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Policing the Police

Human rights, politics and the police

by G Lim

black eye
Anwar's assault was noticed

The idea that police force should be the protectors of the innocent received a massive blow in September 1998 when Anwar Ibrahim was assaulted under police custody.

Yet in many ways, Anwar was one of the lucky ones. He had the position and the media attention to ensure that his assault was noticed. He was also educated enough to know his rights and how to defend them.

His assailant, IGP Rahim Nor, was thus brought to book, although many feel that he got off lightly.

If the head of the country’s police force can beat up the country’s former deputy prime minister in custody and receive only a short prison sentence, what is happening in the rest of the police system?

Deaths in Police Custody

In the past few months, two suspects have died at the same lock-up in Putrajaya.

One of them, M Ragubathy, had had a heart condition since age 11. Despite this, police allegedly ignored his complaints of chest pains for six days. By the time he was taken to hospital, it was too late.

The post-mortem on the other, S. Tharma Rajen, who had been detained for sixty-six days, found that his body was ‘malnourished and emaciated’.

These two cases are just the latest in an alarming string of deaths of suspects in police custody.

Woo Boon Leng, a fifteen year old boy, was detained in March 1995 by four policemen, accompanied by a civilian. What happened next has never firmly been established, but it ultimately led to the death of this young man.

The policemen first claimed he was the victim of a traffic accident, and then said he drowned trying to escape custody.

At the coroner’s inquest into the death, however, the pathologist testified that there was no water in Boon Leng’s lungs, so he could not have drowned.

The court also heard a catalogue of non-compliance with police procedures, including transporting the boy in a civilian’s car.

Although the court was unable to determine the exact cause of the boy’s death, it left little doubt that the policemen and the civilian involved were responsible both for his death and for attempting to hide the cause of his death.

Newspaper reports at the time suggested that the policemen involved were to be charged following the coroner’s decision (NST Aug 2000).

Two years later, however, no charges have been made.

Two months after the death of Woo Boon Leng, another suspect died in police custody.

Lee Quat Leong, a 42 year old mechanic with no previous criminal record, was arrested in April 1995 in relation to a bank robbery.

He died two weeks later, on May 12, after being assaulted in custody.

The death certificate stated cause of death as ‘haemorrhage consistent with blunt trauma to most parts of the body’.

In other word, he was quite literally beaten to death.

Internal police inquiries were apparently unable to indentify Lee’s assaulters.

The Attorney-General thus ordered a judicial inquiry, which found eleven policemen responsible for his death.

Only two of them were ever charged, however. They were found guilty of ‘causing hurt’ to Lee and sentenced to eighteen months.

The sentence was subsequently doubled by the High Court, after the mechanic’s brother applied for the sentence to be reviewed.

At the High Court hearings, the public prosecutor actually argued against an increased sentence, noting that the policemen had also lost their jobs.

In a similar case, two detectives were found guilty in May 2000 of ‘causing hurt’ to an Indonesian robbery suspect, who later died.

The two were given three years jail, stayed pending appeal. A third officer was cleared.

In these three cases, justice has at least partially been done.

Something Amiss in the Police System

But there are many more cases where the complete facts have yet to come to light.

In 1997, a man whose son apparently committed suicide in custody was only informed a month later, by letter.

In 1999, a Keadilan activist was arrested apparently without charge. Eight days later, police ‘left a note’ at his wife’s house to say that he had died.

Also in 1999, the father of a man who died in custody was apparently informed by police that he had died from HIV.

His death certificate, however, stated meningitis as the cause of death, and the father alleged that there were injuries on his body and face.

Most of those who died were poor young men, who probably did not know their rights. A large proportion of them were also foreigners.

Cases such as these must raise the suspicion that there is something serious amiss in the police system. How many more people have been beaten, starved or tortured in police custody that we do not know about?

Victims Survived

torture There have been many more cases of alleged assault in custody, where the victims survived.

The case of How Soon Hock is one horrifying example.

Arrested on a robbery charge in October 2000, How was shot in the head and blinded by a policeman during a remand interview four days later.

How alleged that the policeman was ‘playing Russian roulette’, shooting at How with one bullet in the chamber. He also claims that he was electrocuted and beaten on the soles of his feet.

The policeman involved denied the charge, claiming that the gun simply ‘exploded’ as he was putting it in his holster.

