The Special Branch cannot remain above the law

COMMENT | Suaram is extremely concerned by comments from the Home Ministry today in response to a parliamentary question that “there is insufficient evidence to prove that the Special Branch has been abused”.

Concerns about abuses by Special Branch intelligence officers have been documented by the Royal Commission on the police in their report, as well as numerous reports by NGOs over the years.

If the new government is serious about reforming the police, it must ensure this includes the Special Branch unit which has operated with impunity for decades.

The Royal Commission in 2005 reported allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by the Special Branch and concerns’ that "the Special Branch may be manipulated by a party in power for political purposes."

The body expressed its concern that "there appear to be no legal provisions dealing with the functions, powers and duties of the Special Branch." The Police Act 1967 does not spell out what "security intelligence" means and what powers are vested in the Special Branch.

According to the commission, the Special Branch appeared to be governed by a charter issued by the prime minister after independence. Ominously, even the RCI did not have access to the charter and were driven to the bare conclusion that to be valid, the charter must be made under authority of law.

Other human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, also documented techniques of interrogation by Special Branch police under the Internal Security Act 1960, which combined physical assault with persuasion, deception, and coercion involving intense mental and physical pressure at times amounting to torture.

The interrogation procedures were designed to induce a feeling of complete disorientation and dependence on the interrogators as the only point of human contact. The sense of helplessness is exacerbated by their knowledge that no judicial or legal intervention is permitted, and that family visits were entirely at the discretion of their interrogators.

Over the years, Special Branch officers were deployed to undertake surveillance of the activities and movement of NGOs and activists. They also were often responsible at times for violent incidents during peaceful demonstrations, in order to justify police dispersals and to arrests protest leaders.

Therefore, Suaram calls on the Pakatan Harapan government to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission and ensure that that the role and powers of the Special Branch are given expression in law, either in the form of a separate act, or through amendments to the Police Act.

It must be made clear that collection of intelligence must not limit the rights of a person to engage in advocacy, protest or dissent and the exercise of that right shall not by itself be regarded as prejudicial to security.

The Special Branch must also prepare annual reports to the prime minister who should then present that report in Parliament, deleting any portion of the report which is considered prejudicial to security.

While there is a need for an effective police intelligence unit to deal with crime and threats to national security, the Special Branch unit has long operated above the law.

Only by undertaking such steps can we ensure that the Special Branch ends its past role as an arm of the ruling party to suppress dissent and to ensure adequate oversight and accountability.

SEVAN DORAISAMY is the executive director of Suaram.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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