Amateur Videos Are Putting Official Abuse in New Light

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- "Do your squat! Do your squat!" the policewoman barked. "Arms up!"

The 22-year-old babysitter, Hemy Hamisa Abu Hassan Saari, had already been forced to strip naked. Now she was being ordered to squat up and down, over and over, keeping her elbows away from her body and holding her earlobes.

"I cried. I was scared. I was ashamed," Hemy said in an interview, recalling what had happened on the night of June 29, 2005. She had just been arrested for drug possession. She had no drugs, her attorney said, but police found some on a friend of her fiance. Police arrested the whole group anyway.

"Do I really have to do this?" Hemy, who had never been arrested before, pleaded with the female officer standing in front of her in a tiny police station locker room.

She said her head was pounding from the humiliation and she feared what might come next. But what was happening at that moment changed her life: A male officer was secretly holding his cellphone and its tiny camera between the bars on the window, making a video clip that would ultimately expose more than Hemy's nakedness.

The clip began circulating phone to phone, e-mail to e-mail. Eventually it was posted on YouTube and other Internet sites, to be viewed by millions. What started as cheap voyeurism escalated into an unstoppable cyberspace phenomenon, which forced the prime minister to establish an official inquiry that led to changes in police practice. The episode also underscored the growing power of amateur video, shot on cellphones and ever-tinier digital cameras, to hold the powerful to account.

The digital revolution is helping to throw light into some of the world's darkest corners. The photos of naked and shackled Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison -- images taken on soldiers' personal digital cameras and made public in 2004 -- focused a global spotlight on abuses there. Ordinary people going about their daily lives are now the first to document historic events.

Vacationers with cellphones and cameras recorded the first images of the December 2004 Asian tsunami. London commuters provided cellphone photos that Scotland Yard used to investigate the July 2005 bombings on the transit system. Cellphone images were among the first glimpses of the recent coup in Thailand, and they were the only way anyone would have ever known what happened to Hemy in a Kuala Lumpur police lockup.

The Power of Images

"Images have more resonance," said Gillian Caldwell, executive director of Witness, a New York-based human rights group whose credo is "See it. Film It. Change it." Her group has already gathered almost 3,000 hours of footage of human rights abuses from people in more than 75 countries. It is getting ready to launch a YouTube-like Web site for human rights. Caldwell said rights groups are increasingly harnessing the "power of images and human stories to motivate change."

Female detainees had complained for years that Malaysian police humiliated them by ordering nude squats, ostensibly to dislodge anything they might be hiding on or inside their bodies. Even women arrested on minor traffic violations complained of this inappropriate treatment.

Human rights groups protested, but nothing changed, they said. It was hard to get word out about any police misconduct, they said, because newspapers and television stations that require annual government licenses rarely carried unflattering stories about the police. In a nation where the same political party has led the government since 1957, authorities silenced critics.

Then the nude squat video became public and shattered the old balance of power.

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