Class bias and deaths in custody — P Ramasamy

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Source: Free Malaysia Today

Free Malaysia Today

Many custodial deaths involve detainees from the lower socio-economic segment of society, says Penang DCM.

By P Ramasamy

There seems to be no political will on the part of the government to address the issue of custodial deaths – deaths that occur even before remand prisoners are brought to trial in court.

Whether there is link between the lack of political will and the social class of those who have died in custody remains to be seen.

However, a cursory examination will reveal that deaths in custody involve those who are in the working class, especially those who are poor and who lack power and family support.

Talk of ensuring justice for remand prisoners and others is empty.

Custodial deaths are not confined to police lock-ups but also take place among remand prisoners in prisons.

Lately, statistics indicate that custodial deaths in prisons have risen. 

G Ganeshwaran, a 29-year-old despatch clerk from Klang, Selangor, was the latest victim of custodial death in a police lock-up. He was arrested and remanded last Thursday in a Shah Alam police lock-up for alleged involvement in break-ins.

When he was brought to court, he told his mother that he was kicked in the throat by some police officers, following which he had difficulty breathing and consuming food.

Ganeshwaran died on the way to a hospital in Klang on Monday, Dec 18. The pathologist’s report indicates that he died as result of blood clots preventing the flow of blood to the lungs.

Ganeshwaran is the latest case of unfortunate and cruel death in custody. Without even facing trial in court, he died a terrible death, apparently from the assault he received while in the police lock-up in Shah Alam.

Ganeshwaran, like many others who died in custody before him, was a member of a working class family. His class position in society might have had something to do with the harsh treatment he received at the hands of the police.

If he had been a member of a wealthy family, I am sure he would not have been arrested in the first place and subjected to inhumane treatment.

Who said that the country’s law enforcement agencies are above “class”?

It is obvious that those in charge of law enforcement took it upon themselves to be both judge and prosecutor. Even before Ganeshwaran could be brought for trial, he was “sentenced to death” by those enforcing the law.

Over the decades, custodial deaths, both in police lock-ups and in prisons, have risen considerably.

Despite the hue and cry calling for the setting up of an Independent Police Complaint and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), nothing concrete has happened. The government in power seems none too bothered by the rising deaths in custody, perhaps simply because it doesn’t want to interfere too much with the police force.

It is not wrong to say that police enjoy some degree of immunity from prosecution, especially when it comes to criminal investigation and interrogation.

The Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) that was set up in place of IPCMC remains a toothless agency in investigating and prosecuting those found guilty of custodial deaths. It can only merely recommend actions to the government – whether its recommendations will be followed or not remains to be seen.

The lack of political will on the part of government leading to a culture of impunity among police personnel and prison officers is the main cause of custodial deaths. There seems to be a belief among some sections of the police that they can get away with extreme forms of interrogation to obtain information. If such methods result in the death of detainees, it is unfortunate or just too bad.

Investigations by the police themselves into the death of detainees are purely nonsensical. To date, such investigations have appeared more as a “cover-up” than genuine attempts to uncover the cause of custodial deaths.

The Malaysian public has no confidence that the police or the prison authorities will own up to their mistakes when it comes to custodial deaths.

It is sad that those who meet their unfortunate and cruel deaths in custody are those who come from the lower socio-economic segment of the Malaysian society. It is this class bias that makes it difficult for the affected families to take up the death of their loved ones in a sustained manner for justice to prevail. More often than not, they lack the financial means to hire lawyers and pay for other expenses that might be incurred.

Those in law enforcement agencies often take advantage of the socio-economic status of those who are remanded. Given the lack of support base from their immediate families, it is a lot easier for those in uniform to get away with their extreme investigation methods, even if these methods are illegal.

A close examination of these custodial deaths will easily indicate that more than 90% of them are from poor families.

Is it a crime to be born poor in this country?

P Ramasamy is Penang deputy chief minister II.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.