Singapore

Singaporean boat captain's 16-month ordeal: It began at sea, with guns pointed at him

Singaporean boat captain Shoo Chiau Huat was preparing to kick back and relax along with other anglers after a day of fishing when suddenly, he saw three guns pointed at him by three men on a vessel that had appeared from nowhere.

The trio turned out to be Indonesian naval personnel trying to stop his boat, which was ferrying 13 anglers on a three-day fishing trip.

"They came out of nowhere. It was dark at night, and we didn't notice them. All of us were afraid. Their weapons were loaded," Mr Shoo, 51, told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview.

He was recounting the dramatic encounter at around 7.30pm on April 16 last year, in waters off the Indonesian island of Bintan, leading to his arrest and 16-month detention. He was finally released on Tuesday.

Mr Shoo had seven Singaporeans and six Malaysians on board MV Selin when the boat was caught for trespassing in Tanjung Berakit waters, off Bintan.

His passengers were deported about a week after their arrests, but the boat captain of four years' experience was charged with illegal fishing in Indonesian waters.

Mr Shoo was charged thrice and made to pay a fine, but was unable to return home as the prosecution appealed against his acquittals.

e spent the first 21/2 months with his crew, living on the vessel that he was arrested on. It was kept in the Tanjung Pinang Naval Base.

About a month after his arrest, his daughter Michelle, 28, visited him. Said Mr Shoo, who has four children aged 15 to 30: "She was heartbroken, and so was I. We hugged, and were on the verge of tears, but I told her to stay strong. It was truly painful."

But the nightmare began when he was moved to a local jail and had to share a cell - barely more than twice the size of the living room in his four-room flat - with over 70 other inmates.

"It was torturous. It was not a place anyone should be living in," Mr Shoo said in Mandarin. "We couldn't rest well. Some had to sleep by the toilet, and we could shower only once every three days."

He added: "There was no fan either, and we ate rice and tempeh for meals. We had a small window, and there was nothing to do. We just watched each other every day."

HORRIFIED

Half of the clothes he took to jail were stolen on his first day, when he left them to use the toilet.

The first time his wife Jasmine, 51, visited was a few weeks into his jail stint.

Said Mrs Shoo: "I was horrified when I saw him. He was so thin, I couldn't imagine what he was going through. I nearly burst into tears."

Mr Shoo said he stayed in jail for about five weeks until he was acquitted, in July last year, of fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. But he remained in detention over immigration offences.

He was transferred to an immigration detention centre where he spent a year, although he returned to jail twice subsequently, for six days each time, he added.

"The officers at the immigration detention centre looked out for us," he recalled, adding that he could make calls to his family.

While life was not difficult at the detention centre, his case dragged on. "I thought I might stay there forever," he said.

"Each time I was acquitted, there would be an appeal," he said in frustration.

"I was happy initially. But after the third charge was dismissed, when the judge asked why I did not seem happy, I said there would probably be an appeal again. Sure enough, there was."

In January this year, he pleaded guilty to entering Indonesia illegally and paid a 50 million rupiah (S$5,100) fine in March.

In April, he was charged for the third time - with sailing in Indonesia's waters without a permit under the country's shipping laws. The charge was dismissed in May.

While the prosecution's appeal against his acquittal in connection with illegal fishing had been thrown out in April, Mr Shoo remained under "house arrest", waiting for a ruling on an objection against the dismissal of a separate charge of sailing without a permit.

"I'd rather they found me guilty; at least I'd have known when I could come home," said Mr Shoo.

Mr Shoo is thankful to the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta and consulate in Batam for their efforts. Staff had engaged the Indonesian authorities regularly to ensure he was given due legal rights, and had requested that his case be processed expeditiously, helping to facilitate his return.

His release followed the return in May of another Singaporean boat captain, Mr Ricky Tan Poh Hui, 45, who was detained for eight months for trespassing in Indonesian waters.

While Mr Tan has since returned to his trade, Mr Shoo said the ordeal has made him decide to quit sailing.

"Many people have asked me to sail again, but I've decided not to," he said. "I didn't get to spend much time with my wife and children, and hope to get a job here to be with them from now."

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