Criminologist calls for independent panel to probe custodial deaths

A criminologist has called for the setting up of an independent panel comprising experts and professionals to look into custodial deaths in Malaysia.

Associate Professor (Honorary) Datuk Dr P. Sundramoorthy said the panel will complement the internal investigations carried out by local law enforcement agencies when such tragedies occur, stressing that this will create trust, enhance transparency, and address growing concerns among the public.

This came after Malaysia recorded another custodial death on April 13, its 15th since January this year.

“I commend the police for setting up a Criminal Investigation Unit on Deaths in Custody. Other law enforcement agencies, like the Prisons Department, should do the same,” said Sundramoorthy.

“This is how it should be done. An internal investigation will determine the cause of death. But to maintain credibility, independence, and impartiality of these investigations, an independent panel should be set up to look into such cases.

He said the independent panel should comprise lawyers, pathologists, and criminologists, among others.

“The findings of the enforcement agency’s internal unit, together with that of the independent panel’s – when taken in toto – will allow for better decisions to be made. If there is a red flag by either party regarding a specific case, then, the matter should quickly be referred to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

“By having two separate committees overseeing these investigations, the public will have more faith in the criminal justice system, especially with regard to custodial deaths.”

The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance party, or Muda, had called for the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to be expedited.

Sundramoorthy said while the IPCMC should be set up, an independent panel should also be created to look specifically into custodial deaths. He said this was not “a police problem alone”, adding that other enforcement agencies, like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Prisons Department, and Immigration, should also take proactive steps to ensure that the same does not happen in their respective agencies.

“Whatever is said and done, the top leadership of the (police) force must review why deaths are happening under their watch. Custodial deaths are not new, and have been going on, even before Covid-19,” he said.

Sundramoorthy stressed that stern action must be taken against law enforcement personnel found guilty of misconduct, or had used excessive force on detainees.

“At the same time, we must also find out, that if the death was indeed caused by excessive force, why did it happen? Is it a personality issue with the officer? Is it due to stress, or lack of forensic support?

He admitted that there were also genuine cases of custodial deaths caused by underlying, or pre-existing health conditions. However, public perception is a different story.

“Efforts must also be carried out to correct public perception against law enforcement agencies – the police, Prisons Department, or even Immigration. They need to regain the public’s trust. The matter doesn’t end once the guilty officers are charged. We need to know why it happened in the first place.”

“These agencies must adopt some humility. They must take a gentle approach in communicating with the general public. They must remember that they don’t deal with criminals all the time.”

He added that the remand period for those arrested should also be limited.

“The longer you keep them, the more you bear the responsibility.”

Some of the custodial deaths this year:

Jan 13: A 63-year-old inmate from Taiping Prison died while being temporarily placed at the Taiping district police headquarters lock-up, for a court hearing.

Jan 16: A 37-year-old man, arrested for drug offences, died at the Pengakalan Chepa police station in Kelantan.

Jan 28: A 37-year-old man, arrested for theft, died at the Marang police station in Terengganu.

Jan 29: A 38-year-old man ran amok and attacked his father. A scuffle ensued while he was being restrained. After his arrest, the suspect was brought to the Kuala Kangsar Hospital for treatment. He fell unconscious and was later pronounced dead.

Feb 2: A 38-year-old detainee died from tuberculosis at Hospital Kuantan. The detainee, from Penor Prison in Kuantan, Pahang, had been brought to the Indera Mahkota centralised lock-up to attend a hearing. He complained of chest pains and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Feb 2: A Myanmar national died in Hospital Kajang. He was being held at the Kajang district police headquarters in Selangor on suspicion of motorcycle theft. He had complained of being unwell before being sent to the hospital.

Feb 14: A 39-year-old man died hours after he was brought to the Gombak district police headquarters in Selangor.

Feb 18: A 43-year-old man, who was being temporarily held at the Kota Tinggi district police headquarters lock-up in Johor following a Covid-19 outbreak in the prison, died at Hospital Kota Tinggi. He was warded on Feb 16 and had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Feb 19: A 49-year-old detainee was found unconscious in the Seri Alam police station lock-up in Johor Bahru. He was pronounced dead by coroners.

Feb 26: A Myanmar national died at the Tanah Merah Hospital in Kelantan, due to Covid-19. He had been detained at the Jaram Perdah police station in Pasir Mas, for immigration-related offences.

March 5: A 48-year-old Indonesian had been detained temporarily at the Bintulu district police headquarters in Sarawak, for drugs and immigration-related offences. He complained of breathing difficulties and was sent for further treatment at the Bintulu Hospital, where he died.

April 9: A 42-year-old inmate detained at the Indera Mahkota centralised lock-up in Kuantan, died. He was found unconscious after taking medicine for tuberculosis about an hour earlier. He was taken to Hospital Kuantan where he was confirmed dead on arrival.

April 13: A 45-year-old man died at the Beranang satellite prison in Selangor. He was suspected to have suffered from a seizure.