Letter to NST on Deaths in Police Custody
5 March 2009
New Straits Times
31 Jalan Riong
59100 Kuala Lumpur
I refer to the recent reports in the NST on the death of Kugan Ananthan on 20 January 2009, while in police custody at a police station in Subang Jaya. In the first post-mortem, carried out on 21 January at the Serdang Hospital, the cause of death was reported to be “fluid in the lungs.” Yesterday (4 March), the NST reported on the findings of a second post-mortem on 25 January by a pathologist in the University of Malaya Medical Centre, who recorded multiple V-shaped burn wounds, bruises and contusions of the skin, and haemorrhage into the gall bladder, pancreas, adrenal glands, and the brain. The certified cause of death was acute kidney failure, precipitated by the release of myoglobin from damaged skeletal muscles, as a result of blunt trauma.
The discrepancies between the two post-mortem reports raise serious concerns about the reliability and competence of the first pathologist and about the possibility of a false first report as a result of police pressure. A medical report that does not stand up to scrutiny, especially in the investigation of a custodial death, is an extremely serious matter that demands the close attention of the attorney general’s office and the disciplinary bodies of the Malaysian Medical Association and the Malaysian Medical Council.
In July 2008, the Dewan Rakyat was informed that there were 1,535 deaths in prisons, rehabilitation centres, and detention centres for illegal immigrants, between 2003 and 2007. Of these deaths, 85 occurred in police lock-ups.
The 2004 Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police focused on the prevalence of sudden deaths in police custody. The Dzaiddin Commission, as it came to be known, noted a significant level of abuse of power and little regard for civil liberties or human rights by the police. The Commission concluded that self-regulation of police conduct had often failed and recommended the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).
However, the government appears to have supported the police force in its opposition to the setting up of the IPCMC, because it has refused to establish such a commission. This can only undermine public confidence in the police and give the impression that the government is tolerant of physical abuse of prisoners which may result in extra-judicial killings. This harks back to the death of 31-year-old Steve Biko in police custody in apartheid South Africa in 1977. It is high time to set up the IPCMC.
The government has also failed to set up coroner courts to hold inquests into custodial deaths. Such courts would include a forensic department made up of highly trained professionals, capable of delivering credible and accurate reports, without fear or favour, that will stand up to scrutiny in a court of law. Malaysians expect and deserve nothing less.
This custodial death of Kugan Ananthan is a grim reminder that there are systemic weaknesses in our institutions of law and order and a wake-up call that institutional reforms are urgently needed. It is also a reminder that people in police custody are exposed to physical abuse and that the Ministry of Home Affairs is unwilling or unable to put an end to such murderous brutality. Not long ago, a former deputy prime minister was brutalized by the head of police, who was eventually brought to book. The implication is that anybody in police custody cannot be guaranteed physical safety and full protection of the law.
It is time to root out such conduct and inculcate professionalism to ensure that the police are capable of deducing evidence without resorting to physical abuse. It is time to reform the police force so that it will enjoy public trust and respect. The government must convince the public that it is committed to justice, human rights and the rule of just law.
The Malaysian government must act immediately in ways that will reassure the public that there will be an end to this untenable state of affairs. The time has come for change.
Dr R S McCoy