In recent months, two victims of police brutality have successfully sued the police and the Government for damages.

In July, a golf caddy was awarded RM9,334 after being assaulted in August 1994, while on remand for arson charges – for which he was given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

The following month the Sessions Court found the police and the Government liable for the assault of a hotel worker whilst detained in November 1997, and awarded him RM14,042 in damages.

During the trial, the court heard that the victim had been beaten over 200 times with a hosepipe, had newspaper shoved into his mouth, and molten wax dripped onto his private parts.

Other cases have been settled out of court. In 1998, a Kedah farmer was paid RM30,000 by the Government to settle a civil suit claiming police brutality.

Such settlements are convenient for the Government and the officers involved as they avoid an official court finding of liability.

There are an estimated 15-20 such civil suits relating to police brutality waiting to be heard in Penang and Kedah alone.

One such case in Langkawi relates to a contractor allegedly shot in the leg and kicked in the head by police.

635 Killed in 10 Years

And some suspects do not even make it as far as the police lock-up. Over the ten years until May 1999, 635 people were killed by the police, prompting accusations of a ‘trigger-happy’ police force.

In 1999, headlines were made when a young doctor suffered ‘accidental’ death from a police bullet. In another incident, a bank clerk was shot by police who mistook him for a robber.

In an important case last year, the Government also admitted liability for the death of a boy shot by a policeman who apparently ran amok.

These are the cases where we know the victims were innocent. But the truth is that all six hundred were legally innocent, because they had not been proved guilty.

Consider the recent death of Malaysia’s ‘most wanted man’, Ahmad Mohd Arshad a.k.a. Mat Komando.

Ahmad was killed in a shoot-out with police.

Whilst Ahmad may well have been responsible for the string of crimes attributed to him, it is nonetheless disturbing to read in the newspapers that police apparently consider his death as having ‘solved’ over fifty cases.

A trigger-happy police suggests a force that has no respect for the legal system and the due process of law.

Such an attitude is also demonstrated in the appalling practice of rearrest. On numerous occasions, suspects found innocent by the Courts have immediately been rearrested by the police.

Only recently, ten men found innocent of murder were rearrested while leaving the court under detention without trial laws, making a mockery of judicial process.

Incidentally, these ten men had earlier complained to a magistrate that they had been beaten and forced to eat human faeces whilst in custody.

The Government Response

The government response to this growing crisis in the police force has been woefully inadequate.

Anwar received a Royal Commission into his injuries because his battered face was seen on televisions around the world. But this was the exception, not the norm.

After this report was completed, an important decision was made in the High Court relating to the case of six men, including four Rela members and an MIC politician, shot dead in a van by police in 1998.

The policemen involved, acting on a tip-off that the van was involved in arms smuggling, claimed that the men had fired first and that they had been acting in self-defense.

At the original inquest into the deaths, the magistrate had found that the ‘police had acted in a reasonable manner and in self-defense’. On September 17, however, a high court judge reversed this decision.

The facts of the case speak for themselves.

Damage to the van demonstrated that shots were coming from outside the van only. In addition, there were no bullet holes in any police cars, nor were any of the policemen involved injured.

Photographs of the dead men taken at the scene did not show them holding any guns, nor were there any guns near their bodies.

The police fired a total of 47 bullets in 20 seconds, most of which hit the victims in the head, even though police mobility should have been impaired according to the police version of events.

The High Court judge said that he was ‘quite stunned’ by the magistrate’s decision and recorded a verdict of death by misadventure, opening the way for the case to be investigated further.

Whether any further action is taken, we will have to wait and see.

The normal response to allegations of human rights abuses by the police has been an outright denial followed immediately by no action whatsoever.

Indeed, simply raising the possibility that the police might abuse their position has frequently brought the full weight of the government to bear.

In 1996, a number of NGOs tried to organise a public forum on police brutality. After criticism from many government quarters, the forum was cancelled when the Home Office threatened to arrest participants under the ISA.

Later, when Raja Aziz Addruse, the president of the Human Rights Association (HAKAM) suggested that the police might be ‘trigger-happy’, he was publicly criticised by Mahathir.

Suhakam also came in for widespread criticism from ministers following its inquiry into the Kesas Highway demonstrations. Dr Mahathir himself accused the Commission of ‘not acting in the interests of the nation’ and urged its members to ‘think as Malaysians’.

