(Kuala Lumpur) – The Malaysian government should urgently adopt reforms to ensure accountability for deaths in custody and unjustified police shootings, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. Independent, external oversight of the Royal Malaysia Police is needed to end police cover-ups, excessive secrecy, and obstruction of investigation into abuses.
The 102-page report, “‘No Answers, No Apology’: Police Abuses and Accountability in Malaysia,” examines cases of alleged police abuse in Malaysia since 2009, drawing on first-hand interviews and complaints by victims and their families. Human Rights Watch found that investigations into police abuse are conducted primarily by the police themselves, lack transparency, and officers implicated in abuses are almost never prosecuted.
“Malaysia’s police are not accountable to anyone but themselves, and ordinary people across the country too often pay the price with broken bodies and tragically shortened lives,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malaysian government needs to put in place effective oversight of the police to end the wrongful deaths, preventable abuse in custody, and excessive use of force on the streets.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 75 people in Malaysia for the report, including victims of police abuses and their family members, lawyers, police officials including the current Inspector General of Police, public prosecutors, and staff members of government commissions and nongovernmental organizations.
The lack of police accountability facilitates abusive and sometimes deadly police practices, Human Rights Watch said. Vague policies, substandard training, lack of transparency, and failure of leadership to investigate and prevent illegal practices all create opportunities for police abuse. The Malaysian government and the Inspector General of Police have appeared to abdicate their responsibility by not making the policy changes necessary to ensure effective oversight and accountability in cases of wrongful deaths, mistreatment in custody, and excessive use of force. Their unwillingness to ensure that the police cooperate with oversight bodies such as the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) and the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC), or to establish a specialized independent police investigatory body as recommended by the Royal Commission, has worsened the problem.
In an interview, then-Deputy Inspector General of Police Khalid bin Abu Bakar (now the Inspector General of Police) told Human Rights Watch that police could use lethal force for “self-protection … if police are threatened with death [and] there is no time to use a less lethal weapon.” But Human Rights Watch’s investigations found an apparent pattern of police seeking to justify fatal shootings by asserting that a suspect had a parang (a type of machete), or posed a menace to police during a car chase or avoiding a roadblock. Yet even when these accounts plainly contradicted witness accounts, police rarely investigated their own officers’ claims. Often police from the same station carried out the investigation of their colleague’s alleged abuses.
The government has shown no inclination to change its practices to reduce police abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Minister of Home Affairs, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who oversees the police, said in October 2013, “[W]e no longer compromise with [criminals]. There is no need to give them any warning. If we get the evidence, we shoot first.”
“Malaysian police evidently believe that their at times outrageous public statements on shooting deaths won’t be subject to competing evidence and accounts in the media,” Robertson said. “And so far, sadly victims have little recourse because police investigate themselves, ignore external oversight requests and manipulate the system.”
‘A Major Problem’
Deaths in police custody in Malaysia are a major problem, Human Rights Watch said. Demands for police accountability are hampered by weaknesses in government pathologists’ post-mortem examinations that typically do not consider whether death may have resulted from police mistreatment. Many victims’ families seek a second post-mortem to get an independent appraisal of the cause of death.
Victims of police abuse in Malaysia who do report abusive treatment or question police conduct have little chance of seeing the police investigated, punished, or prosecuted. The police’s excessive secrecy means that victims and their families rarely learn whether their complaint is being investigated or any disciplinary action has been taken. Police standing orders often remain classified as state secrets.
“I filed a complaint about my son’s death, but I don’t know what happens next,” said Sapiah binti Mohd Ellah, mother of Mohd Afham bin Arin, 20, shot by the police in Johor Baru in 2010. “We never hear what action the police are taking. No answers, no apology.”
Even existing external oversight mechanisms, such as SUHAKAM and the EAIC, have had little success gaining access to police case files, key police standing orders governing use of force and firearms, and other information required to conduct meaningful investigations. In its investigation into alleged abuses that took place during the Bersih 3.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur in April 2012, SUHAKAM complained that the police failed to cooperate in identifying police personnel who used excessive force, including beating peaceful protesters and journalists.
Human Rights Watch recommended that the Malaysia government should create an independent, external commission tasked solely to investigate complaints about police misconduct and abuse, and endow the commission with all necessary powers to investigate, compel cooperation from witnesses and government agencies, subpoena documents, and submit cases for prosecution. In the meantime, reforms should be made to improve the performance of the EAIC.
