Death Behind BarsThe forgotten faces who succumbed to brutality
Today, Dec 10, 2021, is the 73rd International Human Rights Day and we look at custodial deaths, a constant human rights violation which came to the forefront once again in Malaysia.
For many decades, Malaysians have been dying of abuse or neglect in police custody without any meaningful prosecution or signs that this social ill is being addressed.
Let’s visit the virtual graveyard of just a few of the many victims who lost their lives to this chilling phenomenon.
Enter your basic information for a short story of a custodial death victim from a similar demographic as yourself.
In April 2021, the case of cow’s milk seller A Ganapathy shocked Malaysians.
He had been called into the Gombak Police Station on Feb 24 to help with investigations into his brother’s whereabouts but was held and repeatedly beaten according to his family who also claimed that he was denied access to medication.
Ganapathy was eventually taken to Selayang Hospital and had to have his legs amputated before dying on April 18. Photographs of his badly damaged feet went viral along with reports of his demise.
His death was widely publicised and three Malaysiakini journalists, as well as former minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, were called in for questioning for highlighting the matter and calling for justice.
But it was nothing new, just another flashpoint repeated throughout our history with the deaths of Syed Mohd Azlan (2014), N Dharmendran (2013), Cheah Chin Lin (2012), A Kugan (2009), Samiyati Indrayani Zulkarnain Putra (2006), Francis Udayappan (2004) and hundreds of others.
In fact, as far back as 1998, human rights group Suaram’s first Malaysian Human Rights Report highlighted that 151 prisoners had died in remand between 1980 and 1990, while 98 deaths of detainees had been recorded as of March 31, 1997.
At least 124 custodial deaths were recorded by Suaram for the past 21 years, from 2001 to 2021. These are cases for which we have the names and the year of death. Each deceased is represented by a tombstone in this virtual graveyard. Touch or click on the tombstones to find out more about their stories. May their souls rest in peace.
There are 20 deceased aged 3 years younger or older than you at the time of this death . You share the same ethnicity with 64 deceased, the same gender with 3 deceased. Do note that the numbers will overlap as the categories are not exclusive.
None of the deceased meets the selected criteria.
Despite repeated calls for the establishment of Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) dating back to 2005, regular health checkups for detainees, compulsory working CCTV cameras and other security or deterrent measures, the problem has persisted.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in the USA, activists in Malaysia also questioned if ethnic Indians were disproportionately represented in cases of police brutality and custodial deaths.
Numerous other related issues have also emerged, such as enforced disappearances, death in prisons and the MACC, and extrajudicial killings attributed to the police.
Deaths in custody can occur for a number of reasons - a result of suicide, assault by other detainees or genuine ill-health.
But what’s perturbing is the probability that most deaths could result from negligence, torture and abuse on the part of the authorities themselves and that they have gone unpunished so far and will continue to be.
Statistical confusion and misdirection
In the last two months alone, a number of reports have emerged showing just how confusing the picture is.
On Sept 15, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin informed the Dewan Rakyat that for the year 2021 up until August, there were only six deaths in police lockups.
This was immediately challenged by groups such as Suaram and Edict (Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together), who reminded Hamzah that the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) had in its 2016 report spelt out the definition of deaths in custody.
They said it was deaths that occur during arrests by the police, deaths in police detention, and deaths wherein detainees die on the way to receiving medical treatment, as well as when they die at a medical facility in cases where ward admission is necessary whilst still in police custody.
Suaram cited the death of S Sivabalan as soon as he was arrested by the police from the Gombak Police Headquarters, and the death of Umar Faruq Abdullah@Hemanathan who passed away in the custody of Klang Selatan Police Headquarters, as examples of cases missing from the recorded number of six.
Edict added that based on its own statistics compiled through the cases it received, there were 10 deaths in police custody from January to August.
Malaysiakini had in 2017 already done an extensive report comparing the discrepancy between the statistical reality versus perception of the racial element in custodial deaths.
However, one thing is clear - the statistics are not clear.
There are three key reasons for this -
1. The figures are never consistent because of varying interpretations of the definition of custodial death. A detainee who dies in hospital following abuse in the lockup has not necessarily been recorded as a death in custody.
2. Deaths in custody extended beyond deaths in police lockups to deaths in prisons and other government facilities up to and including MACC and immigration centres. For years the Home Ministry did not separate deaths in prisons (which largely occurred among Malay prisoners) from deaths in the police lockups (which had a disproportionately high Indian representation).
3. The integrity of the data is compromised by the fact that it is supplied to the Home Ministry by the police themselves. If there is indeed a suspected cause of abuse or neglect, the police would have an element of responsibility and thus a vested interest in manipulating statistics.
The IPCMC saga
In Sept 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy prime minister and promptly assaulted by the then inspector-general of police who gave him a black eye.
The people asked if this can happen behind closed doors to such a powerful public figure, what more those from poor and marginalised backgrounds.
