Police brutality, torture and murder

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The front pages of Tamil dailies on the Jan 22 and 23 were splashed with photographs of the gruesome injuries that were discovered on Kugan Ananthan, 22, who died in police custody on Jan 20.

Why didn’t the post-mortem report mention the terrible wounds, marks and bruises found on Kugan’s body? Why are the authorities highlighting the so-called ‘trespass’ at the mortuary and the presence of deputy ministers T Murugiah and K Devamani there when a most brutal murder has been committed?

Just how many cases of police brutality and custodial deaths do Malaysians have to put up with before something is done? In particular, just how much do we, Indian Malaysians, have to put up with, as the remains of our fellow Indians are returned either with multiple shot wounds, decomposed or brutally beaten and tortured with severe marks and bruises, deep cuts and blood oozing from their mouth and nose?

It sends a shiver down my spine to think of the pain, agony and fear they would have undergone at the point of arrest or while in police custody before they eventually died.

We had barely recovered from the incident of B Prabakar where 10 police personnel at the Brickfields police district headquarters had beaten him with a rubber hose, splashed boiling water on his body, and asked him to stand on a chair with a cloth around his neck with a threat to hang him. At a time when the entire police force is under scrutiny both nationally and internationally, they have the audacity to once again behave in such barbaric ways?

It is now the era of numerous incidents of police brutality against criminal suspects resulting in serious injuries and deaths. There is an assumption that if a suspect has been arrested, he must be guilty. Just how many times do we hear the lies that the deceased attacked first and the police acted in self-defence or that the majority of deaths were the result of attempts to escape from police custody and the deaths were due to ‘breathing difficulties’, ‘heart attacks,’ ‘stomach ulcers’ or ‘natural causes’?

Even when they were previously healthy persons. A similar pattern seems to follow in all these injuries and deaths. How easy it is to make allegations after the police have shot those dead - and having no need anymore to proof in court with real evidence the truth of the allegation.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre has recorded several cases of custodial deaths which point the finger at the police. The accounts of their untimely deaths are worth noting:

‘Tharma Rajen was a healthy 20-year-old until he was taken into police custody in April 2002 under the Emergency Ordinance laws of Malaysia. He died two months later. In the post-mortem report, his death is recorded as due to tuberculosis; in the death certificate, pneumonia. Officials prevented his body from being photographed.

‘His family claims he was beaten and abused while in custody and they last saw him alive handcuffed to his bed. Whether the police killed Tharma Rajen deliberately, or whether he died due to negligence and systematic abuse, in either case, they were responsible for his death.’

‘M Rugapathy was 22 years old when arrested in July 2002. Several years earlier, he had had heart surgery and required a regular medical supplement to survive. Under detention, he began to complain of extreme chest pains and was unable to sleep, but the police refused him medical attention, even though from the eight-inch scar on his chest, they could see he was not lying.

‘Only when he began vomiting did he receive scant care from an attendant (not a doctor) at a clinic, but he died on July 28 of congestive heart failure. His family was never informed of his condition while in custody.’

‘In November 2002, Sundara Raju, aged 32, was found unconscious while in custody, allegedly having been beaten by fellow inmates. He died three days later. In dozens of cases like his, the only information available is that the victim was already found wounded or dead and no efforts were made by the authorities to reveal what actually happened to the inmate. ‘

‘After his arrest on Aug 1, 2002, Vivashanu Pillai, aged 24, was found dead in a rubbish trap. He was so mutilated that even his mother could not identify him, when she was informed on Aug 6 that he had escaped from prison and been found dead a couple of days before. It was only a fellow detainee who could recognise him from injuries sustained while in police custody. The police claimed he had escaped three days earlier, but certain facts suggest otherwise.

‘First, he was handcuffed while in custody. Secondly, the police never initiated any proper procedures to recapture an escapee. They did not give chase, publish photographs, search the homes of family members, or set up roadblocks. When the body was recovered, they prohibited photographs from being taken.

‘Nor did the police even attempt to dispel allegations of a cover-up during a press conference held five days after the body was found.’

These are shocking indictments of the police. But in Malaysia, despite the protests from the Tamil community, lawyers, human rights groups, citizens and politicians, they have been largely ignored. Elsewhere where the rule of law is properly practised, the police would have been taken to task.

