How many deaths does it take? – Azrul Mohd Khalib

Source: The Malay Mail Online


Azrul Mohd Khalib – MMO file pic

AUGUST 29 ― Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed’s recent comments regarding the number of deaths of detainees in police custody reflects why the public perceives the government to not be taking this issue seriously. He says that it is “very small.”

Not too long ago, the same attitude was observed in responses to concerns of deaths among National Service trainees.

Let’s take a look at some of these statistics. Royal Malaysian Police statistics indicate that over a 14 year period, 242 detainees died in police custody. This translates to around 17 deaths a year. At least one person loses his or her life in police detention each month. Most were deemed to be as a result of illness or cardiac arrests rather than foul play.

These deaths continue to raise questions specifically about treatment of detainees during and immediately after the initial arrest. Questions which are rarely answered.

When a custodial death occurs, an inquest into the death is mandatory by law. Yet this is often not done.

Ten years ago, the report from the Royal Commission of Inquiry on how to enhance the operation and management of the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM), indicated that between 2000 and 2004, inquests were carried out in only six out of the 80 deaths in police custody.

Today, a decade after the Commision’s report and despite the introduction of the permanent Coroner’s Courts in each state since April last year, inquiries into the deaths of detainees continue to be rare. These courts are tasked to independently inquire into how, when and where the detainee died, and subsequently deliver the finding and verdict.

However, it would still require involvement of the police to investigate itself and its own officers. The current Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) does not provide the coroner with the necessary powers to conduct such investigations independently. Investigations when they do happen often encounter what has been described by Lawyers For Liberty as “the blue wall of silence” in a misplaced demonstration of loyalty and esprit de corps by the officers involved.

The result? The existence and delivery of “open verdicts” from the Coroner’s courts where the cause of death remain unclear and nobody is held responsible for them.

It is sobering to note that despite families losing their loved ones in this manner, finding out what happened, getting a clear explanation, and identifying those responsible for such deaths could be a long and painful process. It might not even end with anything at all, much less justice.

Once in custody or detention, the onus is on the police to ensure as far as possible, the health needs of detainees. They are fully responsible for the health and safety of all detainees. Being detained whether as a suspect or convicted individual does not deprive a person of human rights and dignity.

The Lockup Rules of 1958 state that the police officer on duty has the responsibility to ensure the health of detainees and the lockup conditions in the station.

Section 334 of the CPC states: “When any person dies while in the custody of the police or …in prison, the officer who had the custody of that person or was in charge of that psychiatric hospital or prison, ..shall immediately give intimation of such death to the nearest Magistrate, and the Magistrate …in the case of a death in custody of the police, and in other case may, if he thinks expedient, hold an inquiry into the cause of death.” Section 339 states that “the public prosecutor may anytime direct a magistrate to hold an inquiry … into the cause of, and the circumstances connected with, any death as referred to in sections 329 and 334.”

As we have seen in other countries, it is symptomatic of something very wrong with the system when people continue to die in police custody. How many more deaths will it take before the government takes the issue of custodial deaths seriously and calls for police accountability of these deaths?

I hope that it doesn’t take the loss of someone dear to those in authority before this issue is taken seriously and action is taken.

Each death in police custody represents a failure and can undermine relations between the public and police. It is in the best interest of the Royal Malaysian Police to ensure that it maintains the trust and mandate of the public in law enforcement. In these times of increased public awareness and protection of civil liberties and fundamental rights guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, such trust is earned and is not a given.


Azrul Mohd Khalib is a social activist who works on HIV/AIDS, sexual reproductive health and human rights issues. He unashamedly considers himself a moderate and liberal person who loves reading great books and naughty stories, and running. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @azrulmohdkhalib.


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