TWELVE years ago, Ton, his sister and brother risked their lives to flee Vietnam in a small, overcrowded and leaky boat, reaching what they thought was safety after five harrowing days at sea. But the nightmare was only beginning. For more than three months, Ton spent sleepless nights in the notorious Galang first asylum camp in northern Indonesia clutching his beautiful younger sister in terror. ''I used to go to sleep hugging my sister, otherwise the Indonesian guards would pick her up and put her back three hours later,'' Ton said, his face alive with emotion. Based on interviews with former inmates of Galang, the Sunday Morning Post has pieced together a shocking and continuing story of widespread bribery, brutal beatings and sexual assault. Inmates identified one senior Indonesian guard who abused women sexually and brutally beat men. The guard is still working in the camp. The island of Galang is one of several camps of first asylum in Southeast Asia. It covers 16 square kilometres, and lies 25 km south of Bintan Island in the Riau archipelago. Of the population of 14,330 refugees - most of whom are from coastal provinces in southern Vietnam - only about 4,000 can hope to be screened in as refugees. The camp operations are the responsibility of P3V, known as the naval police. Over the years, at least 12 Galang inmates who had been screened out as economic migrants have tried to commit suicide. More trouble could lie ahead as the country winds down its refugee determination process and inmates realise they have no hope of resettling abroad. Authorities at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), charged with supervising the well-being of inmates, agree there have been, and continue to be, problems in the camp, and possibly human rights violations, but their ability to monitor the situation is limited. Recently, for ''practical and security reasons'', UNHCR representatives were instructed not to stay overnight in the camp. But it is at night when almost all the atrocities happen. ''If you are beautiful then you are in trouble,'' said Jin Ching Danh, 30, who returned from Galang last year after a one-year stay. Ton, now a free man with a foreign passport and a good job, says sadistic camp guards roamed the sprawling centre at night, picking women for sex like grapes off of a bunch. Inmates say some women had to sleep with guards and men from Vietnamese gangs. Mistresses of some camp guards assumed concubine-like status. ''Some people don't even dare look into their eyes,'' Mr Jin said. Women raped by guards gave birth to illegitimate children, which they were forced to look after on their own. Vietnamese men also had to watch their step. ''Men seen walking hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman would be beaten so they would understand,'' he said. Allegations of beatings and sexual abuse have been directed against camp guards at various levels, and residents say they were afraid to speak out until now. ''Some of them were ready to beat us without question,'' said Nguyen Van Tan, a three-year veteran of Galang who returned home last month after being rejected as a refugee. If inmates reported abusive guards to higher authorities, the accused would invariably return the following night and levy retribution, according to Mr Nguyen. No one enjoyed beating up women and other inmates more than a senior camp guard known as ''Itch'', according to returnees, who described the guard - apparently of senior rank - as a brutal man. ''Everybody knows him,'' Mr Jin said. ''If you were bad he would give you a good beating. Then he would put you in the sun.'' ''He's very severe towards the people,'' said Bui Thai Vu, who returned to Vietnam after a 11/2-year stay in Galang. ''He beats people a lot.'' Complaints about Galang do not only involve physical and sexual abuse. Indonesian camp officials were accused of rigging the refugee determination process, which they had almost sole jurisdiction over, to make money, inevitably denying legitimate cases a fair hearing. Only about 20 per cent get screened in as refugees. Former inmates said officials extracted bribes of up to US$5,000 (HK$38,700) for classification as a refugee, bringing likely resettlement to a third country like Canada, Australia or the United States. Camp authorities are also alleged to have taken bribes in exchange for a second interview and appeals. Mr Jin said in some cases a payment of US$1,000 could bring refugee status. To most Galang inmates, paying several hundred dollars to improve their chances of being screened in as refugees was out of the question, as most had sold all of their belongings before leaving Vietnam. ''There were those who were rich and they were ready to do it,'' Mr Nguyen said. ''In many cases, senior members of Vietnamese criminal gangs could easily produce that kind of cash to get themselves a ticket to a new life abroad.'' In the camps, Indonesian guards used a euphemism for bribe money. ''They would ask if we had any 'supplementary documents'. If we said 'yes' then the money would have to be paid one week later and an interview would come,'' Mr Nguyen said. ''I felt very resentful and disappointed when I saw this happen. Very few people would get accepted - maybe only five or 10 per cent.'' Mr Nguyen said with the refugee determination process heavily rigged to favour those with money, some of the ones rejected tried to burn or stab themselves. ''They were angry and disappointed because they were not accepted for an interview. They have no money to bribe with.'' ''We saw those who can buy interviews and be interviewed first,'' said Lu Mong Trin, a 23-year-old woman from Can Tho who spent 31/2 traumatic years in Galang. ''Money could even be used to buy refugee status.'' The years of confinement have erased any youthful innocence from her serene face. The UNHCR refers to those in the camp without family members - such as Ms Lu - as ''vulnerable adults''. The organisation says these people deserve priority attention as a ''prolonged stay on Galang is particularly detrimental to their well-being''. What makes the allegations of graft even more serious is that the Indonesian decision has considerable weight. ''Most countries do tend to accept the decision of the asylum countries,'' said J. A. Versteegh, head of the immigration section of the Canadian Embassy in Singapore. They send diplomats to Galang on a regular basis. In March, the UNHCR was told by Indonesian authorities that regular staff accommodation for UNHCR would be discontinued. In an April report, UNHCR said the number of suicides and attempted suicides in the camp had been ''relatively low''. But the report added that the manual setting out protection and law enforcement in the camp was largely outdated. ''It sets out a complex and incomplete system of linking penalties to various offences.'' Asked about the allegations of bribery and abuse, a British aid worker, who has made several visits to the camp, said: ''These things don't surprise me.'' Curiously, the UNHCR report makes no mention of the allegations of bribery or human rights violations. ''The rumours certainly abound,'' said Mr Versteegh, when asked about the allegations of abuse. Canada sends officials to the camp on a regular basis to select screened-in boat people for resettlement. Mr Versteegh said that although Canadian officials took the allegations into account, digging further was difficult. ''We don't have the resources to investigate.'' He said Canadian officials were not given access to screened-out Vietnamese, only those approved by the Indonesians as bona fide refugees. Canada plans to accept 300 refugees from Galang this year, while Australia will take 1,000. The spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Hanoi refused to comment. The UNHCR said that although conditions in the camp were not perfect, the Indonesian authorities appeared to have made strident attempts to keep the centre as ''transparent'' as possible. ''We're not saying it might have not happened at all,'' said David Jamieson, the UNHCR country representative in Indonesia. ''But I really believe it is very limited.'' Mr Jamieson said the UNHCR had a protection officer at the camp around-the-clock and its officials were allowed to roam the camp at will. ''Seventy per cent of the time we have someone there. Isolated cases might happen but we monitor them closely. We tell the Indonesians we don't want them to blemish their record.''