Malaysiakini News

Custodial death autopsies: A process in dire need of reform

Eric Paulsen  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | It has long been established as common law that deaths occurring while a person is in the custody of the state are of particular concern, as they happen behind closed doors, and involve persons who are exceptionally vulnerable.

All such cases must be investigated carefully and thoroughly, for the burden is on detention authorities to account for the treatment of the deceased.

This is an urgent call for reform of the medico-legal death investigative procedure in cases of custodial death.

Police lock-ups, prisons, and immigration detention centres must be safe places for every human being and should not be turned into potential crime scenes. All such deaths are extremely serious and affect social order.

Custodial death strikes at the very heart of the rule of law and is one of the most heinous human rights violations imaginable.

Pathologists who conduct post-mortem forensic investigations have an obligation to ensure that their medical observations and conclusions are valid, and do not breach the trust and confidence of the public.

However, the lack of accountability in the preparation of the post-mortem report – the deal-breaker for investigating authorities to decide if a death is suspicious or criminal – has in some cases allowed detention authorities to dodge liability.

Whenever such a case arises, it is not uncommon to find the post-mortem report citing a “heart attack” or other natural causes as the deceased’s cause of death – which exonerates detention authorities from any blame, even if there are injuries on the body and other suspicious circumstances...

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