'So many deaths in custody, only one criminal charge'

Eric Paulsen
(Updated )

COMMENT Lawyers for Liberty views with concern the statistics on deaths in police custody that were forwarded to MP N Surendran in answer to his question during the recent parliamentary session.

He had posed a question on the number of custodial deaths in 2013 to 2016 in accordance to ethnicity, sex, nationality, causes of death and actions taken by the authorities.

The major concerns are as follows:

Other diseases

Out of the 50 deaths in custody from 2013 - April 2016, the majority of deaths, 40 cases, were attributed to “Lain-lain penyakit (Usus, hati, kuning, ulser, paru-paru, kerongkong)”.

It is appalling that a detainee in this day and age can die from a mere “other diseases” that are not normally life threatening or occur suddenly so as to cause death.

Questions must surely be asked as to how the detainees’ condition must have been neglected, to have deteriorated so severely over a period of time that they can die from ulcer, jaundice and diseases affecting the intestine, liver, lungs and throat.

What is the Standard Operating Procedures on detainees who are ill? Why were the detainees not provided with timely medical attention or sent to hospital so as to prevent death?

Hurt by police

Out of the 50 deaths in custody from 2013 to April 2016, only one death was attributed to “dicederakan polis”.

This figure must surely be questionable as there were at least three known deaths that can be attributed to the police: the deaths of N Dharmendran (May 2013), P Karuna Nithi (June 2013) and Syed Mohd Azlan Syed Muhammad Nur (November 2014).

No investigation, no charge

Out of the 50 deaths in custody from 2013 - April 2016, only 31 deaths were investigated. Why were the balance 19 deaths not investigated at all?

Further, out of the 31 deaths investigated, only one case resulted in a criminal charge while 10 other cases, inquests were held.

What about the other 20 cases that were investigated but presumably did not lead to anything? Why were inquests not held in these 20 cases?

How independent and transparent were the police investigations in these 20 cases that did not result in a criminal charge or even an inquest?

We would like to remind the authorities that other than cases like Dharmendran that has led to criminal prosecution, in all other deaths in custody, an inquest is mandatory in order to inquire into the cause of death.

Symptomatic impunity

There should not be any death in custody cases where the police investigate themselves and conclude that there was no criminality or no further action was required.

Unfortunately, the authorities’ inaction in many cases is symptomatic of a framework of institutionalised impunity where a detainee can die in police custody and there will be little recourse or accountability.

Instead, a ‘blue wall of silence’ builds up to frustrate attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice as found by the Royal Commission on the death of Teoh Beng Hock.

Even in cases where the inquest or the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) have found the police to be responsible, the state is still reluctant to hold law enforcement personnel accountable for the unlawful killings.

Until today, (based on publicly available information) no action has been taken against any police personnel responsible for the deaths of Karuna Nithi, Syed Mohd Azlan, C Sugumar and Chandran Perumal, despite the findings of the inquest or EAIC as the case may be.

We reiterate our calls for the government to implement the recommendation of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police (May 2005), for the setting up of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to function as an independent and external oversight body to investigate complaints about police personnel.


ERIC PAULSEN is executive director of Lawyers for Liberty.

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