Inus bin Abul Baser, an 18-year-old from Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, believed he'd escaped the worst when he managed to buy his freedom from human traffickers in Thailand and enter Malaysia in search of security and work.
But within weeks, he was cooped up in a filthy, overcrowded detention center near Kuala Lumpur's international airport, squatting or sleeping on the floor in a hall with scores of other men. During his fourth month, wardens ordered them not to move or talk, he says, and beat them with belts if they did.
"There was no rest. You couldn't sit or lie down without touching someone else," he said, pointing to a welt on his forearm that he says he received when a guard beat him for arguing with another detainee over space. Reuters was unable to independently confirm his allegations. Interviews with six former detainees revealed similar treatment.
U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Malaysia on Friday for a Southeast Asia leaders' summit comes amid allegations by U.S. lawmakers and rights groups that his administration ignored Malaysia's abuse of trafficking victims such as Baser to secure the country's help sealing a high-profile trade deal and strengthen ties to offset China's growing political clout.
As Reuters previously reported, a U.S. State Department office set up by Congress to independently grade global efforts to fight human trafficking had recommended keeping Malaysia on the bottom grade in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report this year. That status, known as Tier 3, is reserved for countries with the worst trafficking records.
But senior officials instead in July upgraded Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watch List, freeing the country from potential sanctions and international condemnation, and paving the way for the ambitious 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. If Malaysia remained a Tier 3 country, the Obama administration would have had to exclude it from the deal under the fast-track negotiating authority it had from Congress, potentially torpedoing the agreement.
Starkly worded criticism of Malaysia was excised from the final report, according to internal documents seen by Reuters that have not been previously made public.
Malaysian government officials did not respond to requests for comment on the country's trafficking record or detention centers such as the one where Baser stayed, but Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told a news conference on Thursday that conditions in the facilities had improved.
Secretary of State John Kerry denied on Aug. 6 that there was any link between Malaysia's human trafficking ranking and the trade deal, which was concluded in October.
At the heart of concerns by the State Department's human trafficking experts are Malaysia's immigration detention facilities where people who had already suffered at the hands of human smugglers and traffickers faced more problems and abuse, according to rights groups and Reuters interviews with multiple former detainees.
"It did not reform its fundamentally flawed victim protection regime," the State Department's human trafficking experts wrote in their recommendation to keep Malaysia on Tier 3, according to internal documents reviewed by Reuters.
"Proposals to reform the grossly inadequate victim protection regime did not result in concrete improvements despite sustained high-level USG (U.S. government) engagement," they added. "The GOM (government of Malaysia) punished trafficking victims by forcibly detaining them in government facilities."
The analysts were overruled by senior American diplomats at the State Department, according to sources with direct knowledge of how the report was compiled. By the time the report was published, much of the tougher criticism of Malaysia's detention facilities was removed. The final text was softened to, "the government increased efforts to improve Malaysia's victim protection system."
The State Department declined to comment on what it described as "alleged internal documents that purport to be part of the deliberative process." It also denied that the country-by-country ratings in the latest report had been politicized.
In response to questions on Malaysia's ranking, a State Department official said Malaysia's current ranking means that Malaysia does not fully comply with minimum standards as defined by U.S. Congress but "is making significant efforts to do so".
"It is a ranking that sends a strong message to Malaysia that they must continue to make significant efforts to combat human trafficking," said the official, who requested anonymity. Washington remains "concerned about a disproportionately low conviction rate for trafficking crimes," the official said.
After Reuters revealed on July 8 the State Department's plans to upgrade Malaysia, more than 160 U.S. lawmakers wrote to Kerry urging him to keep the country on the list of worst offenders and saying any upgrade due to external factors such as trade would undermine the Trafficking in Persons report's credibility.
But the significance of Washington's relationship with Malaysia goes well beyond trade at a time of regional tensions over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. Malaysia, a Muslim majority country of 30 million people with an ethnic Chinese minority, is influential in a region where Washington needs to court allies to counter Beijing's expanding diplomatic and military muscle.
Malaysia is especially important this year as chair of the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations.
"I SAW PEOPLE AROUND ME DYING"
Pongram Konglang, 30, one of an estimated two million undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia, says he witnessed people dying in overcrowded immigration facilities while detained for two years.
A Christian from Myanmar's northern Kachin State, he says he fled his remote village in January 2012 during fighting between Kachin rebels and the military. When smugglers offered to help him leave Myanmar, they didn't tell him where he was going. He was held by force for three weeks at a camp on the Thai-Malaysia border until paying a 3,000 Malaysian ringgit ($690) ransom. He was then spirited by jeep into Malaysia.
Smuggling, done with the consent of those involved, differs from trafficking, which is the trapping of people by force or deception into labor or prostitution.
Once in Malaysia, Pongram says he worked temporary jobs for several months. In September 2012, as he was attempting to register as an asylum-seeker with the United Nations, he was stopped and asked for identification by two plainclothes police officers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. When he failed to produce any, they arrested him and took him to one of the country's 12 immigration detention facilities.
He spent the next two years in detention. He said officials would not respond quickly to pleas for medical attention. "I saw people around me dying, and I thought, 'when will it be my turn?'"
He can't say why specifically he was allowed out in May this year but he received an appointment with the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He still has no legal papers and works odd jobs in cafes and shops.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm details of his detention.
The Malaysian government declined to comment on individual cases involving the detention centers.
Malaysia has said it is taking steps to combat human trafficking, including amendments passed in June to a 2007 anti-trafficking law aimed at improving care for human trafficking victims.
"We have followed the international practice to provide them with basic needs that meets humanitarian benchmark that are imposed by the international community," Zahid, the deputy prime minister, said. "We respect this, although extra budget has to be created to take good care of them."
The country, however, has faced criticism from Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations for failing to implement or enforce amendments to its anti-trafficking law.
Refugees are highly vulnerable to economic exploitation in Malaysia, say rights groups. Labor abuses such as coercion and debt bondage are rife in the Malaysian electronics industry, the plantation sector and construction, the groups contend.
Nearly a third of some 350,000 workers in Malaysia's electronics industry suffer from conditions of modern-day slavery such as debt bondage, according to a study released last year that was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.