Malaysians step up to end deaths behind bars

EDICT spokesman M. Visvanathan says it’s not true that only guilty people die in custody. — Picture by Choo Choy May
EDICT spokesman M. Visvanathan says it’s not true that only guilty people die in custody. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 14 ― Lawyers and activists have banded together to form EDICT, Malaysia's first-ever group that is solely focused on stopping abuse and deaths in custody.

EDICT spokesman M. Visvanathan said there is currently no specific NGO set up to seek a holistic solution to deaths in custody.

“It's a very big problem actually. I think nobody should die in custody, we are a country that prides itself in building KLCC, MRT.

“We have developed so far, we have grown as a nation and we have accomplished many things but why is it that we cannot keep people alive in prisons, in detention camps, or in lockups? Why do they die? If they can walk in, surely they can walk out, why do they need to come out on a stretcher dead?” he told Malay Mail in a recent interview.

As a lawyer, Visvanathan has dealt with multiple custodial death cases.

Sharing numerous “horror stories” of custodial deaths that he believed to merely be the “tip of the iceberg”, Visvanathan said it was a problem that could strike anyone regardless of their race and even if they were not proven guilty in court.

“I think the time is ripe for an NGO of this sort to be set up, simply because I think not many people understand and appreciate the hardships that families go through and what lawyers actually face in going to court with regards to matters like this. There are many setbacks.

“And the public perception is that if you are arrested and die in custody, you are a guilty person, only guilty people or bad people die in custody. It's not true, it's absolutely not true, even innocent people can die in custody, I think that's the sad reality of the situation,” he said.

The start of mindset change

EDICT was formed on November 18 after a group of 16 individuals ― lawyers, human rights activists, a doctor, journalists ― decided to move forward with the idea after months of discussion, Visvanathan said. It will be officially launched in January 2018.

EDICT seeks to build public awareness on both abuses and deaths in police custody and in prisons for a start, and also sees itself as an ally that can work in “partnership” with the authorities for institutional reforms and systemic changes.

“It's a partnership, we would like to work together. That's why it's called EDICT ― Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together,” he said.

He said most custodial deaths are avoidable, as long as Malaysians are willing to acknowledge it and make a stand refusing to let it happen in a “progressive, democratic country like Malaysia”.

“The whole idea is to make the system work a little better, so that you and I feel safe ultimately. Everyone should be safe going into police station, they are our friends, they should make us feel safe and not otherwise. We should not be afraid of the boys in blue.

“So it is a changing of mindset, it is trying to approach and engage the authorities, saying let's do this, let's make a change, we can, if we work together We are not going to go and confront you saying you are the bad guy; we are saying in this particular case things didn't go well, here are our recommendations and our proposals to improve things,” he said.

Visvanathan said everyone in society needs to play a role, noting that it would take the public to highlight the problem before politicians become more interested in finding solutions instead of having custodial deaths temporarily becoming headlines that are soon forgotten.

EDICT's work

Visvanathan said EDICT as an apolitical organisation will compile statistics and keep track of custodial deaths, as well as document and archive them to prepare reports as proof to the government that the system is “seriously wrong” and that change is required to prevent needless deaths.

Although there may be some overlap with other organisations such as Suaram and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) that also collect data on custodial deaths, EDICT is slightly different as its resources will be fully dedicated to one issue and also provides free legal services to the families of the deceased detainees.

Visvanathan noted that the current legal aid schemes in the country do not cover custodial death cases.

EDICT will also be seeking to provide a support system for both families of those who died in custody and lawyers taking up such cases.

“I think more often than not, families have issues with regards to feeling the loss of a family member, sometimes may be the sole breadwinner who has died.

“Many a time family members have this problem in wanting to share their stories or share their experiences or share their worries with regards to how the future is going to be with regards to the family,” he said, adding that the support has to be “holistic”.

While lack of experience or disinterest in taking up such cases could be an obstacle, lawyers that are willing to take up the cases for custodial death victims also have to be trained to overcome evidential obstacles, he said.

“We are going to work closely with the Bar Council and the state Bars to have training sessions with the members on a state-to-state basis, so that's being worked out as well. And we hope to get a bigger pool of lawyers to come and assist us in this,” he said.

Visvanathan has conducted training in the past for lawyers, including on how to deal with grieving families, how to gather and secure evidence from the onset, how to liaise with police, how to secure a second post-mortem and conduct inquests and civil lawsuits on custodial deaths.

Challenges

Taking up cases involving custodial deaths is not cheap, as inquests and lawsuits can run into thousands of ringgit, with costs also going up for cases requiring travel to other states.

“It's not cheap, everyone says go for second post-mortem. A second post-mortem conducted in PPUM today is going to cost you something like RM15,000 It's about RM15,000 these days so until and unless the family got money, you have no way of conducting this,” he said.

He showed the RM5,000 fee charged by Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (PPUM) this year for the use of facilities and manpower and RM10,000 for the pathologist's professional fees in one of the fatal shooting cases he was handling.

“So funding is of course another factor we are going to look at very seriously, because if you don't have funds, you can't do anything. Lawyers will not take briefs unless you are really passionate about the issue or committed to the cause,” he said.

Change will come

Visvanathan, who has at least 10 active court cases involving custodial deaths and abuse in custody, is optimistic that change will eventually happen as he had even received positive feedback from the police over the years.

“Some of them actually say 'good job, well done'. They tell me off the record, 'although we can't be seen to be supporting you, but we are actually glad you are doing this'...I think after having done all these cases, I think they don't perceive me as an enemy.

“They think the system needs to be improved, I'm just doing my job wanting to see genuine change,” he said, noting that even the perspectives of the judiciary and Attorney-General's Chambers had also been changing.

According to Suhakam's annual report for 2016, official statistics showed that there were 252 deaths in prison and 82 deaths in immigration detention centres for 2015; and 269 and 35 deaths respectively in such facilities for 2016.

In a written parliamentary reply on July 26 to Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto, the Home Minister had said there were 292 deaths in police custody for the 2000-2017 period, including eight cases in 2017 as of June. Out of the 292 deaths in police lockups, two cases ― in 2009 and 2013 ― were attributed to injury caused by the police, while the bulk of it was attributed to illnesses or medical conditions.

In the same reply, the Home Minister said the Prison Department's statistics for 2010 to July 2017 showed that 1,808 detainees had died in hospital while receiving treatment for various medical conditions.