Suaram: Police initiative needed for lasting solution to deaths in their custody

Suaram programme manager Dobby Chew speaks at the launch of the Suaram Human Rights Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur December 9, 2019. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Suaram programme manager Dobby Chew speaks at the launch of the Suaram Human Rights Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur December 9, 2019. — Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 9 — The police’s change in attitude to take charge is required if Malaysia is to have lasting changes to the problem of detainees dying in police custody, human rights watchdog Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) said today.

Suaram programme manager Dobby Chew said police should be given credit where it is due, noting that the recorded known cases of police custodial deaths so far for 2019 at only six cases is the lowest in the past 20 years.

“The next lowest that we have is seven, which is about two decades ago.

“But what should be noted is that the numerical reduction is good, but I don’t think there is any systematic change on how they address it, which is a big concern,” he cautioned, noting how the figures for custodial deaths could easily jump back up without structural changes.

Chew was presenting Suaram’s annual human rights report for the year 2019, where six deaths in police custody was cited as having been reported for the period of January to October 2019.

This was lower than Suaram’s compilation in previous years of 2018 (eight deaths in police custody), 2017 (10), 2016 (15), and 2015 (12).

Suaram’s report that the years where seven cases of police custodial deaths were reported were in 2009 and 2000.

When asked for procedural or structural reforms that could be done to address deaths in police custody, Chew said that the biggest reform that could be easily implemented would be how the police handle such incidents.

Noting the example of a police station chief last year immediately contacting the EAIC for a joint investigation on such a custodial death, Chew said: “I think steps like those, we don’t need any legal amendments or policy amendments. You just need the police chief themselves willing to be accountable.”

Pointing out that some of the custodial cases would realistically have possible elements of power abuse or violations, he said: “And those you can’t run away from it. If your officers have done something wrong and caused a death, then don’t try to run away from it because eventually the truth will come out.”

He said that there were other cases where the blame for custodial deaths is not clear-cut such as when medical issues are not treated in time.

“Sure they have a duty of care towards detainees, but sometimes there are very rational reasons that people can understand, people can empathise or people can say ‘there’s a problem but we can address it. It’s not anyone’s fault but yes it did happen’.

“But before we can even get to that stage the police themselves need to be the one that is accountable and willing to say, ‘yes, we might have messed up that, or there may have been some misconduct or some oversight but the death happened, we need to investigate and not hide it away’,” he said.

Chew said there would be no significant changes even if the proposed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission is eventually formed, if the police do not assume responsibility on their own initiative for such custodial deaths.

“And until the day we fix that part, we can amend the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) like we did, we introduced the inquest process, we can introduce IPCMC and have them do investigations, but until the day police themselves is the one that comes out and says something has happened, we need to investigate, the status quo is not going to change much,” he said, adding that Malaysia would then go back to “square one” very quickly.

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Jerald Joseph, who was present as a member of the audience during the Suaram report launch, said statistics of custodial deaths cannot be taken just at face value.

He pointed out that it was important to find out what are the causes of such deaths, as some of these could be due to natural causes.

“So having a medical personnel is actually the answer. And Suhakam has been pushing the government to have custodial medical units at the lock-ups.

“We hear the good news that beginning of the year, it’s going to be launched in five centralised lock-ups, it’s a good start. That will determine whether these numbers make any sense,” he said during the question-and-answer session.

Jerald also said prisons should also be asked to implement similar reforms, noting that prisons have the largest population of detainees with hundreds of custodial deaths annually.

“We know some people are incarcerated for a long time, so it could be natural causes. Are there factors that caused the death early, negligence or even torture? I think every death must be taken seriously, must be investigated, so I think that’s the quality debate we are now moving into, we can push this government to do better in doing that.

According to Suaram’s report, there were 252 deaths in prisons in 2015, 269 in 2016, and a calculated figure of 319 in 2017 based on publicly available information.

Suaram said however that the actual figures for 2018 and 2019 were unavailable for now.

Suaram’s report also listed deaths during immigration custody as 87 in 2015, 40 in 2016, 24 in 2017, 32 in 2018 and 37 in 2019.

The report is the 22nd edition released by Suaram, which also marked its 30th anniversary this year. 

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