“Malaysia’s politicians and police are failing the test when it comes to providing justice to victims of abuses,” Robertson said. “The impact goes beyond those directly harmed, creating dangerous mistrust between the police and the communities they patrol.”
On shooting of suspects:
“We didn’t know that he was a police officer as the car was not marked ‘police’ and he was not in uniform. Dinesh got out of his car and headed towards the police. When the police started shooting he ran back to his car. He [the man in civilian dress] then started shooting at our car. My friend Moses and I heard about 10 to 15 shots fired during the incident. At all times, Dinesh didn’t hold any weapons.”
—Nelawarasan Yoakanathan, witness to shooting of Dinesh Darmasena in Ampang
“I was adjusting my seatbelt and looking down when my friend told me that two men were approaching the car and had sticks in their hands. When I saw the men with sticks – they did not have any uniform on – I thought they were robbers so I began reversing. I panicked. Suddenly, there were bullet sounds. We bent down. The car was shot at least two to three times. I felt numb and could not feel anything and my friend told me that I had been shot. When I looked down… I saw blood.”
—Shahril Azlan, truck driver shot by police in Selangor
On deaths in custody:
“My husband didn’t deserve this, and we don’t want this to happen to others like it has happened to us … We will fight to the end to make sure that this kind of torture doesn’t happen again … We don’t have anyone else now, he was the only breadwinner in our family – there is no one to take care of us, what can I do without my husband? I really believed that my husband would come back, because the investigating officer said to me not to worry because my husband didn’t do anything wrong and they were just borrowing my husband to make a statement. I am going to fight for him all the way.”
—Marry Mariasusay, wife of Dhamendran Narayanasamy, speaking at Kuala Lumpur Hospital morgue
“I saw Abang [Big Brother] Sugu in a position lying on the ground. At that time, one of the uniformed officers was stomping on the back of Abang Sugu’s neck. My cousin and I went back home … to call on my other cousins. My cousin and I went back to see Abang Sugu but when we arrived, I heard the police in uniform saying to my uncle that Abang Sugu had died.”
—Vasandh Ruban in Hulu Langat
On torture and ill-treatment by police:
“One policeman took a pipe hose and beat under my feet many times until I could not bear the pain. . . . He said I am drug user and said dirty words to me in Malay. After that they let me be for over an hour. Then an Indian constable Ragu without uniform came, and I asked him “Why am I being beaten? I need to send my kids to school this morning.”…. He kicked my face. Another constable stepped on both legs and Ragu took the hose pipe and beat my leg … then took a gun and put it to my head and ordered me to confess that I am drug addict and stole a lorry.”
—Mogan Subramanian, tortured by police in Taman Jaya, Selangor
“Three police took me outside of the cell. Two were in uniform and another in plainclothes. The one in plainclothes punched me in the stomach several times until I collapsed to the floor. Then another police kicked me from behind. He kicked me in the back very hard repeatedly. He kicked me several times. People in the cell saw this and they shouted at those police, telling them to stop. That, perhaps, saved me. The beating stopped and I was put back in the cell. I was in severe pain. I had bruises all over my chest, stomach, and back.”
—Ahmed Amin Draman, tortured by police in Tenah Merah police station, in Kota Bahru, Kelantan
On excessive use of force during peaceful rallies:
“It was 7 p.m. … I was near Masjid Jamek LRT [Light Rail Transit] on Jalan Tun Perak. I saw the police running after protesters. Their eyes were red. I was standing with a friend when two policemen in blue uniform shouted at me. I said, ‘Apa’ (what?). They charged at me and looked like they were going to attack me. They punched me with their bare fist on my face near my eye. … I was badly injured, blood on my face. . . . As I passed by a group of police officers they took turns to beat me. One [officer] beat me with a baton on back. Even in presence of high-ranking officers I was beaten. They have been given license to beat us.”
—Haijan Omar, lawyer beaten during Bersih 3.0 rally, April 2012
On accountability for the police:
“There is stiff resistance from police when anyone questions them. When we inquire about a case, the police tell us that it’s under investigation and everything is done according to procedures, but we are not given their SOPs [standard operating procedures] or ever told what their investigation found. ‘Trust us,’ they say, ‘We are taking care of it.’ But people want tangible proof of what action they take which is nowhere to be seen. There are no checks and balances.
—Investigator at the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), Kuala Lumpur, May 2012