'In 1998 in Tumpat, Kelantan six men were shot dead by the police using 47 bullets. There was no evidence to the police’s claim that they acted in ‘self-defence’ in that they were shot at by the men. Multiple gunshots were found on the heads, foreheads and eyes of the six victims. It was never established that gunshots came from the six men as claimed by the police; more shockingly no forensic investigation was ever carried out on the guns allegedly seized from the deceased persons.

'In Nilai, Negeri Sembilan V Vikines, 19, Puvaneswaran, 24, and T Kathiravan, 25, were shot dead after the police said they ignored orders to surrender and opened fire at the police. There were bruises and marks on the deceased’s face, legs and back. Vikines was said to be an innocent schoolboy who still lived with his family. There was great suspicion of foul play.

'There were no witnesses, no police cars with bullet shots, no wounded policemen. Vikines’s father G Vesvanathan accused then Federal Criminal Investigation Department director Salleh Mat Som of being a ‘liar’ for claiming that his son was a ‘marksman and weapons expert.’ Vikines’ uncle, Silva Govindasamy, questioned the police’s claim that his nephew was involved in about 20 criminal cases.

‘If he was a suspect in so many cases, why didn’t the police approach the school or family? The boy has never been arrested, never harassed, never had a criminal record’. The family also alleged that the police instructed the Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital in Klang not to conduct a second post-mortem on Vikines’ body nor cooperate with them.

'In September 1999, a police constable shot and killed Dr Tai Eng Teck in a car when the latter tried to flee after being ‘caught’ in a compromising position with a Muslim girl. The intention to cause death was evident here as the shots were fired non-stop without knowing who or how many people were in the car and what they were doing.

'The lady who had been with the victim during the incident, testified that they panicked when they heard a loud knock on the windscreen of the car, which was parked at the LRT station. She said they became even more petrified when they heard shouts of anger and the victim decided to drive away fearing that the people were criminal, robbers or religious affairs department's anti-vice officers.

'In August 2002, the semi-decomposed body of Vivashanu Pillai was found in a river after the police claimed that he must have drowned after escaping from the custody of the Dang Wangi police station in Kuala Lumpur. The family alleged that he was killed while in police custody and his body was thereafter dumped into the river

IIn February 2003, Prakash Moses collapsed while being detained at the Jalan Hang Tuah police station detention centre. He died three days later, at the KL Hospital. His son, Steven Moses, claimed that there was a gash on his father’s head that was likely to have caused his death and that his father was well the last time he saw him, three days before his death.

'In March 2003 Kannan Kanthan, 45, died at the Batu Pahat police station in Johor after being arrested three days earlier by the police. While in court he was in good health but at the mortuary, there were injuries on the left eye and right hand and a swollen neck.

'In July 2003, Ulaganathan Muniandy, 19, died in the Kajang police station, Selangor, after being arrested and detained. According to his mother, she visited her son four times and on the last occasion, she saw that he had bruises on his eyes and suffered other injuries, and that he could not sit properly.

'The police claimed that Ulaganathan died from asthma, a cause disputed by the mother as she said that her son was healthy and did not suffer from asthma. Further, the burial certificate issued by the Kajang Hospital only said that the cause of death was ‘undetermined.’

'In August 2003, 28-year-old Ho Kwai See died at the Sungai Buloh Prison after earlier being detained for a week by the Kota Damansara police in Selangor. According to the post-mortem findings, he died from a ‘perforated ulcer.’ Family members suspected foul play after seeing bruises on the body and sought a second post-mortem.

His brother wanted the authorities to explain how an apparently healthy person had died so suddenly while in custody. He claimed his brother did not have any illness and he did not have any stomach pains. There were a lot of blue-black marks on his body. He said that he was unaware of his brother’s arrest and only had an anonymous telephone call informing him that his brother had died.

'In October 2003, Ravichandran Ramayah, 38, died a week after being arrested and detained by the Penang North East police station. Family members claimed that medical needs were not provided to him. Even the order of a magistrate that he be brought to a hospital for medical attention was not adhered to.

'In December 2003, Veerasamy Gopal, 52, died at the Ampang police station in Selangor, after being detained for four days. The police claim that he had died from an infection of the pancreas was contradicted by his family members who alleged that he had been assaulted in the lock-up, leading to his death.

'Also in December 2003, 22-year-old L Yoges Rao died while in the custody at the Sitiawan police station in Perak. Yoges was arrested on drug-related charges and brought to his home by six police personnel who proceeded to assault Yoges by punching him several times in his stomach and abdomen. They then took Yoges into one of the rooms and locked the room from the inside where screams of pain and pleas with the police to stop assaulting him were heard.