In its findings, Suhakam reported that abuse of human rights by the police was due to their attitude of ‘total denial and domination’. The same phrase could be used for the government’s response to allegations of police brutality.

Something is seriously amiss in our police force. Fifteen year old boys are beaten up and die in custody. A pregnant woman is shot by police. Yet the government’s response is to berate and accuse those who dare raise these issues.

Our democracy will be destroyed if we do not uphold the rule of the law. The police, as guardians of the law must observe this principle.

Some Recent Deaths in Police Custody




Reason for Detention

Official Cause of Death

Circumstance of Death

Woo Boon Leng




March 1995





Arrested March 1995. Police informed hospital that Woo was found near a toll plaza and was believed to be an accident victim. Police subsequently claim that Woo drowned trying to escape, but post-mortem shows the boy died elsewhere and was placed in the water after death. In June 2000, a coroner's court finds 4 policemen responsible for his death.


Lee Quat Leong


May 1995



Internal bleeding


Arrested April 27 in relation to a bank break-in, died May 12 from multiple injuries. Death certificate stated cause of death as "haemorrhage consistent with blunt trauma to most parts of the body". Inquiry find 11 policemen criminally responsible for his death, but only 2 charged, who receive 18 month sentences, later increased to 36 months.



Aug 1997


Head injuries caused by fall

The deceased, an Indonesian, was arrested in relation to the theft of wrist-watches. According to the policemen, the man fell over whilst resisting arrest. Taken to hospital, he later died from head injuries.

R Shanmugam







First detained under suspicion of robbery June 25, 1997. Released and rearrested twice, the final time on drug charges. Found hanged in cell August 31. Family question whether he committed suicide.

Othman Hashim


Dec 1997



Detained December 16, 1997 and died the following day, having apparently hanged himself with a towel. Father informed of death a month later in a letter dated January 21, 1998.

Kasim Buadi


Feb 1998


Heart attack

Seven witnesses saw Kasim being assaulted by plainclothes police detectives when he was arrested February 1, 1998. Kasim, an Indonesian national, died in custody 3 days later. Indonesian Embassy questioned how a man who was "healthy and used to hard work" could have a heart attack at age 27.

T. Singaravalu




Liver failure due to alcohol

Remanded by police and was expected to be charged for rioting with a dangerous weapon. Family claimed that his body was bruised and that the police had delayed informing them of the death.

Roflee Bakar




Aug 1998



Detained August 25, 1998 after plain clothes policemen raided his house. Roflee, a drinks and rojak seller, is alleged to have already been ill when detained and is claimed to have been beaten up both on arrest, and later in the lock-up. Roflee died three days later.

Sariman Rashid


March 1999



Sessions Court finds 2 policemen guilty of assaulting Sariman whilst in custody in order to extort a confession. Sarinab died the same day. One other policeman cleared. The 2 policemen were sentenced to three years jail, stayed pending appeal.

Anuar Sharip


Aug 1999



Arrested August 10, died eight days later. Family not informed of reason for detention or how he died. Lawyers have cited a death certificate saying that the body had severe bruising and "multiple lacerations and lesions" on the neck, chest and abdomen.

Francis Nathan


Oct 1999



Police tell father that cause of death was HIV, but father reports bruising and lacerations on the body and face. Death certificate states meningitis as cause of death.

Tharma Rajen Subramaniam


June 2002



Detained without charge under the Emergency Ordinance for involvement in gangsterism in April 2002. Sent to hospital some time around 16 June, died 21 June. Initial burial certificate recorded pneumonia as cause of death; subsequent postmortem found that he had died of TB. Postmortem also noted "malnourished and emaciated" state of body, and abrasions on wrists. Family members claim that Tharma Rajen was beaten in custody, and had bruises and cuts on his body. Investigating magistrate refuses to accept complaint of mistreatment, and refuses to allow family to photograph body

M Ragubathy


July 2002



Ragubathy had a heart condition since age 11. Arrested July 18, started complaining of chest pains July 20. Police finally took him to a clinic on July 26, died the following day. His cousin, who was detained at the same time, claimed that both he and Ragubathy were beaten on their body and the soles of their feet.

S Vivashanu Pillai


Aug 2002



Vivsshanu arrested with seven others on Aug. 1, but was reported to have escapted custody the next day. Body found in the river on Aug. 4. Mother lodges police report, claiming 'there was something amiss' with his death.

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