Custodial deaths: This time, heads must roll!

Custodial deaths: This time, heads must roll!
In Malaysia, the number of deaths in police custody is significantly high and has become a matter of public concern and scrutiny. Photo for illustration purpose
KUALA LUMPUR: On March 20, another custodial death has allegedly taken place in Tapah prison in Perak.

R. Siva, 30 was supposed to have been released on March 20 but when a family member went to the prison to bring him home, he learnt the unbelievable: the detainee had died and his body taken to the Tapah Hospital, awaiting post-mortem.

As news of his death in police lock up resurfaced, one can expect the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) to dutifully announce that the agency would investigate the matter.

It is only the first-quarter of the year and already four custodial deaths have been reported, to date.

The EAIC had reportedly confirmed several weeks ago that it has formed a task force aimed at investigating the deaths of two inmates -- Soh Kai Chiok at the Bera district police headquarters in Pahang on Jan 18 and S. Balamurugan at the Klang Utara district police headquarters in Selangor -- on Feb 8.

This was followed by the investigation of M.Thanaseelan at the Bukit Sentosa police station lock up in Hulu Selangor on Feb 25.

Unhappy that the family was not notified, a police report was lodged.
The Opposition pact, the Bar Council and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) have repeatedly called for the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).

The IPCMC was recommended by a 2005 Royal Commission of Inquiry but it never saw the light of day.

The government seemed 'reluctant' to establish IPCMC and has said that there is no need for such an agency as the EAIC already exists.

The EAIC is best described as a 'watered-down' substitute to the IPCMC and Bar Council president Steven Thiru had claimed that the EAIC has no focus on the police force.

According to the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) statistics, 64 Malays, 30 Chinese and 28 Indians - a total of 122 - died in custody from 2000 to 2010.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) in its 2014 report said the number of deaths in police custody increased to 20 from nine in 2013.

From 2000 to February 2014, 242 detainees died while in police custody.

Just take the year 2017 and already four custodial deaths were reported in the last three months.

Although the causes of these fatalities were recorded as illnesses like asthmatic attacks, HIV or AIDS, cardiac arrests, suicide, fatal falls and fights, the fact remained that deaths had occurred.

In the same report, Suhakam said in Malaysia, the number of deaths in police custody is significantly high and has become a matter of public concern and scrutiny.

“While the police has the duty and responsibility to maintain peace and order and to arrest any person who has broken the laws, there is also the duty and responsibility to protect the person detained from any harm whether inflicted by himself or others," Suhakam said.

Even with the media highlights on custodial deaths and uproar from the society and the Opposition, these deaths continue to occur and the question of who is responsible remain unanswered.

At the risk of sounding petty, the government seemed adamant of not wanting to set up the IPCMC -- which is why it should provide more power to the EAIC and deal severely with rogue policemen.

The increasing number of deaths every year is alarming and shows the lack of political will to address it.

The one thing that is important to note is that custodial deaths are never about a particular race or something that affects people of a particular income bracket.

Like it or not, it can happen to anyone. Someone picked up for questioning or for being in the company of men wanted by police, can end up lifeless in a police lock-up.

It is time to take concrete action to stop these deaths. Police or the authorities should not be allowed to get away with another senseless death.

And this time, heads must roll!