Bar: Unabated deaths in custody; police cannot police themselves

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Aliran members were among those who protested outside the central lock-up in Bayan Baru on Mother's Day 2014

The Malaysian Bar calls on the IGP to take concrete and immediate action, as this is a matter of utmost public interest that warrants the highest level of priority, writes Steven Thiru.

The Malaysian Bar notes that Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar has reportedly pledged that any police personnel involved in the death in custody of Syed Mohd Azlan Syed Mohamed Nur would be brought to justice.

It is shocking that individuals continue to die in such highly suspicious circumstances while under the care of the police. The report recently released by the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission is a severe indictment of the management and protection of detainees being held in custody. It points to a deeply entrenched and systemic problem within the police force that defies resolution.

The Malaysian Bar is concerned that the IGP’s announcement may be a mere platitude, as deaths in custody have continued unabated, despite the news in May 2013 that the IGP would head a special committee established to take measures to prevent deaths in police lockups.

In the wake of the death in police custody of N Dhamendran at that time, Minister of Home Affairs Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had reportedly proposed that closed-circuit surveillance cameras be installed in all holding cells in police lock-ups and that detainees should be held in centralised holding centres instead of police lock-ups, with adequate monitoring and CCTV coverage.

He had also announced that the standard operating procedures for police interrogations would be re-evaluated.

A year later, the Minister announced in May 2014 that CCTVs would be installed in all police lock-ups, as only one police station lock-up had a CCTV then.

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The Malaysian Bar calls upon the IGP and the Minister to now provide a comprehensive account of the steps that have been taken in the intervening 17 months, and to account for the failure of the measures intended to eradicate the occurrence of deaths in custody.

Death in custody, especially by foul means or under dubious conditions, is among the most heinous crimes imaginable in a civilised society under the rule of law. The present state of affairs has led to much public outrage and an erosion of confidence in the police.

The police must be proactive in ensuring that the wrongful actions of some amongst them do not tarnish the standing of the whole force. Unless this is addressed, the police force will unfortunately remain a diminished institution in the eyes of the public.

Such tragedies reinforce the Malaysian Bar’s repeated calls for the government to implement the recommendation of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police, in its report published in May 2005, for the setting up of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission to function as an independent and external oversight body to investigate complaints about police personnel and to make the police accountable for their conduct.

The Malaysian Bar calls on the IGP to take concrete and immediate action, as this is a matter of utmost public interest that warrants the highest level of priority. Public confidence can only be restored and justice seen to be done if swift action is taken to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

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We also call on all government authorities to further strengthen the standard operating procedures in every circumstance of detention and custody to ensure the safety and welfare of detainees.

Every death in custody is inexcusable, and Syed Mohd Azlan Syed Mohamed Nur’s demise is another death in custody that demonstrates that the police are unable to police themselves.

Steven Thiru is president of the Malaysian Bar. 

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