Thursday, January 22, 2009

Deaths in police custody- far too many?

Deaths in custody of suspects occur with little media or public attention, forget outrage. And a death in custody should raise far more concern than a death out on the streets – the suspect is under police control, in police hands and generally less able to cause a life-threatening situation.

At least not if the police are doing their job properly.This could be either cause or consequence of our attitude to the treatment of people in custody. There seems to be an assumption that if they’ve been arrested, they must be guilty, at least of something. So perhaps, on some level, they deserve to be treated badly. How else do we explain the indifference of our media and the general public when repeatedly confronted with tales of torture and abuse in police custody.

Despite numerous complaints and police reports lodged by victims, family members of victims, lawyers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), there is a perceived lack of accountability and transparency on the part of the police in its investigation of allegations of police brutality. It is well documented that in the normal course of events, complaints go unanswered. When the police do "answer" complaints, there are usually standard statements that the police followed all proper procedures. For cases of deaths in custody, the police often respond in reported cases that the deceased died of "heart attack," "stomach ulcer" or “natural causes.” In cases where there is a death by police shooting, it appears that the standard statement to the press is that the deceased attacked and the police acted in self defence.

For most complaints, the response is that the police are investigating or that the matter was investigated internally and the police are satisfied with the findings that the police personnel acted properly.

In many cases of death in custody or by police shooting, however, there is a pattern emerging judging from the responses of those associated with the victims who have said that the police obstructed the complaint process by withholding or suppressing evidence of police brutality and colluded with hospitals to ensure that no cooperation is given to family members and lawyers who demanded evidence of abuse and impropriety.

One of the main factors that contributes to the violations of the human rights of suspects while in police custody is the readiness of magistrates in granting remand orders to allow the police to investigate alleged crimes. Although the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) allows remand orders to be granted not exceeding 15 days if investigations cannot be completed within 24 hours of the arrest, the police invariably inform the magistrate that the suspect is being investigated for an offence and the magistrate in the majority of cases as a matter of grants a remand order against the suspect without checking the desirability for such an order. The magistrate normally performs this task in an administrative manner and fails to scrutinise the propriety of the arrest, the investigation done in the preceding 24 hours and the connection between the suspect and the crime.

In most cases, no investigation is carried out at all within the initial 24 hours, and in many cases there is no logical connection between the length of remand period and the alleged offence. As an illustration, a person suspected of being a drug dependent is sometimes remanded for a week or more when the only “investigation” that was needed was to obtain urine samples for a drug substance test.

Often remand procedures are carried out with neither the proper participation of the suspect nor the presence of a lawyer if he or she has one. The situation is made worse as there is a general lack of information regarding the fate of a suspect. A telephone call is not regarded as a right and is discretionary. The whereabouts of a suspect and details while under remand are normally not easily forthcoming from the police. Family members and lawyers are usually given the runaround concerning the place of detention. 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.

So when Selangor State police chief Deputy Comm Datuk Khalid Abu Bakar promised that there would be no cover-up into the death of criminal suspect A. Kugan while under custody at the Taipan police station in Subang Jaya, there were immediate concerns from the public that the investigation into this death will be conducted by the police themselves. Historically there had been documented cases in the past where relatives of those who have died in police custody and after, have alleged that the police have obstructed the complaints process, suppressed evidence and apparently collude with hospital officials and medical officers.

This case underlines the crucial importance for the preliminary investigation to be vested with an independent body. It is therefore timely for the Government to transfer such powers to an independent and external mechanism such as the proposed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC). This will ensure that procedures carried out following a death are transparent, open and fair, and that investigations are rigorous, speedy and effective. The relatives of people who have died in custody need to know the circumstances surrounding that death. They must feel satisfied that all the facts have been brought out into the open and thoroughly examined in a just and fair manner.

In the United Kingdom, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), the UK version of our proposed IPCMC has the power to conduct preliminary investigation itself or to manage and supervise the investigation with other agencies. The IPCC also enjoys mandatory referrals on cases of death in custody and police shooting. There must be amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code to include best practices on preliminary investigations in cases of death in custody and include procedures to seal a police station as a crime scene for an independent investigation including a temporary suspension of officers in charge of the lock-up. These procedures are important to prevent tampering of evidence and any possibility of conspiracy or collusion between persons involved in the case. It is also important that the pending bill on the Coroners Court which provides for an automatic inquest to be implemented immediately.

Another issue that requires urgent implementation is the installation and proper maintenance of closed-circuit televisions (CCTV) in all police stations especially lock-ups and interrogation rooms with clear guidelines on how these recordings are to be kept safe.

Cases of death in custody have to be scrutinized in a more stringent manner since it involves human life and the question of right to life that is enshrined in our Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is the best opportunity for the government to immediately implement the proposals above to ensure that relatives of the victims are offered redress, perpetrators brought to justice and to ensure an effective police force that will enjoy greater public confidence and credibility.

There has just been too many deaths in custody, and allegations about police torture in Malaysia, it is time for these deaths to stop.

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