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Aravindan Balakrishnan, known as ‘Comrade Bala’, subjected members of his cult to abuse behind closed doors, and was arrested in 2013.Courtesy Zaharah Othman
Aravindan Balakrishnan, known as ‘Comrade Bala’, subjected members of his cult to abuse behind closed doors, and was arrested in 2013.Courtesy Zaharah Othman

IT was after tarawih prayers in the month of Ramadan in 2011 when we switched on the television and saw that London was on fire. Trouble was brewing.

On Aug 6, London riots happened. Thousands of people protested in cities and towns across England - looting, burning and using violence, as a protest following the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot dead by police two days earlier.

It was rioting as we had never seen before, that united people of all colours and backgrounds against the police and the establishment which soon escalated to other towns and cities.

There was, of course, great concern among Malaysians as there were many Malaysians in London working and studying in parts affected by the riots.

The following morning, I contacted the High Commission and was told that so far, no Malaysian was affected. But I kept my eyes glued on social media.

THE BOY WHO WAS ATTACKED

On Facebook, there was a flurry of chatter about a video of a boy being mugged.

The video showed a slight figure of a boy slumped on a pavement, clutching his jaw after being punched by the assailant who stole his bicycle.

He was seen dazed and bleeding heavily.

My gut feeling told me that boy was a Malaysian. A message on my phone later confirmed this.

The victim was Asyraf Haziq Rosli, then 20, who had just arrived in London to study accountancy.

It was then that I learnt that Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, who was then in London, was going to visit Asyraf in hospital.

So I found my way to the hospital in East London.

We managed to dodge the waiting paparazzi and found Asyraf in a small cubicle. Despite a broken jaw as a result of an assault by a rioter who wanted his bicycle, he was all smiles and answered our questions.

His jeans were bloodstained and he was told that his jaw needed to be fixed. I managed to film him there in his cubicle, despite the low video quality.

But it made huge news that beat the scores of paparazzi outside the building. I guess I had managed to grab the moment before being chased out.

Asyraf was oblivious to the escalating publicity about him. He later become a Youtube ‘celebrity’ of sorts, as various news agencies around the world were after him.

On that fateful day, Asyraf was cycling with some friends on the way to break their fast when they encountered hundreds of rioters coming from the opposite direction.

One man who wanted his bicycle punched him and rode off.

The incident was filmed by someone from his flat across the location in Barking in East London.

The video went viral and was later used as evidence against the perpetrators in a court case in Wood Green Crown court, the following year.

His attackers were sentenced to jail.

What resulted from this incident was amazing.

What’s evident was the outpouring sympathy and huge generosity by the people - from minicab drivers who promised to transport his parents free of charge from the airport when they visited him, to the offers from people who wanted to replace the phone, Playstation and the bicycle that were stolen from him.

The High Commissioner of Malaysia to the UK, Datuk Seri Zakaria Sulong, called for a press conference.

Asyraf, still stunned by the events that made him an instant celebrity, confounded the international media by saying that he felt sorry for his attackers and wanted people to forgive them.

This was the boy whose jaw was broken in two places and still smiled throughout his ordeal.

THE MISSING WOMAN

On Nov 28, 2013, the world was introduced to Comrade Bala and the sordid ongoings of his secret life behind the closed doors of his house in South London.

The story of Comrade Bala or Aravindan Balakrishnan, the Maoist cult leader who kept some of his members as his slaves and subjected others to sexual abuse, rape, and mental torture was the key to the whereabouts of Malaysian Aishah Wahab, who disappeared from her family radar screen since the 70s.

When Bala was arrested, three women were seen coming out of his front door.

One of them was Aishah, who was 69 years old - some 40 years after her family’s futile attempt to track her down.

The story of Comrade Bala went to court in December 2014.It was not the most comfortable situation to be in the courtroom of Southwark Crown Court.

I was seated just a few rows behind the defendant, listening to what he did to Malaysian nurses and victims who came to be under his control; about his sex perversions, his violence and strange beliefs that he and his machine could wreak damage as vengeance.

Aishah never testified against Bala and was rehabilitated and received counselling. She broke her silence only during a BBC documentary, The Cult Next Door.

In some ways, it showed that on contrary to popular belief, she was never held against her will. But in some ways, Aishah was still his supporter.

What remained to this day in my mind was the meeting I had with Aishah’s older sister, Kamar Mautum, who came to see her estranged sister.

I met her at Heathrow airport before she left for Malaysia.

It was an emotional meeting, said Kamar who gave her a tudung, and a copy of the Quran.

‘She looked well. When I hugged her, I knew she is still my sister, I knew my mother's blood runs through her,’ she had said tearfully of the sister whom the family had been looking for 45 years.

SEX CRIMES

Another court case that shocked us to the core was that of Richard Huckle, whose sexual exploits and depraved acts against 200 impoverished children in Malaysia were exposed during the hearing at the Central Criminal Court in London.

I remember attending the trial and seeing him in a grey tracksuit, his hair tied in a ponytail.

Standing with his hands clasped together as if in prayer,he listened to the judge reading out his catalogue of sexual crimes involving children as young as a year old.

I will never forget what he wrote in mitigation and read out in court: He thought that his year-old victim probably could not feel the pain.

A woman sitting not too far from me in the public gallery spat and shouted: ‘A thousand years is not enough. I know one of the families.’

She cried before being led out of the gallery.

Paedophiles are not known to survive long in prison. Huckle was recently found strangled and killed in prison.

These are amongst some of the stories that I covered during the past decade.

In the subsequent edition of this column, I will include more.

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