Asia-Pacific

'Culture of impunity': People keep dying in Malaysian police custody

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SBS News meets the families of victims hoping Malaysia's new government will implement a promised police misconduct body.

Jarni Blakkarly reports from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

For Balraj Suppiah the pain of losing his brother in 2017 is made all the more difficult by the brutality of his death.

S. Balamurugan, 44, was arrested on suspicion of car robbery and was allegedly beaten badly by police officers while in custody.

A postmortem found 20 blunt force trauma injuries had been inflicted on Mr Balamurugan’s head, abdomen and limbs.

Balraj Suppiah and his wife Ganeshwari Moorthy
Balraj Suppiah and his wife Ganeshwari Moorthy.
SBS News

When he appeared in court, he began coughing up blood and the judge ordered he be released to hospital.

But police ignored the ruling and returned him to a cell where he was found dead the next morning.

“We saw him in the morgue and we saw that he was really badly damaged,” Balraj told SBS News.

No one has been convicted over his death. 

It is just one of 143 deaths in police custody in the ten years from 2008 until 2018.

The incidents have shone a light on a police force many say is in desperate need of reform.

There were 143 deaths in police custody between 2008 and 2018.

Dobby Chew, from Malaysian human rights advocacy group Suaram, said that a culture of non-liability persists among the country’s police force.

“Those involved in deaths in custody are still in the force … They get off, they essentially walk away with no criminal record, no sanction by the state and it perpetuates this idea that ‘I can get away with it’,” Mr Chew said.

In a 2016 report the country’s human rights commission SUHAKAM found the police rarely followed best practice procedures and that work on previous recommendations to reduce deaths in custody was severely lacking.

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Malaysian families of death in police custody victims call for reform
Malaysian families of death in police custody victims call for reform

At the last general election in May, Malaysia’s government changed for the first time in 61 years since independence. 

Before the election, the Pakatan Harapan opposition promised to introduce an independent body to investigate police misconduct, including deaths in custody.

But ten months into the new administration and some are questioning whether they will follow through, amidst push back from the police who have raised concerns about the body.

The Royal Malaysia Police, the national police force, declined to be interviewed on the topic of deaths in custody and didn’t answer written questions from SBS News.

Lawyer M. Visvanathan says he has doubts about whether the police oversight body will be introduced.
Lawyer M. Visvanathan says he has doubts about whether the police oversight body will be introduced.
SBS

Lawyer M. Visvanathan, who has worked on multiple death in custody cases, says he has doubts about whether the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) will be introduced.

“At this particular moment, I am a little sceptical about whether this commission is going to be set up because there is a lot of resistance from the police force. And of course, within the ruling government itself there are some quarters within that think the IPCMC is not a good thing,” he said.

But Federal Deputy Minister Sivarasa Rasiah told SBS News the government would follow through on its promise.

“The culture of impunity which we have seen in the police is not going to change overnight. But once we have set up the Commission, once cases are investigated properly independently and action is taken, the message will start to sink in. Then I think we will start to see changes in behaviour,” he said.

The culture of impunity which we have seen in the police is not going to change overnight.

- Sivarasa Rasiah, Malaysian government minister

Rita Chandran was just a teenager when her father Chandran Perumal, 47, died in police custody in 2012 due to medical complications.

He was on daily medication for heart problems but was denied his medication while in custody.

She says despite the years passing since his death, the family is still waiting for closure.

Rita Chandran
Rita Chandran, right, was just a teenager when her father died in police custody.
SBS

A Coroner’s court later ruled police negligence was responsible for his death, but criminal charges were not brought against the officers involved.

“We need justice for my father’s case, but until now we haven’t got anything,” Ms Chandran said. 

Malaysia is a multi-racial country and Suaram’s Chew said that while Indian-Malaysians make up between seven to nine per cent of the general population, they are between 20 to 30 per cent of the prison population.

He says Indian-Malaysians, like Mr Balamurugan and Mr Chandran, are disproportionately represented in deaths in custody cases as well.

Mr Chew added it is important that the government doesn’t back away from its promised reform of the police force.

“Not only will the public start shunning them because ‘what happened to the reform you promised?’. But also I think if they are taking a big step back, they are saying ‘I am not in control of my police force anymore’,” he said.

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