The Malaysian government should urgently adopt reforms to ensure accountability for deaths in custody and unjustified police shootings, Human Rights Watch has said in a new report.
Independent, external oversight of the Royal Malaysia Police is needed to end police cover-ups, excessive secrecy, and obstruction of investigation into abuses.
The 102-page report “No Answers, No Apology: Police Abuses and Accountability in Malaysia” examines cases of alleged police abuse in Malaysia since 2009, drawing on first-hand interviews and complaints by victims and their families. Human Rights Watch found that investigations into police abuse are conducted primarily by the police themselves, lack transparency, and officers implicated in abuses are almost never prosecuted.
“Malaysia’s police are not accountable to anyone but themselves, and ordinary people across the country too often pay the price with broken bodies and tragically shortened lives,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malaysian government needs to put in place effective oversight of the police to end the wrongful deaths, preventable abuse in custody, and excessive use of force on the streets.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 75 people in Malaysia for the report, including victims of police abuses and their family members, lawyers, police officials including the current Inspector General of Police, public prosecutors, and staff members of government commissions and non-governmental organisations.
The lack of police accountability facilitates abusive and sometimes deadly police practices, Human Rights Watch said. Vague policies, substandard training, lack of transparency, and failure of leadership to investigate and prevent illegal practices all create opportunities for police abuse.
The Malaysian government and the Inspector General of Police have appeared to abdicate their responsibility by not making the policy changes necessary to ensure effective oversight and accountability in cases of wrongful deaths, mistreatment in custody, and excessive use of force. Their unwillingness to ensure that the police cooperate with oversight bodies, such as the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) and the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC), or to establish a specialised independent police investigatory body as recommended by the Royal Commission has worsened the problem.
In an interview, then-Deputy Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar (now the Inspector General of Police) told Human Rights Watch that police could use lethal force for “self-protection … if police are threatened with death [and] there is no time to use a less lethal weapon.”
But Human Rights Watch’s investigations found an apparent pattern of police seeking to justify fatal shootings by asserting that a suspect had a parang (a type of machete) or posed a menace to police during a car chase or avoiding a roadblock. Yet even when these accounts plainly contradicted witness accounts, police rarely investigated their own officers’ claims. Often police from the same station carried out the investigation of their colleague’s alleged abuses.
The government has shown no inclination to change its practices to reduce police abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Minister of Home Affairs, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who oversees the police, said in October 2013, “[W]e no longer compromise with [criminals]. There is no need to give them any warning. If we get the evidence, we shoot first.”
“Malaysian police evidently believe that their at times outrageous public statements on shooting deaths won’t be subject to competing evidence and accounts in the media,” Robertson said. “And so far, sadly victims have little recourse because police investigate themselves, ignore external oversight requests and manipulate the system.”
‘A Major Problem’
Deaths in police custody in Malaysia are a major problem, Human Rights Watch said. Demands for police accountability are hampered by weaknesses in government pathologists’ post-mortem examinations that typically do not consider whether death may have resulted from police mistreatment. Many victims’ families seek a second post-mortem to get an independent appraisal of the cause of death.
Victims of police abuse in Malaysia who do report abusive treatment or question police conduct have little chance of seeing the police investigated, punished, or prosecuted. The police’s excessive secrecy means that victims and their families rarely learn whether their complaint is being investigated or any disciplinary action has been taken. Police standing orders often remain classified as state secrets.
“I filed a complaint about my son’s death, but I don’t know what happens next,” said Sapiah Mohd Ellah, mother of Mohd Afham Arin, 20, shot by the police in Johor Baru in 2010. “We never hear what action the police are taking. No answers, no apology.”
Even existing external oversight mechanisms, such as Suhakam and the EAIC, have had little success gaining access to police case files, key police standing orders governing use of force and firearms, and other information required to conduct meaningful investigations. In its investigation into alleged abuses that took place during the Bersih 3.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur in April 2012, Suhakam complained that the police failed to cooperate in identifying police personnel who used excessive force, including beating peaceful protesters and journalists.
Human Rights Watch recommended that the Malaysia government should create an independent, external commission tasked solely to investigate complaints about police misconduct and abuse and endow the commission with all necessary powers to investigate, compel cooperation from witnesses and government agencies, subpoena documents, and submit cases for prosecution. In the meantime, reforms should be made to improve the performance of the EAIC.
“Malaysia’s politicians and police are failing the test when it comes to providing justice to victims of abuses,” Robertson said. “The impact goes beyond those directly harmed, creating dangerous mistrust between the police and the communities they patrol.”