“I can smell the sea from here,” says the prisoner. That seems a wild improbability coming from a man in a soundproof cell in northern Malaysia, several miles as the gull flies from the closest salt water. All I can smell in this humid, whitewashed prison is the faint tang of ammonia used to clean the floors.
It is hard to know what to believe of the prisoner’s claims. At times he has declared his innocence and then later confessed to being a willing criminal. He mentions he has three children, later the number is four. His passport lists his name as Johan Ariffin, but Malaysian authorities doubt that’s his real name. His age is noted as 44 (streaks of gray in his black hair make that plausible) and his residence as Batam, an Indonesian island just south of Singapore. Men like him often come from Batam, a guard says.
Though his jailers remain unsure who he is, they know exactly what he is: lanun (pronounced la-noon). When asked for a direct English equivalent, an interpreter explains that there is none, that it is a word freighted with many layers of culture and history. The short, imperfect answer is: The prisoner is a pirate.
He earned that epithet when Malaysia’s marine police captured him and nine accomplices after they hijacked the Nepline Delima, a tanker carrying 7,000 tons of diesel fuel worth three million dollars, in the Strait of Malacca. It was one of several attacks reported during 2005 in the 550-mile channel separating the Indonesian island of Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula, Singapore perched at its southern tip.