Thatha, thosai and the lock-up

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Image: themalaymailonline

Prema Devaraj overhears a casual conversation in a thosai shop that prompts her to ponder over deaths in police custody and what measures can be put in place to prevent them.

Last Sunday, as I had breakfast in my favourite thosai shop, I overheard a grandfather sternly tell his little grandson who was less than three feet tall, “ Dei, you better hurry up and finish your thosai; otherwise Thatha will send you to the police lock-up!

I caught my husband’s eye as I choked over my Bru coffee. Thatha was obviously not aware of what can happen in certain police lock ups.

Barely three weeks after a detainee died in police custody at the North Klang police headquarters, we hear of another death in police custody.

This time it is 43-year-old Thanaseelan Muniandy, who was found unconscious in his cell at 1.50am, Saturday at the Bukit Sentosa police station in Hulu Selangor, just several hours after the police brought him to Kuala Kubu Bharu hospital to treat his stomach pain. He was later pronounced dead at the scene.

This brings the number of reported custodial deaths to three in 2017:

  • Soh Kai Chiok died on 18 January at the Bera police station;
  • S Balamurugan was found dead on 8 February at the North Klang police station; and
  • M Thanaseelan died at the Bukit Sentosa lock-up in Hulu Selangor on 25 February.

One cannot help but wonder how is it possible that someone who walks into a police lock up, apparently under the care and protection (ie custody) of the police, is unable to walk out alive? Is it too much to ask?

Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed was quoted in the Star as saying “The home ministry takes these deaths in police custody seriously and will ensure it is thoroughly investigated.” .

A standard response from the deputy home minister – but if the government is really going to take deaths in custody seriously then it should first start by implementing the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), recommended in 2005 by the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police in its report.

The role of the commission is to address the “widespread concerns regarding the high incidence of crime, perception of corruption in the Royal Malaysia Police (Polis Diraja Malaysia, “PDRM”), general dissatisfaction with the conduct and performance of police personnel and a desire to see improvements in the service provided by the police”.

There is a need to investigate and where possible, prosecute rogue police officers. The police cannot be above the law. Inaction against rogue police officers only allows the practice of abuse in police lock-ups to continue.

The Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission has said it will be investigating the death of M Thanaseelan. In his statement, its chairperson, Yaacob Md Sam, urged all PDRM officers and officials to obey the PDRM Lock-Up Management SOP, issued by Bukit Aman on 21 April 2014, which comprehensively details the management of detainees at PDRM lock-ups.

The EAIC, set up to investigate cases of misconduct at government agencies, however, lacks the power to act on the outcomes of its own investigations. It is unclear whether its past recommendations regarding custodial deaths have been implemented.

Other actions which could be taken include quick access to decent medical attention given the number of detainees who seem to suffer from ill health.

As for CCTV cameras, it is beginning to look like these should be placed in all police station lock-ups and in all interview rooms – and really, all interviews should be recorded. It has been said that when people are aware that they will be made to account for the things they say and do, they will behave better.

As further indication of a commitment to ending custodial deaths, the government should also adopt the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, referred to as the UN Convention against Torture, and begin to revamp treatment of detainees in police lock ups, prisons and immigration centres.

Abuse of detainees in detention centres is not particular to Malaysia but happens around the world. But this does not mean it is acceptable.

Our government can sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, like Australia did, and work towards ratifying the protocol. The Australian government has now promised to ratify the protocol (eight years after signing it), which will help bring all its detention sites – including juvenile justice centres and onshore immigration detention centres – under independent scrutiny to stop abuses.

Perhaps our government should also think about having something similar to the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services, which is an independent statutory body focusing on performance standards in custodial facilities (state’s prisons, juvenile detention centres, court custody centres and prescribed lock-up facilities) and the rights of people in detention. It provides a high level of transparency and accountability of the sector through reports to Parliament.

Irrespective of whether a detainee may or may not have committed a crime, they are still human beings. Any punishment meted out can only derive from the due process of law. Otherwise, we will descend into a complete state of lawlessness.

The police are meant to be the guardians of public protection but public trust and respect for the police force is low. As the body count of custodial deaths increase, this trust and respect will drop even lower.

The little boy did not finish his thosai. After pushing the thosai around and around his plate for a while, he carefully climbed down from his seat and walked up to his Thatha. He looked up at his Thatha, who towered over him, and said in a little but firm voice that he would not be eating anymore thosai as he had had enough. Obviously, he was not going to succumb to the police lock-up threat, and Thatha could do his worst.

We too have had enough – enough of deaths in custody and enough of words without action. The call from civil society groups to stop custodial deaths needs to be loud, strong and sustained until the powers that be heed the call and take the necessary action to end all custodial deaths.

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