At long last, the Ministry of Home Affairs ordered the police and the relevant authorities to conduct a comprehensive investigation into deaths in custody – and said that it is prepared, through the police, “to improve the standard operating procedure (SOP) on the detention of suspects in lockups from time to time to ensure deaths under custody did not recur”.
Such action is long overdue. The number of death-in-custody cases has reached a tipping point – in numbers and, alarmingly, the frequency of their occurrence.
Hakam laments that it did not bestir the authorities to act to staunch this avalanche of cases any sooner. In fact, the ministry’s order came in response to a memorandum by human rights groups, who also called for a special independent taskforce to be set up to investigate the recent deaths of detainees, namely, A Ganapathy, S Sivabalan and now, more lately, Umar.
Late as it comes, nonetheless the move to act is welcomed. Better late than never.
But there are concerns. The investigation by an in-house police team may not inspire confidence, especially since a litany of diverse reasons have always emerged from the authorities to explain the death.
Reportedly, from 2011 to 2018, there were a total of 104 deaths in custody. The reasons: 56 “medical” cases, 8 “suicides”, two “accidents”, four by “blunt force” and 34 “unknown”.
Significantly, grave disquiet exists over a lack of transparency and accountability of the post-mortem examination of the deceased.
A key provision of the still-born IPCMC – a body independent of the police to conduct investigation into such cases and initiate the appropriate remedial and other enforcement measures – was reportedly opposed by police factions.
While an inquest under the Criminal Procedure Code could do much to assuage concerns, as it will be subject to public scrutiny. However, the evidence presented to the coroner will [be] of the investigations undertaken by the police.
Hakam calls for immediate and serious independent action to resolve this scourge of deaths in custody.
Gurdial Singh Nijar is president of Hakam