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Locked Up for Dress Up: Cosplayers Recount Harrowing Week in Malaysian Prison

by Andrew Osmond,

Readers of ANN, especially those who follow cosplay news, may have heard about two serious incidents in Malaysia in 2019. Both involved international cosplayers attending fan events in the country who were detained and imprisoned for not obtaining the proper performance visas. The first incident, involving 12 people, took place in March. The second incident, which involved four separate people, happened on June 30.

Cosplayer Hikari Green
Japanese cosplayer Hikari Green (website, instagram), who prefers to be referred to as “Hikari,” found herself incarcerated in a foreign country in squalid conditions, mocked by prison guards, and facing the unknown. Hikari wasn't arrested for assault, theft, or any kind of violent crime. She was, quite literally, locked up for cosplaying without a performance visa, something she was told by an event organizer she didn't need when she took her flight to Malaysia.

Hikari has cosplayed for more than 17 years, and has traveled extensively, attending conventions everywhere from Paris to Hong Kong. She loves to see cosplay culture in different parts of the world. She works with the World Cosplay Summit (WCS) in Japan, one of the biggest cosplay events in the world. Her affiliation with the WCS was why she was asked to attend the one-day Malaysian Geek Summit event on June 30. The small, free event was held in the city of Shah Alam and it included a preliminary round of the World Cosplay Summit. The winner would be the Malaysian representative at the WCS final in Japan. Hikari was invited as one of the cosplay judges.

Geek Summit was run by the company Eight Ministry, whose president, Kazuki Foo Ming Wei (surname Foo), contacted Hikari. Hikari said she was well aware of the raid in March. However, she says Foo assured her he had checked the requirements carefully, and that there was no possibility of any similar problem at the Geek Summit event.

According to Hikari, Foo said there would be no need to obtain a work visa, because neither Hikari nor the other judges were being paid for the event. In addition, Hikari said, Foo told her he had connections with the Malaysian Prime Minister; that Geek Summit was supported by Malaysia's Ministry of Tourism; and that Foo had strong connections with the Japanese Embassy in Malaysia.

Hikari says that Foo told her that, because of the cosplayer detentions in March, the event was losing sponsors and was underfunded. Hikari said she wanted to support Foo, which was one reason she decided to go to the event.

Sunday, June 30

Hikari made her way to Shah Alam after attending a cosplay event in Indonesia. She spent the day before Geek Summit sightseeing and talking with the organizers and the other guest cosplayers. Geek Summit began normally on June 30, the cosplay contest was held, and the event wrapped up. Hikari and the other competition judges were waiting to hand out awards when Foo suddenly told her some people from Malaysia's Ministry of Immigration had arrived.

Foo, Hikari said, assured the judges there was no problem; the judges just needed to show their passports. Foo asked the judges to wait in a room for guest cosplayers. Hikari waited in the room, together with two other Japanese women and a fellow World Cosplay Summit member, Pol Roca from Spain. Geek Summit's website lists additional WCS judges Mame Mayo and Mio (World Cosplay Summit Japan 2018 champions), Andru Kim Ha (Netherlands judge), and Dova and Shinku (Malaysian judges).

According to both Hikari and Roca, the other non-Malaysian judges – one from Thailand, and one from the Netherlands – disappeared at this point. Roca said they didn't have their passports at the venue and they both said they would go to their motel rooms to fetch them. Roca told Anime News Network that they may have been warned of the unfolding situation at this point, and he hopes they left the country safely.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian immigration staff came to the room where the other judges were waiting. They were plainclothes staff, with no weapons. (Roca remembers their “incredible bad taste for clothing.”) The judges showed them their passports. The immigration staff told them they needed to be photographed one by one, and Hikari, Roca, and the other judges complied. By now, Hikari said, she realized something was wrong, especially from the “weird” expressions of the event organizers.

She saw the immigration staff speaking to the organizers. Hikari understood Malay a little as she speaks Indonesian conversationally, and Indonesian and Malay are similar. Hikari said that she understood the immigration staff were asking about work visas, and saying the organizers should have prepared them. By now, Hikari said, the atmosphere in the room was tense.

According to Hikari, Foo told her and her fellow judges that the immigration staff wanted them to come to their offices to be interviewed. Foo, Hikari said, also recommended that Hikari and her companions should give him their phones and wallets for safekeeping, which they did.

