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Death in police custody: A chilling read

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Prema Devaraj looks at the shocking circumstances surrounding the death of N Dharmendran that were highlighted in an EAIC report.

Everyone should read the recently released Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) report on the findings of the investigation into the death in custody of N Dharmendran (Laporan siasatan EAIC berhubung kes kematian N Dharmendran dalam tahanan Polis Diraja Malaysia).

It is a chilling read, giving an awful picture of what happened in this particular case of a death in custody and laying bare the litany of sins perpetrated by some in the police force against a Malaysian citizen.

The EAIC held five public hearing sessions on Dharmendran’s case from 27 July to 16 November 2015.

From the evidence, the EAIC has confirmed that Dharmendran died in police custody due to the use of physical force by the police. He had been beaten and tortured, suffering 52 bruises on his body, while in custody. Two staples were embedded in his ears, inserted while he was still alive.

The findings point to several police personnel including senior police officers being involved, not least in a conspiracy to cover up police responsibility for his death. This is completely unacceptable and the perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions.

The report details the extensive violations of existing rules and regulations that characterised this case, including:

  • the use of brutal violence on a detainee during interrogation,
  • false entries into the station diary of lockup D9, including tampering of times in the entries,
  • false information in a police report about the death of the deceased,
  • serious misconduct in ordering the re-arrest of the deceased without justification (the deceased should have been released at the end of the first remand),
  • an eight-day delay in allowing the right of the deceased to contact and have access to his family,
  • the CCTV in lockup D9 not being in working order since 2009,
  • a lack of knowledge or awareness of standard operating procedures among officers and police personnel, and
  • overcrowding in the lockup (more than four people). At times, there were between six and 16 people in the lockup.
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The lack of integrity, respect or even knowledge of rules and procedures shown by certain police personnel is shocking and has to be dealt with by the authorities if we are to have any confidence in the system.

Dharmendran’s death in custody is not an isolated incident. It is yet another example which leaves Malaysians wondering about what really goes on in lockups or interrogation sessions during remand. Malaysians cannot be blamed if we are asking why rules and regulations are not adhered to and why some police officers can apparently behave like thugs and not be brought to justice.

We should have a police force which we are proud of, not one which leaves us shaking our heads in despair. The current situation and public perception about the police force does a great injustice to the police officers who work hard and are themselves law abiding.

The home ministry must work with the Royal Malaysian Police to reign in rogue police officers. These police officers must be investigated, charged, convicted and imprisoned if we are to see an end to deaths in police custody.

Strong recommendations have been made by the EAIC concerning the treatment of detainees, facilities in lockups and the need for police training and adherence to standard operating procedures – not only in Dharmendran’s case but also in their investigations into other deaths in custody. It is high time the home ministry take stock of these recommendations and ensure their implementation.

As a sign of a commitment towards ending deaths in custody, be they in police lockups, detention centres or prisons, the Malaysian government would do well to also ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

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This treaty outlines specific measures for governments to take in order to prevent any form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment within its borders.

It is obvious that the government needs some heavy prodding to move in this direction – to change the present culture in the police force where some police officers can act with chilling impunity. This culture has to be challenged if we are to provide the basic right to protection for all and bring an end to deaths in police custody.

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