Who will police the Police? [Part-1]: The Problem

Hundreds of people continue to die in police custody. What has been the history of this problem?

Balamurugan Suppiah, 2017

Balamurugan was 44 years old.  When police arrested him on 06 February 2017, he was hale and hearty.  The next day, the Investigating Officer (‘I.O’)  brought Bala before the Magistrate for a ‘remand hearing’. At such hearings, the police ask the court’s permission to detain a suspect for investigations (read ‘interrogations’).

When Bala was brought to court bound in chains, he could barely walk. There were bruises on his face. He was bleeding from his nose.

This was not lost upon the presiding Magistrate.

She demanded an explanation from the I.O.

He said not a word.

She refused permission to detain Bala.

She set him free.

She then ordered that the I.O send Bala to hospital.

Bala was not sent to the hospital.

Instead, he was brought to the North Klang District Police HQ.

Fast forward 24 hours.

His lifeless body was found there on 08 February.

His body was brought to the Klang Hospital for an autopsy.

Strangely, the first autopsy said that he had died ‘of heart problems’.

The family insisted on a second post-mortem report.

It was telling.

It records that Bala had died of ‘coronary artery disease’ with ‘multiple blunt force injuries’.

That second phrase meant he had been beaten to death.

We see here that a Magistrate’s order was disobeyed; and with impunity.  Such a death would not be the first, nor the last.

Syed Azlan, 2014

Syed Mohammad Azlan bin Syed Mohamad Nur was a healthy, 25-year-old male. On 3 November 2014, he was detained by a team of 13 police officers.  They suspected he had been involved in an armed altercation involving two groups.  He was taken to the Sg. Rengit police station, Johor. He died in transit while being transferred to the Kota Tinggi police HQ. The EIAC – a police oversight commission – investigated his death. This is a summary of what it said [1]: – Azlan sustained 61 different injuries to his face, body and both legs.  Some were ‘defence injuries’ sustained as Azlan tried to protect himself from police assault. He had died because of ‘blunt force trauma to the chest’. (Read, ‘beaten to death’).

The police did not stop there.

They tampered with the evidence of death.

They cleaned up the scene of the incident before the medical officer came to visit it.

They destroyed a rubber mat and carpet–arrest stained by Azlan’s blood–at the place of his arrest.

They hid an eyewitness who had seen the arrest taking place.

The EAIC said that the policemen had ‘conspired or abetted’ to inflict harm on Azlan. The then IGP pledged that ‘any police personnel involved would be brought to justice’.  The president of the Bar called his words ‘mere platitudes. [2]

The shooting of 14-year old Aminulrasyid, 2010

Aminulrasyid Amzah was a 14-year old boy.  In April 2010, he took his sister’s car for a joy ride.  He posed no threat to the public or the police.  The police shot at the car – 21 times. Aminulrasyid was dead with a bullet to the head. Awarding his family more than RM400,000 in damages, the Shah Alam High held the government, the police force, and the IGP liable for his death. [3]

The court found the IGP (then the Selangor Police Chief) liable  ‘for making false statements’.

He had claimed that a ‘machete had been found in the car’; and that the driver had been ‘a dangerous criminal’.

The IGP was asked to pay RM100,000.00 to the family.  This was not the first time an IGP had been liable for the tort of misfeasance in public office. It also happened when Kugan Ananthan died in custody in 2009.
  Teoh Beng Hock, a former journalist, was the Political Secretary Ean Yong Huan Wah – a Selangor State Executive Councillor. Both belonged to the Democratic Action Party (DAP), then in the opposition. 01 July 2009, Teoh was arrested by the MACC, the anti-corruption authority.

He was found dead at 1:30 p.m. the next day, on the rooftop of a building adjacent to the MACC offices.

That was a day before his marriage.

MACC’s theory was that ‘he had committed suicide’.

This bizarre theme continued in the following months. According to MACC, Teoh was merely a witness. Its officers, MACC said, wished to ‘question him’ about allegations of corruption of Teoh’s boss, Ean.  The investigation concerned allegations that Teoh’s boss had paid RM 2,400.00 for flags to be used during the National Day celebrations, but Ean had not taken delivery of them. What had that got to do with Teoh? There is no answer.

Teoh’s interrogation had lasted 9 hours.  MACC said they had ‘freed’ Teoh at 3:45 a.m.

Teoh was last seen alive around 6.00 a.m.

Yet, his possessions, including his mobile phone, remained with MACC.

The law requires all ‘detainees’ to be locked up between 6:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. so.

Why had Teoh, a mere witness, and not a ‘detainee’, interrogated deep into the night? [4]

The Bar Council said that this had not been the first time the MACC had had interrogated detainees overnight. [5]

Teoh’s colleagues were also questioned by MACC.

They claimed that they too had been denied access to legal counsel, food and drink.

Eventually, the Court of Appeal ruled that ‘persons unknown had caused [Teoh’s] death’.

Royal Commission Report in June 2005

The government then set up a Royal commission to ‘Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police’. In its damning report, the Royal commission acknowledged that there was – within the PDRM –  widespread corruption, disobedience to laws, and human rights breaches.

There was inadequate respect for the rights of women and children.