'When he was brought out of the room about half-an-hour later, he was vomiting blood. All of this was witnessed by his sister who was at home. He died in police custody the next day. Despite evidence of abuse on Yoges’ body, the burial permit stated that he had died of an stomach ulcer.

'In February 2004, police personnel were alleged to have beaten P. Lingeswaran together with another 19-year-old, P Poobalan, while the two were being detained at the Subang Jaya police station in Selangor. According to a police report, the duo was arrested and blindfolded at the police station before they were beaten with rubber hoses.

'Poobalan had red bruises of about six-inches long on his back and his right hand. There were also swellings on his head, feet and the soles of his feet. As for Lingeswaran, there were (similar) bruises on both his shoulders.

In the famous Francis Udayappan case of 2004, his mother Sara Lily accused the police of beating Francis to death and dumping the body into a river. Her lawyers P Uthayakumar and N Surendran insisted there were many ‘contradictions and gaps’ in the evidence provided by the police and that potential witnesses were not called to testify.

Uthayakumar has aggressively campaigned against police brutality, fatal shootings and deaths of suspects while in police custody. He had campaigned both locally and internationally through the NGO Police Watch and Human Rights Committee. He had sent scores of letters to the prime minister and the ministries concerned. As a result he was intimidated, harassed and persecuted.

However, as a result, in the years 2005, 2006 and 2007, there was a reduction in police ‘shoot to death’ cases. The year 2008, however, has seen a marked and sharp increase in police shooting dead suspects and deaths in custody cases. Since Uthayakumar’s incarceration, his brother P Waythamoorthy (although in exile overseas) has similarly written scores of letters to stop police brutality.

A string of vicious murders by the police on suspects have left the nation loathing and distrusting the police force.It is difficult to believe that these deaths are caused by the very institution that is supposed to protect and preserve justice, even for those who are ‘suspected individuals.’ This is not the usual situation of having to put up with police corruption, misconduct, mistreatment and heavy-handedness as part of our everyday life. This is murder of the worst kind.

It will continue to happen for as long as the police have the discretion and power in their hands to interpret as they like the federal constitution and legal provisions such as Section 117 of the Criminal Procedure Code and the Emergency Ordinance thus denying basic rights such as a suspect’s right to counsel and medical treatment. Here the police are above the law.

Malaysia, by not ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, has failed to adhere yet again to another international human rights standard. Thus the police use unacceptable levels of violence in apprehending and investigating alleged criminals.

Further, magistrates are so ready to grant remand orders without considering and scrutinising the propriety of the arrest, the investigation done in the preceding 24 hours, the connection between the suspect and the crime, whether further investigation are necessary and without paying due consideration to the views of the suspect or his lawyers.

There is general lack of information on an arrest and a suspect’s telephone call is not regarded as a right and is discretionary. Family members and lawyers are usually given the runaround concerning the place of detention and access to the suspect and details as to when the suspect is to be brought to court for a remand order or to be charged are also often denied.

There is lack of independence, accountability and transparency on the part of the police in its investigation of allegations of police brutality. There is accusation of collusion with hospitals to ensure that no cooperation is given to family members and lawyers who demand evidence of abuse and impropriety. Compulsory inquests are not done for all cases of death in police custody or police shooting.

If so done, the inquests are often postponed due to the unavailability of medical records or hospital authorities to verify these reports as evidence. The demand for a second and independent post-mortem procedures on the deceased as requested by the family members quite often fall on deaf ears or is refused by the police thus the need for a court order.

The doctor who testify at inquests often appear to be defensive and are not interested in testifying candidly and truthfully. Counsel for the family members of the deceased also have a difficult time during cross-examination, as the presiding magistrates are over-zealous in defending the testifying witnesses.

Where they are implicated, the charges brought against the police personnel never commensurate with the severity of the crime committed or charges are made only against the lowest-ranking personnel involved. They often proceed knowing they will get away with it or they will be ‘bailed out’ later.

In short the system stinks.

The tears and sorrow of grieving mothers and families have become a heart-wrenching sight in our daily lives. The cries and curses of mothers who gave birth to these now mutilated bodies will not go unanswered. The perpetrators may escape punishment now but rest assured their damning day is just around the corner. Police violence and brutality must end.

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