Hikari said Roca asked Foo to phone the Japanese Embassy immediately. According to Hikari, Foo said that he would. Geek Summit told ANN that its staff did call the Embassy.

In the immigration service's car, Hikari said the officers were mocking the judges in Malay. “Welcome to immigration” they said, and laughed. The passengers arrived at the immigration office at 8 or 9 p.m. Foo and some other event organizers also arrived at the office. Hikari said she could see one of the female organizers crying.

Hikari said she asked Foo whether he had called the Japanese Embassy, and she claimed Foo said he had. Meanwhile, Roca had made his own call to the Spanish Embassy in Malaysia, using Foo's phone.

Hikari and the other judges were photographed again, this time in “mug shot” style photos in front of a board. Their fingerprints were also taken. Roca said that they had to give a complete set of prints, including all sides of the hands. Hikari said that although she didn't realize it yet, they were already being registered as prisoners.

Hikari said she asked Foo if she could call the Japanese Embassy herself on his phone, and asked for the Embassy's phone number. However, she said, Foo couldn't give her any numbers, and there was no record on his mobile that he had called the Japanese Embassy. Hikari called the Embassy herself, but unfortunately it was a Sunday evening, so she could only leave a voicemail message describing the situation.

After her failed attempt to reach the Japanese embassy, Hikari said that a representative from the Spanish Embassy arrived, thanks to Roca's earlier call. Hikari stressed this representative's efficiency and professionalism, and how he stuck his neck out to help all the judges. The representative, Hikari said, asked Foo about his claim that Geek Summit was supported by the Ministry of Tourism, and if he could show documentation to prove that. According to Hikari, Foo said he would bring it the next day. Hikari said she learned later that Foo never brought anything on paper from the Ministry of Tourism.

Geek Summit told ANN that it did have documentation from the Ministry of Tourism, and from two other ministries, as it was part of an event supported by the national government. Geek Summit also told ANN that its staff did call the Japanese Embassy, and that the Embassy's ambassador came over to double-check on the detainees.

ANN contacted the Embassy of Japan in Malaysia to ask if it could confirm that Geek Summit had the documentation it mentioned. The Embassy replied that it “has no knowledge of the existence of such a document.”

ANN also asked the Embassy if it could clarify which person or people called the Embassy regarding the incident. The Embassy replied that in general, it “does not disclose details on the support services provided to its citizens nor answer questions involving its citizens to any other third party.”

According to Hikari's account of what happened in the immigration office, a representative of the Japanese Embassy called Foo's phone, responding to Hikari's voicemail, and asked if he should come to the office. Hikari said Foo was uncertain how to proceed until the Spanish Embassy representative took over negotiation with the immigration staff on behalf of the detained judges. Hikari said he asked the immigration staff to put the judges up in a hotel. Around 10 p.m., the Spanish Embassy representative apologized to the judges and told them they would be going to jail.

"He told us that we would be taken to a detention camp, where we would be exposed to all kinds of infectious diseases," Roca said.

Hikari said Foo had not mentioned any risk of arrest, and he claimed the judges's possessions would be returned tomorrow. Hikari believed this, and thought she could call her parents later when things were more clear. Despite Foo's alleged statement, Hikari wouldn't have access to her phone for several days.

The first night, the judges were sent to a small jail in a reasonably clean building. Hikari and the other two Japanese women were put in a women's cell holding about 15 women in total. Roca was put in a men's cell next door. Hikari remembered that when Roca tried to negotiate with the immigration people, they looked at the prisoners and laughed and mocked them.

Monday, July 1

The cells had no clocks, although Hikari tried to judge the time by the sound of the Muslim Adhan prayer outside. She thinks it was about 1 or 2 p.m. the next day when the judges and the other prisoners were ordered out of their cells. At that time, Hikari thought all four cosplay judges would be taken back to the immigration office.

Instead, they were put in handcuffs and chained together in groups of five. Hikari says the staff continued to mock the judges, saying things like “They are cosplayers!”, “How old are you?!” and “Who isn't married?!”

