An anniversary to forget

BY Terence Fernandez

Exactly a year ago I met Colombian fitness trainer David Velez.

He had arrived in Malaysia in March last year to embark on the expansion of Zumba Fitness, an American fitness franchise.

Velez and his Malaysian girlfriend Vicki Chew founded Vida Fitness Sdn Bhd to do "gym tours" at leading local gyms in the country to introduce Zumba via free demonstrations and classes.

Barely a month into starting his new life here, Velez was handcuffed and spent eight days at the Putrajaya Immigration Department holding centre.

Equipped with legitimate visa and working permit valid till February 27 next year, Velez along with Chew were demonstrating Zumba at True Fitness, Desa Sri Hartamas on April 3, 2014. Before they could wipe the sweat off their foreheads, eight immigration officers raided the studio.

"The group of male officers in plain clothes claim they received complaints of illegal immigrants operating a business here. They even had a schedule of our tour,” said Velez, which led him to believe that rival gyms had misinformed the immigration officers.

He said he was asked to produce his passport and work permit.

Saying he left the documents at home, Velez produced scanned copies.

But they insisted on Velez having his passport with him at all times.

Despite explanations by True Fitness, Velez was accused of working for the former rather than Vida Fitness, although he was merely conducting a free demo.

Velez said the officers demanded to inspect and take pictures of their residence. Both of them were subsequently brought to the Immigration Office at Putrajaya and had their photos and fingerprints taken. 

Velez was forced to hold up a "True Fitness" sign when his mug shot was taken.

Chew was allowed to be released on bail as she is Malaysian but Velez was to be locked-up for 14 days under the Immigration Regulations 1963 Sec 39(b) for violating the conditions of his permit or border pass. If guilty, he faced a fine of up to RM1,000 or jail up to six months or both.

Here is Chew’s version of events: "We waited seven hours for the paperwork to be processed. I told them over and over again, David doesn't work for True Fitness. Even the officer recording my statement, found it strange that the story she read from the file written by the arresting officer didn't match what I said."

Velez, meanwhile, had his head shaved and was put in a lock-up with about 60 people.

Here is his account: “We took turns to sleep on the floor. There were Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Syrian, Nigerian, Iraqi and there was one Cambodian. He spoke fluent Malay and English, and helped us communicate with the officers."

“There was only one ventilation hole. Everyone wanted to go in front for a breath of air. There was only a one gallon bottle of water provided each day.”

Before he was sent to detention, Velez had given all his personal belongings to Chew.

He claims: "When the officers found out I didn't have my wallet or watch with me, they got angry and started yelling 'why don't you have money! How could you not have money!' Later on, I figured that's why everyone gets a piece of soap and toothbrush but me. I brushed my teeth with my fingers.

During his detention, Velez wore the same clothes, which started reeking with his sweat. He borrowed soap from other detainees, washed the clothes and wore them while still wet.

"When the clothes were torn at the seams, we would gather fabric from around the tear and tie them with rubber bands. There were two squatting toilets but only one was working.”

Velez recalled that there were four meals per day, which were served at irregular hours.

"At 7am, it was breakfast, a piece of bread and water. Lunch can come any time between 12-4pm, consisting of rice, a tiny fish and leaves of vegetables so little that you can pick with up with two fingers. They fed us syrup and a piece of bread again at 5pm."

"Though water was provided, nobody had cups to drink from, so everyone had plastic bags as containers.”

Velez’s most serious allegation was claims that detainees were abused.

"A Bangladeshi was slapped for not putting both hands behind his head when asked to, but he didn't understand English. Another day, a Pakistani man was removed from the lock-up by four officers for looking at a female officer. He returned with bruises."

Chew claimed Velez was told not to make eye contact with her when she visited him.

The officers told her that Velez was well taken care of. But until she spoke to the Colombian Consulate, Chew knew things were bad.

Velez would have probably been given a one-way ticket to Bogota had it not been for the intervention of former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana Arango.

Pastrana contacted his business associate, Malaysian businessman Datuk Vinod Sekhar who alerted the Prime Minister’s Office. A group of officers from the PMO showed up at Immigration and secured Velez’s release.

No charges were filed against the Colombian.

When Vinod introduced me to Velez and Chew, I took them to see Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Commissioner Tan Sri Abu Kassim Mohamed. He in turn got all his top officers including deputy commissioner Datuk Seri Shukri Abdull to look into the allegations.

Officers from the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) and the Immigration Department were also present as the couple related their experience.

As there was no evidence of corruption but because it was a matter of abuse of power, they were advised to lodge a report with the EAIC. Hence, Velez and Chew spent another three hours at the EAIC repeating their experience for the umpteenth time.

Meanwhile, Velez got a letter of guarantee, initiated by Pemandu Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jala that he will have uninhibited and unmolested movement in this country.

The story may have a happy ending but it is still bitter-sweet. EAIC has proven to be impotent – a waste of time and taxpayers’ money judging from the way it had handled the case.

After one year there is zero feedback on its investigations. One attempt at an update from Chew drew this astonishing feedback: “We have written to Immigration and are waiting for their response.”

In the meantime, what has happened to the officers who were in charge of the raid? Have they been made to explain their actions and what cause did they have for raiding the fitness centre and arresting Velez?

Has any inspection been made to verify the conditions of the lockup or are the powers-that-be going to whitewash the issue with a mere denial?

If the immigration officers did indeed abuse their powers what sort of action has been taken against them or have they been let off scot free to misuse their authority? Where are they now?

Malaysia’s human rights record is nothing to write home about and our shameful treatment of foreign workers have made world headlines.

What is even more unfathomable is the lack of urgency by those in authority in investigating Velez’s and Chew’s claims to ensure they are true and if so, not repeated.

You see, people need to know if agencies like the Immigration Department cares a damn that its reputation is soiled and is taking the right steps to correct the perception.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low was also approached and told us that the EAIC will come under his purview. But after one year, there is no meaning to this.

Why am I writing this only now? Because for one year I was told to be patient, that the complaints were being addressed, that many ministers were involved, that the EAIC was being revamped.

Unfortunately, I too have become the victim of lip service and bureaucratic foot dragging. It is time to reopen David Velez’s case to save others from a fate worse than his and this country from further embarrassment. – April 15, 2015.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.