Its ‘culture’ had failed to protect the rights and interests of the public.

The PDRM, said the Commission, was more preoccupied in being ‘a force’ as opposed to rendering  ‘service’.

‘That’, said the Commission, ‘was at the heart of these concerns’.

The Commission recommended 125 comprehensive proposals.  It urged the formation of IPCMC as an ‘independent police oversight body’.  The IPCMC would  be empowered to investigate police misconduct and – importantly – take action.  These proposals had ‘teeth’.

Implementation of IPCMC grinds to a halt in 2006

At first, after the Royal Commission report, the Government took steps to set up the IPCMC. It had overwhelming support of civil society. Then, all  attempts to implement the Commission’s IPCMC proposals came to a grinding halt in 2006. The police vehemently objected to it.

Reportedly, PDRM ‘threatened to let crime rise, to resign en masse and  vote for the opposition.’[6]

So the previous regime dragged its feet.  It downplayed the importance of the IPCMC.  Instead, it established the ‘Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission’ (EAIC).

The government claimed that the EAIC could provide “the necessary oversight”.

The professed mission of EAIC was to “strengthen the service delivery system and integrity” amongst the Malaysian enforcement agencies’.

EAIC, passed in 2009, activated in April 2011

The EAIC Act was passed on 1 July 2009 – four years after the idea of IPCMC had been first mooted. The EAIC, the Bar lamented, was a ‘watered-down version of IPCMC’. The Bar’s fears were not misplaced. It took another 19 months before EAIC began operations.

The Inadequacy of the EAIC

EAIC was not wholly dedicated to improving the police. It was a bloated umbrella. It had under it, 21 different government agencies.  It included the police (120,000 personnel), RELA (more than 3 million members), and the Malaysian Road Transport Department (over 8,000 personnel).

EAIC’s workload was heavy.  Its focus was diverse.  It was also under-specialised.

By 2015, it had only 11 Investigating Officers.

The funding, and manpower granted to EAIC was completely out of depth to its duties.

In the Supply Bill tabled by PM Najib Razak on October 2015, EAIC’s budget was slashed by almost 40%.

But the worst was that the EAIC had no teeth.

It could not take any direct action.

All it could do was ‘investigate’ and ‘document the complaint’.

It would then submit its recommendations’ – to whom? – the police itself.

It could not compel the police to implement its recommendations.  It had no such power.

The police could ignore the EIAC’s views with impunity.

Or they could conduct their own investigation.

This was duplication of EAIC’s work.

This is a waste of resources.

Or a way to thwart EIAC’s effectiveness.

If there was a concoction for failure, this was it. And it showed.  By 2012 the EAIC had “only received 170 complaints – with only 16 fully investigated.”

The deaths in custody continue

As expected, the deaths in police custody continued. A decade after publication of the Royal Commission Report, deaths in police custody continued at an alarming rate. COMANGO, a Coalition of Malaysian NGOs concluded that,

“deaths and rapes in custody, fatal police shooting, and violence against suspects continue unabated…”.  [7]

In 2012, after the formation of the EIAC,

“three police officers gang-raped an Indonesian restaurant worker in a police station…”

Between the years 2000 and 2012, some 394 persons were shot dead. [8] The standard explanation for these fatal shootings was that the police were ‘acting in self-defence.’

In 7 years, more than 1,000 have died in custody 

The number of people dying in police stations is unbelievable.

Some 255 detainees died in police custody from 2000 to 2014. [9]

The number of people dying in prisons and immigration detention centres is far higher.  We cannot blame the police for it.

Between 2010 and February 2017, some 1,654 people died in prisons.

In immigration detention centres, 82 died in 2015, and 35 died in 2016.[10]

Do politicians frustrate the police?

Apparently they do. The 2013 COMANGO report cites an example:

“…In 2012, the former Inspector General of police, revealed that the (then) Home Minister… had once given instructions directly to junior police officers and a district chief without his knowledge.

The [then IGP] added that “often, politicians and “people” would interfere in police work by giving orders to immediately release certain individuals in certain cases.” [11].

That IGP also claimed that “crime statistics were often under-reported”. This is appalling. Something has to be done. What? We shall see that in ‘Part-2: The Solution’.       [The author thanks the Malaysian Bar, Dato Ramachelvan of the Pahang Bar, and Miss Malathi Mohan for her research and the materials].     End Notes: [1].  Dated 30 October 2015 [2]. Steven Thiru, Bar Council Statement, dated 07 November 2015 [3]. On April 2016. [4]. Rule 20, Lock-Up Rules 1953. [5]. Bar Council’s statement of 18 July 2009. [6]. Steven Thiru, Speech as President of the Malaysian Bar on 04 May 2016. [7]. In 2013,COMANGO, published a ‘Stakeholder’s Report on Malaysia’. It was endorsed by 54 organisations. [8]. Statistics provided by the police [9]. Police statistics to SUHAKAM (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia).  Also, reported in Malaysiakini, Published: 25 Oct2017, 7:53 am. [10]. Eric Paulsen, ‘Deaths in custody: Are pathologists trained to ‘think dirty’?  Malaysiakini, Published: 25 Oct 2017, 7:53a.m. [11]. The 2013 COMANGO report, supra.

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