Clearly, police brutality exists, and custodial deaths are at the very extreme of a system that is not being checked.
By the end of 2003, then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced that a royal commission of inquiry would be established to look into issues relating to the police force.
The Royal Commission to Enhance the Operations and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police was constituted pursuant to the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1950. The RCI was chaired by former chief justice Abdullah.
It went through great lengths through to 2005 and presented an in-depth report calling for the establishment of an IPCMC in order to deal with complaints and reports of misconduct within the force. That was 16 years ago and we are still waiting.
As recently as May 2019, then newly appointed inspector-general of police Abdul Hamid Bador announced the formation of the IPCMC, giving some hope that with a monitoring body, this trend might be checked.
Yet earlier this year, when an underage girl was raped at a toilet in the Miri Central Police Station lockup on Jan 9, it was found that there was no working CCTV that was capable of recording events at the station - showing just how shockingly lax security can be.
On May 31, the latest top cop, Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani, said police would review the health status of all new suspects brought into custody as a measure to prevent more incidents of death in police custody.
Currently, Hamzah is touting a revamped Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) Bill and said he will be presenting it for a second reading during the ongoing parliamentary sitting, but many are calling it a watered-down version of the original proposal with the new commission likely to be another toothless tiger.
Related cases of MACC deaths/police shootings
Aside from the deaths in police custody, there are also co-related situations such as deaths in MACC custody of Teoh Beng Hock in July 2009 and Ahmad Sarbani Mohamad in April 2011.
There are the as-yet-unsolved disappearances of pastor Raymond Koh and activist Amri Che Mat which Suhakam determined to be the result of actions by the Special Branch of the police.
But there was a questionable task force appointed by then home minister Muhyiddin Yassin to look into it – and no prosecution has been forthcoming.
Shooting deaths by police is another phenomenon in which possible abuse of power is a factor. Last year there were 19 incidents involving 24 people, 10 of whom died in the shootings.
Earlier this year, the families of three boys shot dead by police nearly 11 years ago were awarded over RM1.5 million in damages by the Shah Alam High Court.
Muhammad Shamil Hafiz Shapiei, 15, Mohd Hairul Nizam Tuah, 22, and Muhammad Hanafi Omar, 21, had been shot dead by police at Glenmarie, Shah Alam, on Nov 13, 2010.
Despite it initially being claimed that the youths were armed with machetes and had tried to attack the police after earlier robbing petrol kiosks in Monteres and Bukit Subang, the post mortem showed that the angle of entry of the bullets, number of bullets fired and the distance they were fired from all negated the police’s version of events.
This mysterious machete was also initially mentioned when a police officer shot dead teenager Aminulrasyid Amzah who had taken his sister’s car for a joyride in April 2010, just six months before the Glenmarie killings.
The possibility of police planting weapons on those they have shot dead is a very real threat that further comprises evidence gathering in Malaysia.
Earlier this week, on Dec 6, Hamzah announced that the PDRM will set up a special unit to investigate cases of death involving detainees.
He said it would be known as the Criminal Investigation Unit on Deaths in Custody and will be staffed by 12 police personnel and a civilian staff member.
"This unit will begin operation on Jan 1 next year, headed by a police superintendent. Beginning this date, all deaths involving detainees will be handled by this unit,” he said adding that the unit will come under PDRM's Integrity and Standards Compliance Department and would focus on the aspect of criminal liability, duty of care and compliance with the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
Hamzah once again denied that there were racial elements in custodial deaths, saying that from 2015 until now, 82 deaths in lockups have been reported, with the victims comprising 42 Malays, 13 Chinese, 15 Indians and 12 foreigners. Again, these figures do not tally with the reports that Malaysiakini and Suaram have tabulated.
Out of 188 deaths in prisons last year, 109 were Malays, 25 Indians, 21 Chinese and 34 were of other races and nationalities.
On the other hand, 14 out of the last 21 cases of deaths in police lockups that Suaram reported involved Indians.
This is one reason why the statistics can be confusing when they are collectively bundled as custodial deaths.
According to Suaram’s 2020 Human Rights Report, between 2016-20, there were 48 deaths in police custody, 889 deaths in the prisons and 181 deaths in immigration detention.
This means that while we are focused today on deaths in police custody - the other problems are even more prevalent as there are 18 times as many deaths in prison recorded than deaths in police custody.
There is still no external overseeing body that really looks into these trends and monitors the legitimacy of the statistics – if an individual dies in hospital a month after suffering abuse in a lockup – who is there to ensure that this is listed officially as a custodial death?
Because the official stats are obtained through the police themselves, not Suaram not Suhakam or any other body, right now there is a strong possibility that the very ones who could be behind the deaths are being trusted to be honest about the numbers.
Regardless, the fact remains that people of all races suffer this cruel fate and it remains to be seen if there is any value in a race-based analysis.
One thing is for certain, we have to look at this issue honestly and try and put a stop to abuse, torture and murder that is covered up by a badge.
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