The bell tolls for thee

A TOTALof 1,654 people died in custody from 2010 until February this year, the home minister told Parliament. Statistically, about 19 deaths every month. This is astounding. One would have thought lock-ups would be just about the safest place to be – what with round-the-clock security by trained officers and support staff.

The minister's deputy pinned the cause to the poor health of the prisoners; and their failure, often, to reveal their true health conditions. But lock-up rules provide for a person to be medically checked and certified before being locked up. And surely, follow-up medical treatment for sick prisoners is an elementary and mandatory procedure.

Significantly, inquiries by several bodies paint a different picture.

The government-established Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) set up to oversee 19 government agencies, including the police, investigated the death of Dharmendran in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) lock-up on May 21, 2013. Its findings are startling. Physical force by the police killed him. His body had 52 bruises from a blunt object. His ears were stapled while he was alive. The police diaries – which are meant to record the movement of prisoners – were fabricated by high police officers "to cover up the actual fact surrounding the death of the deceased preventing a fair and just investigation of the death". This is a crime. The police report of the death was false, made on the instructions of a deputy head of the CID, again a crime. Dharmendran was to have been released the following day as there was no further action ordered after his initial remand. Yet he was re-arrested "without a just and valid justification".

Incredulously, nobody bothered to make the CCTV cameras operational – long after the renovation works of the police HQ were completed in 2009. Four relatively lower ranking police personnel have since been charged. All were acquitted.

In the case of Syed Mohd Azlan, the EAIC found that he had 62 bruises on his body inflicted by police assaulting him, corroborated by independent witnesses. He died shortly after. Again the pattern of police cover-up of incriminating evidence such as the blood stained carpet. And an implausible story of an unarmed person seeking to escape when there was only one exit well-guarded by three police officers.

Seemingly, even the intervention by a magistrate is of little consequence. As in the case of Balamurugan. The magistrate ordered his release and that he be brought urgently to hospital for treatment. The prisoner had appeared before the magistrate with swollen eyes and had vomited blood. In defiance, the police locked him up. The following morning of Feb 8 this year he died in hospital. Suhakam's (Malaysian Human Rights Commission) investigation found that he was tortured and detained illegally.

These findings by bodies of unquestionable credentials represent a sorry tale of a force meant to safeguard the public violating its raison d'etre. The custodians betraying their trust.

The establishment of an outside independent body – Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) – as recommended by a high-powered Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police set up by the government – has been still-born. Its commissioners would be appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on the advice of the prime minister. Despite sustained cries for its establishment by such bodies as Suhakam, the Human Rights Watch, Lawyers for Liberty, Suaram and Hakam.

The police insist on maintaining the present system of investigating their own crimes. It is difficult to find a clearer breach of the most fundamental facet of fair justice.

Nailing the culprits is hindered by the fact that it is often the police word against the circumstantial evidence. The police are in total command. Presenting evidence of culpability is hugely difficult. Meanwhile the deaths continue to mount.

Finally, I hear some say "why care?" After all aren't these the scum of the earth, rightly brought to prison? Two ripostes. First, many of those who died were not convicted of any crime nor even ordered to be charged for any offence. They died while in custody; leaving behind bereaving mothers, brothers, spouses. Ordinary folks like any one of us.

Second, surely every such death diminishes us. In the words of the English 17th century poet John Donne "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee".

Gurdial, former law professor, is vice-president of Hakam, the National Human Rights Society. Hakam is mounting a year-long campaign to staunch deaths in police custody. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com