At 11.30pm on June 1, Zulkarnain Idros, a 53-year-old taxi driver, received a phone call.
It was an officer from the National Defence University of Malaysia (UPNM) – the military college where his eldest son, Zulfarhan Osman, 21, was attending, hoping to obtain a Navy commission.
“Your son has died,” he told Zulkarnain.
There was a long pause.
“He was burnt to death.”
When Hawa Osman, Zulkarnain’s 54-year-old wife, heard the news, she broke into tears. “Allah, my son …”
Initially, the officer read Zulfarhan’s military identity number over the phone. Unable and unwilling to believe the terrible news, the father asked for his civilian identity number instead.
“My mind was racing,” the round-faced Zulkarnain said. “I kept thinking that it was all a mistake. Maybe it was someone else’s child? I needed to see him for myself.”
At midnight, Zulkarnain, Hawa and their three younger children set off from their home in the southern Malaysian state of Johor for the 300km trip to the Serdang Hospital in Kajang, Selangor.
Hawa, a woman with an intense and somewhat sorrowful expression, recalled how she had suspected something was amiss long before the call.
“My son usually called every night, but I hadn’t heard from him for more than a week because he’d lost his phone. Even so, after a few days, I felt something was wrong,”
Finally, and just after 3am, the family arrived at the Serdang Hospital. The UPNM officer was there to greet them.
However, they weren’t allowed to see the body until later that morning at 9, leaving them to wait for six agonising hours.
According to reports, Zulfarhan was allegedly tortured by a group of his peers from May 21 to 22 for stealing a laptop.
He was burned with a steam iron that was pressed and dragged along his limbs and torso. A belt, rubber hose, and a hanger were also used.
The offence was allegedly committed at the UPNM Jebat hostel between 2.30am and 5.30am on May 21 and 1.30am to 5.45am the following day.
The same news reports added that a week later on May 27, two of his batch mates drove Zulfarhan to a clinic in Bangi for treatment. They subsequently brought him to the clinic again on May 31.
On June 1, 11 days after the initial attack, Zulfarhan was finally taken to the hospital. He died almost immediately on arrival despite two attempts to revive his shattered body.
For the parents, the initial viewing was tense and unbelievably painful. As Hawa said: “When they first brought us in to identify him, we were only shown his face.”
She said this with her hand to her chest, indicating the part of Zulfarhan’s body that was exposed. “We asked to see our son’s entire body,” at which point her voice fell silent as the pain of her grief overwhelmed her.
According to an autopsy report, 80 per cent of Zulfarhan’s body was covered in burns. Zulkarnain picked up the thread of the narrative: “I have no words to describe how it felt to see our son in that state. I had no more tears left. It’s particularly heart breaking for his mother. She gave birth to a perfect, healthy baby boy.”
The father continued haltingly: “I couldn’t stop asking myself: why do we have to bury him like this? What happened?”
Zulfarhan’s body was released to the family at 3pm on June 2. He was buried in Johor that evening.
I met the family at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex on October 27. Both parents were wearing T-shirts with “#justice4farhan” printed across the chest.
Nineteen young men have been charged in connection with Zulfarhan’s death.
Five were charged with murder and one with abetment. Both charges carry the mandatory death penalty and these boys – they looked so young – had been remanded in custody. They were chained alongside drug offenders and petty thieves who appear all too regularly in big city courts.
Thirteen others were charged with voluntarily causing hurt and if found guilty, face up to seven years in prison. They weren’t in remand.
Instead, they were more formally dressed in long-sleeved shirts (some were even in suits) – waiting at the side and the back of the public gallery. As the registrar called out their names they walked – some seemed to march, they were military cadets after all – to the front where they crowded out the dock, creating a degree of confusion.
Throughout the proceedings, Zulkarnain, Hawa and their 15-year-old daughter sat in the front row of the public gallery. Silent and dignified, they looked on as the alleged perpetrators of their son’s murder thronged in front of them.
Meanwhile, all around them were the parents of the 19, some looking shamefaced, others trying their best to cheer up their boys.
Having noticed the invisible divide between the two groups I asked if there had been any interaction.
The father explained: “Two of the suspects’ parents have approached me to apologise.”
“I said to them: if I forgive you, will my son come back?”
But at least with a trial date pending, the family will soon learn about their son’s last days and the reasons – if any – behind the extraordinary brutality of his death.
Zulkarnain was candid when he described how they felt. “We have no idea what happened in that whole week from when he was tortured to when he was found. It’s like no one even noticed he was missing. That’s why we have to come to the trial.”
Despite mandatory, nightly roll-calls, Zulfarhan’s absence remained a secret.
Hawa added: “There has been a lot of gossip since the incident. We’ve heard many rumours about what happened. But we need to find out the truth. Although this case will take a very long time, I will continue following it for my son. We can’t just let it go.”
You can understand why as you listen to Zulkarnain (who, despite his suffering, never loses his warm, special smile) and Hawa talk about their eldest child.
He was a loving and responsible third-year electrical engineering student. He dreamt of captaining ships one day.
Those hopes are now gone. But for the 19 accused, who have all since pleaded not guilty, the future has become cloudy. An drawn-out trial. Legal fees. Glittering careers destroyed.
Amid it all, Hawa, the grieving mother, is implacable. “I have to know. I can accept that my son has died, but I can’t accept the way he died.”