Cellmates made my time behind bars bearable, says Aussie activist

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PENANG: Australian activist, Natalie Lowrey, who was released on police bail after spending six days in a police lock-up in Pahang said she was moved by the experience of being inside a Malaysian jail.

The New Zealand native told fz.com in a telephone interview that she was touched by the kind gestures shown by her cellmates who made her time behind bars bearable.

A relieved Lowrey said she was also pleased that authorities had released her without conditions and returned her passport.

“I am very happy. I am feeling good,” she said when contacted.

She was arrested along with 15 Malaysians after allegedly participating in the “622 Shutdown Lynas” protest last Sunday that was aimed at ending the operation of Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Kuantan.

While Malaysian campaigners including Himpunan Hijau chairman Wong Tack were released on police bail last Sunday night, Lowrey was kept in jail and was not remanded the next day.

The situation that Lowrey, 42, was in had elicited an immediate international petition last Monday calling for her immediate release. The campaign, mounted by Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), garnered more than 15,000 signatures globally.

Lowrey, who was resting in a hotel, told fz.com on Saturday night that she was baffled that although investigations were completed, she was still being detained.

“I was locked up in a cell with 20 other women. It was hot and we drank from a tap under a concrete slab. I was shocked by the condition of the lock-up and the number of people being placed in one cell.

“I mean, there was enough space to accommodate us but I was wondering if all this was necessary. It was not far from the likes of a caged animal. These were intimidating tactics to simply to break me down.

“I couldn’t imagine why they would treat me or some of the other women this way. I knew I will be able to go home at some point but I didn’t know why I was being kept when investigations were over.”

The first few days, she said, was marked by confusion owing to the mixed messages coming from the police.

Lowrey was investigated under Section 145 of the Penal Code for joining an unlawful assembly and refusing to disperse. She was also investigated for breaching the conditions in her travel documents under Regulation 39(b) of the Immigration Regulations 1963, where she could be punished with six months jail or RM1,000 fine, or both.

Under the law, Lowrey can be detained up to two weeks without being remanded pending investigations.

Kuantan police chief ACP Abdul Aziz Salleh said Lowrey was “free to go anywhere”, including returning to Australia.

“We received instructions from the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to release her on police bail pending further investigation. However, she is free to go anywhere in the country and can also return to Australia,” he said.

Abdul Aziz said the police have yet to receive instructions from the AGC on whether she would be charged.

During the interview, Lowrey described her time behind bars as “there being boring moments” but the “singing and laughing” as well as the relationship fostered with the other female suspects made her stay bearable.

“I could not understand what they (the suspects) were saying because some were Indonesians and others were locals, including a 17-year-old girl, but we looked out for each other. We became close.

“They would ask me, ‘Nat, are you okay?’ every now and then, and we would try to make the most of things in the cell. It could be making the best out of a towel, or a toothbrush, anything, before it gets taken away.

“There were also a few police officers who asked how I am doing or how was it going, knowing that it wasn’t pleasant being behind bars,” she said.

With 16 years as an environmental campaigner, Lowrey has been actively involved in the Stop Lynas Incorporation (SLI) in Australia for three years now.

According to FoEI chairman Jagoda Munic, the SLI is a group in Australia, set up in response to the thousands of Malaysians who have been campaigning against the rare earth miner Lynas Corp of Australia.

“LAMP is a rare earth processing plant owned by Lynas Corp. The SLI was closely monitoring the activities of the corporation and LAMP as well as collaborating with the local NGOs and communities in Malaysia.

“The refinery will be the world’s largest rare earth processing plant. The first shipment of raw materials has arrived from Australia at the plant.

“This would potentially impose tonnes of radioactive and toxic wastes with long-term effects on the lives and livelihoods of people living in the surrounding areas of Gebeng, Pahang, and the environment,” Munic said.

For more stories, go to www.fz.com, the website for freedom of expression and fairness in articulation.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 30, 2014.