The prisoners were then taken to a truck with barred windows, and driven for around one or two hours. The swinging in the truck was so bad that some women became sick. The prisoners were also soaked by rain coming into the truck, and the landscape outside changed from the city to the suburbs. Hikari became very frightened. One of the Japanese women continued to cry inconsolably. Roca, Hikari said, had dropped his head and was muttering to himself; she thought he was praying.

Roca doesn't remember what he was doing in the truck. "I guess none of us were in a state of full awareness of things. I was scared to death and I was probably thinking aloud of family and friends that I wouldn't see again.”

The prisoners arrived at a much larger facility than the first one, the heavily fortified Semenyih Immigration Detention Centre in Selangor. Hikari and the cosplay judges were initially kept in an outdoor area with about a hundred other people, mostly Vietnamese and Indonesian. While they were in the outdoors area, they were handcuffed in pairs, forcing them to go to the toilet together.

Hikari and all other prisoners were each designated numbers, though later on they would be nicknamed “Japanese” and “Tokyo,” by detention staff. None of the cosplay judges had any idea how long they would be detained.

"We were treated as prisoners without human rights," Hikari said, "so we could not even ask a guard to contact someone outside the prison." More than 90% of the prisoners did not speak English, though Hikari tried to communicate in English and Indonesian with prisoners to better understand life in prison.

When Hikari didn't arrive in Japan on Monday as planned, her parents became worried. They were about to inform the police when Hikari's brother, checking online, found a news report from Malaysia about cosplayers being detained. It was accompanied by a photo of Hikari and her companions taken by the immigration staff.

On Monday in Malaysia, Hikari and the other Japanese women were separated from Roca. The detention center staff took them to a small room, told them to undress, and subjected them to a cavity search before ushering them into a crowded, domed room containing around 250 female prisoners. Roca was taken to a dome area for men.

Hikari described a filthy, crammed space, infested by rats and very large cockroaches. The bars on the windows offered little protection against rain, and sparrows flew in frequently. Hikari described rats and cockroaches running over her at night, cockroaches flying overhead, and their antenna poking up through holes in the wooden floor. There were no beds and prisoners scrambled to claim their own spot on the hard floor among dirty blankets.

Most of the toilets had no doors. Two of the toilet cubicles did still have doors, but when Hikari opened one, other prisoners rushed to close it again. She was told that prisoners had committed suicide in these cubicles in the past, and they were believed to be haunted. Hikari was forced to use a toilet with no door.

One of Hikari's main fears was that both the food and water they were given was very dirty. For example, she saw other prisoners putting their hands in the water they were told to drink. Hikari was so worried about the health risks that she tried to eat and drink as little as possible. The Japanese women had a few biscuits between them, but that was all.

Roca described spending the first day in Semenyih with around fifty other new inmates. They were all crammed into a cage resembling a dog kennel, with thick bars and a concrete floor. Roca was handcuffed in a row of a dozen other prisoners in various states. One detainee's wounds looked infected. The space was so cramped that the prisoners were sitting almost hand to hand and chest to back.

Roca and the male inmates' regimen included squatting or kneeling for four half-hour periods a day while shouting slogans of gratitude to their guards. The guards themselves shouted racist and homophobic abuse at the prisoners. Roca wasn't physically attacked, but he frequently saw the violence of the guards. Like Hikari, he was subject to a cavity search; some of the inmates who were inspected at the same time were whipped.

Tuesday, July 2

Hikari had still had no outside word after 24 hours in Semenyih. She found some solace with the very kind prisoners in the dome, who shared some of their bread and cookies, lent her their shampoo, and taught her the rules she'd need to survive. She had to learn the power relations in the prison fast. A prisoner that shared something with her at first might suddenly demand something in return. She found herself as the translator for the other two Japanese judges. Other prisoners expressed sympathy for Hikari and the Japanese women's situation.

"I faced all kind of light and dark situations in the jail," Hikari said.

Wednesday, July 3

On Wednesday, Hikari, Roca and the other cosplay judges were taken to a nearby building to be investigated by the immigration officers. The judges had been told during their arrest that they would be investigated on Monday and released by Wednesday. They hoped their stay in custody was coming to an end.

