Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) is deeply concerned with the increasing number of custodial deaths in Malaysia.
According to the parliamentary reply from the Ministry of Home Affairs to Raub MP Chow Yu Hui, the number of cases in 2022 consisted of a staggering 170, which was three-and-a-half times higher that in 2021 (ie 48). It is deeply disturbing to hear that seven out of the 170 cases involved children. In other words, one person dies in custody every two days.
One of the most critical steps that the government can take is to increase transparency in revealing information related to custodial deaths. Currently, the sole mechanism through which the public can obtain such information is through the government’s responses to corresponding questions by MPs in the House of Representatives.
Whilst we acknowledge and appreciate the Raub MP for raising this important issue in Parliament, this method entails limitations in obtaining comprehensive information, due to factors such as the interest of the MP concerned in the issue and the 40-word count for parliamentary questions that limit or hamper requests for data on more specific parameters.
This lack of transparency perpetuates a culture of secrecy, and it hinders the public’s ability to hold the authorities accountable for their actions.
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Thus, Suaram calls on the government to make all relevant data and information readily available and accessible to the public. Aside from demographic characteristics such as gender and age, other important parameters should include the cause of death (including whether it is due to negligence by authorities, health reasons or other causes), as well as the status of investigations and inquest proceedings.
Multiple causes underlie custodial death cases, with most cases arising from health-related or medical reasons. Statistics by the police from 2000 to 2014 showed that such cases constituted 85.1% of all cases. In 2021 alone, media monitoring efforts by Suaram documented the proportion to be more than 50% of cases.
Cell conditions in prisons and detention facilities are poor: overcrowding, poor ventilation systems, unhygienic toilets and cell areas. This not only increases the vulnerability of all detainees and enforcement officers to the contraction and transmission of diseases especially those that are air-borne, they also exacerbate the health conditions of detainees who are already in poor health (be it knowingly or unknowingly) upon entry to detention facilities.
Therefore, Suaram urges the government to increase the allocation in Budget 2023 to improve cell conditions and prevent future instances of custodial deaths. It is also essential that the authorities adhere to rule 10 of the Lock-up Rules 1953 and international standards such as the Nelson Mandela Rules to provide adequate medical care and attention all detainees.
To strengthen compliance with this legislation and international standards, the Prisons Department and the Ministry of Home Affairs can work with the Ministry of Health in establishing and implementing procedures of routine medical care provision in prison and detention facilities to detainees who have medical conditions.
In addition, the government should explore alternative approaches to reduce the occupancy of detention centres, such as improving the investigating capacities of police officers to reduce the likelihood of abusing laws that permit detention without trial laws or ‘chain remands’, and working with government agencies such as the National Anti-Drugs Agency to implement drug rehabilitation programmes to reduce drug-related offences.
By taking these measures, we can work towards building a more just and humane criminal justice system that prioritises the wellbeing of all individuals, regardless of their legal status.
Nelson Mandela once said: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
To truly uphold the vision of “Malaysia Madani” (a civil Malaysia), and specifically two of its core values of respect and compassion, the government has the obligation to take active measures to address the issues of poor cell conditions and lack of medical attention in these facilities, while increasing transparency in disclosing information related to custodial deaths to regain the public’s trust in law enforcement agencies – that they will be fair and just, as well as respect the basic dignity and rights of all regardless of background and circumstances. – Suaram
Sevan Doraisamy is executive director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)