COMMENT On Dec 10, 1984, the same day Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) was adopted by the UN General Assembly.
Following ratification by 20 State Parties, CAT entered into force on June 26, 1987. Since then, an overwhelming majority of 161 State Parties have joined the Convention. As you might have guessed, Malaysia is not one of the State parties.
CAT is one of the first international treaty to globally address the issue of prevention of torture. The Convention prohibits torture - defined as the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering for a specific purpose by a public official, who is directly or indirectly involved.
The objective of the Convention is to compel State Parties to emphatically prevent and criminalise acts of torture, and build instead a framework to cultivate respect for human rights. It compels State Parties to take ‘effective’ measures to prevent acts of torture in its territories and jurisdiction.
It prohibits absolutely torture under any circumstances including during a state of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency. Further, ‘an order from a superior officer or a public authority’ cannot be used as a justification for torture.
We may be accustomed to think that only particular classes of individuals, such as those affiliated with the lower or criminal class are more vulnerable to the risk of torture. However, the truth is anyone could be victims of torture. No one should be considered insusceptible to the risk of torture, and the act of torture may be found in many guises.
For example, who would have thought Anwar Ibrahim, then-deputy prime minister, could be handcuffed, blindfolded and viciously beaten by then-inspector-general of police Rahim Noor? More recently, Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah was detained without trial under the Securities Offences (Special Measures) Act and kept under solitary confinement, an act which can amount to torture.
The recent deaths of S Balamurugan and M Thanaseelan
On Feb 8, 2017, S Balamurugan was found dead in police custody at the North Klang police district headquarters. The 44-year-old suspect had been taken to the magistrate’s court the day before for a remand order, where he was seen to be badly bruised, in a weakened state, and unable to walk. When offered a sip of water by his lawyer, he had blood flowing out of his mouth and nose.
Upon seeing this, the magistrate denied the police’s application for remand and Balamurugan was ordered to be released. The magistrate also instructed the investigating officer to take Balamurugan to the hospital. However, instead of complying with the magistrate’s order, the police ‘rearrested’ Balamurugan and took him back to the police station, where he later died.
On the next day, the pathologist from the Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital in Klang who conducted the post-mortem, concluded rather incredibly, the deceased had died from ‘heart problems’.
On Feb 18, 2017, after much public uproar and protest, and an application by the deceased’s family to the Shah Alam High Court, a second post-mortem was done at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital which concluded the cause of death was ‘coronary artery disease with multiple blunt force trauma’.
This different conclusion - an additional line that fundamentally alters Balamurugan’s cause of death is crucial in understanding why so many people have died in custody and will continue to do so unless the Health Ministry, the hospitals and pathologists start taking custodial deaths seriously, and not downplay evidence of torture, mistreatment and neglect.
Less than three weeks later on Feb 25, 2017, another detainee was found dead at the Bukit Sentosa Police Station in Bukit Beruntung. Although no assault was detected and preliminary findings indicated M Thanaseelan, aged 43, had died from blood poisoning due to ‘perforated gastric ulcer’, his death was entirely preventable.
According to the pathologist who conducted the post-mortem, the deceased would have been in chronic pain for at least a week due to his serious condition. Thanaseelan was in fact brought to the Kuala Kubu Hospital for gastric treatment several hours before his death but he was only prescribed with antacid instead of being properly diagnosed and admitted into hospital...