Seven persons died in police custody in the first five weeks of 2022. We know this thanks to an announcement practice introduced by the police this year.
Credit for the practice must be given to the public, who pressed for reform of the police. Public pressure led to the creation of a special unit to “investigate” deaths in police custody. The unit began operations in January this year.
The unit siasatan jenayah dan kematian dalam tahanan (criminal investigation unit on deaths in custody) is in the Integrity and Standards Department at the police headquarters in Bukit Aman. The director of the department is Azri Ahmad. We commend him for rapidly announcing the seven deaths.
According to his announcements, two of the victims expired in hospitals. We hope this does not mean the police evade responsibility for these deaths.
Does the formation of the unit and the string of announcements show the public that the police are serious about ending deaths in police custody?
The numbers are shocking. The announcements raise many questions.
Question 1: No deaths by police shootings have been reported. Have the police chosen to exclude such shootings from the scope of the unit?
Question 2: In the first five weeks of this year, as many people have died in police cells as in all of 2021. Did the police under-report deaths in police custody in 2021?
Question 3: Why have the police withheld the names of the victims?
Question 4: Have the police informed the victims’ families? (A brother of December 2019 victim Kumar Selvadurai has lodged a police report claiming the police did not inform Kumar’s family of his death.)
Question 5: Have the police counselled the victims’ families about the next steps in the investigations of the deaths?
Question 6: The police have revealed that in one of the cases, two detainees and two officers were remanded for investigation. Their remands expired on 20 January. Has anyone been charged?
Question 7: Have the police treated anyone as suspects in the other six cases?
Question 8: Will completed investigation reports be submitted to the coroner within one month of each death, in line with CID Directive No. 10/2004, as promised by the then inspector general of police to the Dzaiddin police reform commission?
Question 9: Has the Chemistry Department committed to fast-tracking all analyses related to deaths in custody (since post-mortem examination reports cannot be completed without laboratory analysis results)?
Question 10: Why is there a lack of consistency in the announcements? For instance, the ethnicity of victims has been revealed only in four of the seven announcements, and remand dates have not been released for the sixth victim.
Question 11: Why do the announcements give prominence to crimes the victims are alleged to have committed? We remind JIPS that persons are innocent until proven guilty. We urge the Integrity and Standards Department to say in every statement that no one should die in police custody.
Question 12: Will the police ask coroners to conduct inquests into all deaths in custody? (Section 334 of the Criminal Procedure Code mandates that every death in police custody must be intimated to a coroner.)
In light of public concern over deaths in custody, we urge the attorney general to exercise his power under Section 339 of the Criminal Procedure Code to direct coroners to conduct inquiries into every death in custody.
Serious efforts must be made to restore public confidence in the police. There are three critical components for success. Without these components, the criminal investigation unit on deaths in custody will be just another cosmetics kit to cover up serious failings.
First, complete transparency about deaths in custody: such transparency will send a message to senior police officers to limit detentions, prioritise spending on detention facilities and services, and ensure effective supervision and training of officers responsible for detainees’ welfare, as required by the Section 20(3)(m) of the Police Act.
Second, the vast majority of deaths in custody must result in police officers being subjected rapidly to disciplinary or criminal sanctions.
Third, investigations must be conducted by an independent commission such as the Independent Office for Police Conduct (England and Wales), commended in the parliamentary Special Select Committee report on the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Bill (2019). Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (Caged) continues to reject investigations of deaths in police custody by the police. – Caged