The investigation took hours, and was all in English. Hikari said that immigration officers were taking took notes about what Hikari and Roca said on their official documents. Hikari said that once they realized that she could understand a little Malay, the immigration officers suddenly started asking her, “Hey can you understand what I am writing on my paper? Maybe you cannot, right?” They asked that so many times, Hikari said, that she feared they might write something untrue on their papers and bring it to their superiors.

After that investigation, they were taken back to the dome. Later that Wednesday, Hikari finally heard from the outside world. A representative from the Japanese embassy came in the evening, bringing her and the other judges food and water. The representative also came on Thursday, but it was far from clear that the cosplay judges would be released any time soon.

Friday, July 5

It wasn't until Friday that Hikari, Roca, and the other judges were allowed to leave Semenyih. They were taken to the airport in handcuffs and expelled from the country. The judges were released as innocent, so the Japanese and Spanish Embassies did not pay any fines. However, Hikari says that at the airport, they were met by staff from the Japanese Embassy in Malaysia, one of whom told the judges that they could not come to Malaysia for a few years.

Hikari thinks that this person said two years, but it was only a single verbal exchange; there was no paperwork. However, Hikari says that she had already been told by a prisoner in the dome that when the judges had been extensively fingerprinted, they were also recorded on a blacklist.

According to Hikari, Foo later told her the arrest happened because of “government corruption.” Hikari, though, said that she was shocked to learn that on the Monday, Geek Summit had put out a Facebook statement claiming it had “ensured” the judges' “well-being.”

Geek Summit told ANN that the immigration officers had told the event's organizers that the judges were being well taken care of.

ANN asked the Embassy of Japan if it had any comment on Geek Summit's claim about the judges' “well being.” The Embassy said it “cannot reserve comment on the motive behind the statement made by Geek Summit.”

Geek Summit also put out a claim on July 2 that “the international guests had been escorted to a different facility with much better condition.” At this time, Hikari and her companions were still in Semenyih Detention Centre.

Hikari said that when she was investigated on July 3, the immigration staff told her that they had already contacted the Japanese and Spanish Embassies and told them where the judges were being held. Hikari says that the organizers must have known where the judges were being kept. As locals, Hikari claimed, the organizers would have known what kind of jail it was. Hikari said it made her very sad and shocked when she saw the post by Geek Summit.

After arriving in Japan, Hikari talked about the incident with friends who worked at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. She said she was told that the organizer should have been careful and applied for the work visa in advance, especially after the incident in March.

What Went Wrong?

In a Facebook statement on July 1, Geek Summit said, “Geek Summit 2019 possessed all the valid event permits from MBSA (Shah Alam City Council) and PDRM (Royal Malaysia Police). All our international guests did not perform on stage, thus were not bound to the requirements stipulated by PUSPAL to acquire a professional visa for our international guests.” PUSPAL is Malaysia's Central Agencies Committee for Applications for Filming and Performances by Foreign Artistes.

“Notably,” Geek Summit's statement continues, “There was an incident which happened 2 months ago, so we were very cautious on getting everything done accordingly, and we were repetitively reassured by the officer in PUSPAL confirming that no special visa is needed in this case. Unfortunately, there has been a false report made by an individual, so the Immigration Department of Malaysia has no choice but to follow protocol, resulting in a questionable detain of our international guests at the scene.”

Speaking to ANN, Geek Summit said that it knows from contacts in the Malaysian government that the individual mentioned in the statement was a civilian with his own interest in disrupting the Geek Summit event. This person, Geek Summit says, has also been disrupting other events as well. Geek Summit claimed the individual paid the immigration officers who came to the event, and officials who would have been aware that the event was legitimate. Geek Summit also said the person who paid off the officials has been disrupting other events in Malaysia.

The detentions, Geek Summit said, happened because of the immigration officers' corruption; they abused their powers of discretion when they claimed that the judges needed special passes. Geek Summit said the officers involved are now being investigated.

Geek Summit told ANN, “Interpretation of the law is very vague. It is subject to the immigration officer's assumption of what a cosplayer is. And it is assumed that cosplayer judges are paid guests like Hollywood stars. In fact they are just hobbyists and there were no payments made.”

From its discussions with PUSPAL, Geek Summit concluded that, “As long as you are a foreigner, wearing a costume and attending an event, you are subject to arrest if immigration officers are checking the events…The vague law has to be revised.”

