Is the die cast?

By Malik Imtiaz Sarwar (The Malaysian Insider)

Though it is not yet possible to conclude what it is that occurred during the last hours of the life of Kugan Ananthan, those few facts with which the public has been acquainted with strongly suggest some measure of culpability on the part of those police officers involved in his interrogation.

It is a fact that Kugan died in police custody during an interrogation in which he had been severely beaten. It is also a fact that the Public Prosecutor has classified the death as having been caused by murder for the purposes of investigations and the police officers concerned suspended.

It must however be emphasised that until and unless the police officers concerned are convicted, they are innocent of any crime. Their guilt should not be prejudged. We should also not rush to any conclusions on the racial dimensions of the incident as there is insufficient material available on which we can form any conclusion.

Having said that, questions must be asked. There is an urgent need for Malaysians to understand what it is that occurred and why it happened. We must also be made to understand why it is the police force responded as it did when news of the death surfaced. Questionable reactions on the part of the ranking police officer in charge have regrettably resulted in an uneasy belief that the truth is somehow being avoided.

The context of this latest tragedy cannot be overlooked. The prevalence of sudden deaths in police custody has been a source of concern for some time now. They were one of the main focus areas of the Dzaiddin Commission established in 2003 to look into the operation and management of the Royal Malaysia Police.

It is not insignificant that the Commission found there to have been a worrying level of abuses of power on the part of police officers coupled with a lack of due regard to the civil liberties in the discharge of their duties. It is equally compelling that the Commission implicitly concluded that the self-regulating the current Police Force Commission in effect allows for had allowed this very worrying state of affairs to have come into existence when it strongly recommended the urgent establishment of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).

The stark reality is that sudden deaths such as Kugan’s are unnecessary and could in all probability be avoided if there are sufficient controls in place. The prevalence of abuses of power regrettably points to safeguards being inadequate despite the obvious need for them. It could as such be said that Kugan died at the hands of a system that, through studied indifference, has nurtured an environment in which police officers seemingly feel justified in taking the law into their own hands.

The consistent refusal on the part of the government to establish the IPCMC despite the obvious need for the external, and life saving, control it would allow for, is mystifying. As has been stressed for many years, the number of deaths associated with the police force is uncommonly high. Allowing this state of affairs to perpetuate is only going to foster the impression that extra-judicial killings of the kind more commonly associated with banana republics is a defining feature of this nation. Public confidence will not be shored by yet another high-profile case in which police officers are accused of murder.

It is sad to note that the government’s reluctance seems to be prompted more by a desire to appease the police force rather than a rejection of the merits of the IPCMC recommendation. This appears to be motivated by a need on the part of the Barisan Nasional, and in particular Umno, to enlist the police force to further its political causes, a process which suits the convenience of the police force as long as it serves its interests. This quid pro quo is to an extent reflected in the government’s willingness to implement measures recommended by the Dzaiddin Commission, including legislative amendments aimed at protecting due process rights of arrested persons, that have not put it on a collision course with those who control the police force.

In this, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the only real opposition to the IPCMC has come from the police force itself. That this opposition is manifestly self-serving, and such of little credibility, is demonstrated by the conclusions of the Dzaiddin Commission that abuses of power were systemic and took place under a shroud of pervasive corruption that engendered a lack of transparency and accountability. It is for primarily this reason that the IPCMC was recommended.

This is not to say that the government or the police force condones extra-judicial killing or torture. I do not believe that either institution does. The high incidence of such deaths, however, gives rise to the question of whether such deaths are perceived as sometimes being necessary incidents of the kind of tough policing efforts that the country is said to require.

Viewed from the perspective defined above, the issue at the heart of the Kugan tragedy is really one of control and regulation. There is absolutely no justification for the abuse or killings of any person by the police. If there are those who think that such conduct is justifiable, then they must be shown otherwise or terminated from service.

That the government and the police forces itself are respectively incapable of curbing abuses of power, and the incidents of such abuses including sudden deaths in custody, is now beyond doubt. It if were so this latest controversy would not have erupted and we would have seen more decisive action taken over the past five years. External control is as such clearly essential to efforts aimed at reforming the police force. The government is however opposed to external control for reasons that appear to be primarily shaped by its political perspective, It would not be unreasonable to conclude to that end that the government views itself as not being in any position to reign in the police.

If so, as shocking as it may be, it would seem that the die is cast and until a new government is formed Malaysians should accept sudden deaths and other forms of abuses as a part of the Malaysian way of life.

I may have overstated the concern. There is after all one question that remains to be answered by the government, the one that everything really boils down to all things said and done: Has the government accepted the risk of such abuses reoccurring as the necessary consequence of a political balance it wishes to maintain? The only way it can show that it has not is to establish the IPCMC; it has every justification to do so now.

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar is the current president of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) and a lawyer. He has been at the forefront of efforts aimed at promoting constitutionalism and the Rule of Law, particularly in the face of worrying trends of Islamisation and race politics in government and wider society. His “Disquiet”, a blog and weekly column with the Malay Mail, is widely read.