“IF you ever get stopped by the cops at a roadblock, don’t be a smart alec,” I told my Chindian sons. “They will see you as Indian, and police here are notorious for their maltreatment of Indians in the lock-up.”
Some of you may know what I mean. And others won’t. Maybe I am being paranoid but I think there’s a justifiable reason for it.
Francis Udayappan (May 2004), A. Kugan (January 2009), N. Dharmendran (May 2013) and S. Balamurugan (February 2017) are among the most celebrated cases of death in custody. That doesn’t mean that only ethnic Indians die in the lock-up but it does seem to imply that there’s a strong slant in this instance.
I have actually been studying this sort of case for many years and there is indeed a wide discrepancy in figures. When I first made requests eight years ago to a previous Home Minister for clarification because deaths in custody figures were then being coupled with prison deaths, they were rebuffed.
These are the stats that I find relevant: Indians are 7% of the population. According to an answer by Zahid Hamidi in parliament last year, 23% of lock-up deaths were Indians. According to Suaram that number is 56%.
In my own study of reported cases over a 15 year period, the number was nearly 80%!
Regardless of which stat you choose to embrace, it must be clear that a disproportionate number of Indians have died in the lock-up. And believe me this sort of statistic is mirrored around the world.
Many injustices do not have a racial slant to them, but police brutality does appear to. For more than 20 years, Amnesty International has cited examples that a large majority of victims involving deaths in custody or questionable shootings are racial minorities. These include the Aborigines in Australia, men of Arab descent in France and the African-American population in the USA. Hence the Black Lives Matter movement.
A look at reports on police brutality online reveals the case of Ethan Saylor, a white man with Down’s Syndrome who died by asphyxiation when cops manhandled him in a cinema in Maryland and Maurice Granton Jr, a 24-year old black man shot in the back while running away from Chicago police officers.
Then there are notorious cases like that of Rodney King who was beaten repeatedly in a 1992 incident that was captured on video and sparked racial riots in Los Angeles, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot dead by a trigger happy cop when playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio.
Last month PWC accountant Botham Jean was killed in his own home in Dallas by a police officer who mistakenly went to the wrong house and thought he was an intruder.
So why do innocent people die at the hands of the police, particularly when in their custody?
Deaths in custody occur as a result of suicide, murder by other detainees, or genuine ill health that is not treated until it’s too late. What’s perturbing, is that many deaths clearly result from torture and abuse on the part of the authorities themselves. Yet not once in Malaysia has this resulted in a conviction for murder.
Years ago, Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, who served on Suhakam for over 10 years from 2000-2010 told me: “I don’t remember any prosecution emerging from investigations. In the case of suspicious deaths, you have to make a report to the police, and chances are they will defend their own kind.
“Many times during my visits to lock-ups after a suspicious death, the official explanations do not tally and crucial evidence is not forthcoming. For example, if there is supposed to be a camera at the police station where a death had occurred, it would either be missing or not working. I also noticed that more often than not, when Suhakam received a complaint about a suspicious death, it involved those of Indian ethnicity.”
The Kugan case is difficult to forget. He was an able-bodied man detained by police for questioning under suspicion of car theft and who died a few days later. A rushed autopsy indicated he had died due to fluid accumulation in the lungs, but an angry crowd led by Kugan’s family and several politicians stormed the morgue at Serdang Hospital. Upon examining his body, they found clear signs of torture. A second autopsy was ordered, revealing that Kugan had been beaten, burnt and starved prior to his death, and the case was later re-classified as murder.
In the cases of both Kugan and Dharmendran, there was prosecution, however in neither case did it end in a satisfactory manner.
Social activist Janakey Raman who spent most of his life working with estate communities says that the fear among the Indian community is that they have been targeted and branded as criminals, and that there is a vicious cycle of suspicion and blame that re-inforces itself.
I don’t want to spend my time fear-mongering. For all the back and forth of policies and promises, it has been a good week for New Malaysia, with welcome announcements about the abolition of the death penalty and the sedition act.
Long live new Malaysia, I say. And it is my fervent wish that custodial deaths soon become a relic of the past.
News editor Martin Vengadesan remembers what it was like to live in a police state.
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