ANN attempted to contact an executive of World Cosplay Summit, but did not receive a reply.

ANN did speak to Solomon Freeman, who is a support officer of the International Otaku Expo Association (I.O.E.A.). Freeman was involved in resolving both the incident at Geek Summit and also the previous incident in Malaysia in March 2019. In both cases, Freeman says, the detainees were accused of misuse of Social Visa Pass under Malaysia Immigration Regulation 39(b).

Freeman commented, “Unfortunately, such regulation falls in the gray zone. The Investigation Officer can interpret it in any way they see fit. Under the stringent view by Immigration Department of Malaysia, any foreign visitors who come to Malaysia for any activity other than pure sightseeing can be detained under Immigration Regulation 39(b), misuse of Social Visa Pass (Tourist Visa).”

ANN asked Freeman what he would say to international cosplay fans who might consider staying away from Malaysia in the future.

“After consulting with the authorities regarding how this will affect local ACG [Anime/Comic/Games] events specifically, it's important to clarify that PUSPAL's Professional Visit Pass will only be required if the foreign visitor plans to attend an event as an official guest (regardless of whether the visitor is compensated or not), conduct any activity on stage (regardless of whether the visitor is compensated or not), and operate a doujin/cosplay booth (which counts as a commercial activity)," Freeman said. "It will not affect foreign visitors who simply come to an event for cosplaying, as long as [they are] not going on stage to perform or selling merchandise at any booth.”

Freeman believes the Geek Summit organizer did all they could to avoid the raid, “Their event was endorsed by Embassy of Japan and Ministry of Tourism and so on. Malaysian Immigration is preying on ACG events after the previous raid in March. From what the [Geek Summit] organizer told me, an officer from PUSPAL told them that foreign guests coming to judge an event without compensation did not required a Professional Visit Pass. However, the mistake was that it was only a verbal but not a written answer by that PUSPAL officer, which makes the whole finger pointing into a mess.”

Regarding Freeman's comments, the Embassy of Japan stated it “was not in a position to comment on law enforcement in Malaysia.” When asked if Geek Summit's decision not to obtain the professional visas for the judges affected the outcome, the Embassy only stated, “In general, it is necessary to acquire a visa that matches the purpose of the intended stay upon entering any country.”

Freeman also clarified Hikari's concerns regarding whether a call was made to the Japanese Embassy. He said, “If I recall correctly, the four detainees were held up in the VIP room at around 4 p.m., and I was first summoned to assist at 5.30 p.m. The moment I realized it was a raid, I immediately instructed the organizer to contact the Security Office from the Embassy of Japan, which he did. I had [an Embassy staff member's] personal phone number as it was given to me during the March incident.”

Freeman said he and the Geek Summit staff had a suspect on who tipped off the raid, but could not move forward with their suspicions. “We had our suspect, but without concrete evidence, as the anonymity of that said person who made such report was protected, we can't make any accusation.”

In a Facebook statement on July 5, Geek Summit said, “We, Eight Ministry - the organizer of "Geek Summit 2019" would like to apologize extensively to our international guests for this unfortunate incident. We have certainly done everything in accordance to the rules set by PUSPAL prior to our event and were told that no professional visa was required for the sole purpose of being a judge in an event as a foreigner. However, the Immigration Regulations 39(b) is very vague and unfortunately, the investigation officer interpreted it otherwise. We cooperated with the authorities willingly since the beginning and with the assistance of every party to prioritize the immediate release of our international guests. We are deeply saddened that our honored international guests had to undergo such unfair treatment and traumatic experience.”

Over 100 foreigners died in Malaysia's immigration camps in 2015 and 2016, according to documents from the National Human Rights Commission. The rate is higher than other major industrialized countries with far more prisoners, including the United States. The deaths in Malaysia's facilities were often due to illness related to poor sanitation, poor food quality, physical abuse, and lack of medical attention according to the National Human Rights commissioner Jerald Joseph.

Human rights abuses within Semenyih date back over a decade. The center was the subject of a prisoner uprising in 1998 that led to the death of at least eight prisoners and a guard while a fire burned down half the camp. In 2010, Amnesty International released an educational pamphlet detailing the stories of immigrants, sick and abused, within the walls of the detention center.

Additional reporting by Lynzee Loveridge

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