Friday and taken to Kuching, around 90 minutes’ drive away.

They emerged from a police van at the Central Police Station at noon that day, and were met by their lawyers See Chee How (left) and Desmond Kho, as well as land rights activist and Sarawak Dayak Iban Association secretary-general Nicholas Mujah, and a small group of Bidayuh supporters.

Despite some shoving by a police guard, the detainees smiled and saluted the crowd with their thumbs up.

The five were then held separately in four different police stations. This may have been a pre-emptive move, so that large groups of villagers would not assemble to show support.

The detainees’ lawyers related that the investigating officer, named only as Azlan, had said the five were “thought to be involved” in the torching of dormitories, bulldozers and tractors at the logging camp on May 9. There were no injuries.

Police had responded urgently to a report lodged by camp manager Chen Teck Soon, who claimed the damage had cost Alliance Bahagia RM5 million. None of the five were named in the police report, according to the lawyers and Sarawakian political blog Hornbill Unleashed.

However, the villagers are known to be members of a joint village action committee formed to defend the communities’ NCR to land and forests.

Azlan is said to have claimed that photographs and video footage taken at the villagers’ recent blockade across Alliance Bahagia’s access road – but not at the site of the fire – had revealed that “at least one of the five had participated” in the blockade. Police made no arrest at the logging camp on the day of the blaze.

According to the local police chief, police had been outnumbered by villagers present at the site and the situation had been tense.

The subsequent hasty police action, with five arrests three days after the fire, contrasted sharply with the authorities’ failure to respond to numerous police reports filed by the local communities against Alliance Bahagia, denouncing the loggers’ intrusion into their NCR land.

A sixth villager, Bisa Anak Duda, had been arrested on May 15 but was also freed today.

“They were all released unconditionally by the Magistrate’s Court in Kuching this morning, after the prosecution told the court that no charge was to be brought against any of them,” said See.

“The villagers were taken to court as the remand period expired this morning. A large crowd of family members and village folk working in Kuching turned up to show their support.”

‘Valuable timber extracted’

For almost a year, Alliance Bahagia has been extracting valuable timber from a vast concession spanning 4,125 hectares. The concession had been awarded to the Sarawak Foundation by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.

But according to Tebedu locals, this deal was struck without the knowledge of more than 10 villages, all of them relying on the land and forests for their survival.

The Sarawak Foundation is helmed by Adenan Satem, Taib’s (left in photo) information minister and former brother-in-law. Empiang Jabu, wife of Taib’s deputy chief minister Alfred Jabu, sits on the board of trustees. The foundation’s publicly declared aims are to provide education scholarships for Sarawakians.

According to whistleblower website Sarawak Report, local Bidayuh villagers claim that Alliance Bahagia has been removing prized belian or ironwood, a protected species, from their communal NCR land.

An indigenous rights activist noted wryly that the Bidayuh villagers do not appear to be a protected species.

The villagers’ representatives had appealed to the federal and state governments, as well as their state assemblyperson Michael Manyin and MP Richard Riot, to stop the logging.

They argued that the company’s logging and construction of its access road had polluted their water. However, the villagers say they have been stone-walled.

See, a noted human rights lawyer and recently elected PKR state assembly representative for Batu Lintang in Kuching, pointed out that “any dispute or confrontation could have been avoided if the police and the relevant authorities had looked into the complaints and taken the necessary action”.

He said the villagers’ action committees are discussing a lawsuit against Alliance Bahagia and the state government, to defend their ancestral land. This would add to the enormous caseload of more than 200 outstanding NCR court actions against the Sarawak government.

The lawsuits claim that widespread land takeovers by loggers, oil palm estates and hydroelectric dams, backed by the Taib administration, are illegal and unconstitutional.

Regardless of the release of the six Bidayuh villagers today, it appears certain that emotive NCR land issues will continue to cause further heated confrontations between villagers, loggers and the state government.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at [email protected]

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