The dead have rights, too

My very first column in Selangor Times after I left the Selangor MB’s office, which would spur me on to write the script of my documentary, The Rights of The Dead. This was published in April 2011.

The dead have rights, too

Malaysia is in desperate need of a reliable and trustworthy institute conducting autopsies especially in relation to deaths in custody. Last week, the body of customs officer Ahmad Sarbani was found on the grounds of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Federal Territory office. The incident was tragic, but it seemed absolutely ridiculous as this is the second time in three years that a body was found under similar circumstances: Interrogation by the MACC, then death from (apparent) fall from height.

You couldn’t make this stuff up even if you wanted to. This brings to mind Shakespeare’s “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark”. Political intrigue, possible cover-ups, and a series of mysterious deaths in the state of Malaysia, perhaps?

Deaths in Custody

It is reported that since 2000, at least 147 people died in police custody. Although it is difficult to extract data on the actual number of deaths a year (as official statistics provide varying figures for varying periods of time), it is noted that there were 150 deaths from 1990 till 2004 (10.7 per year), which has increased to 85 deaths between 2003 and 2007 (21.25 per year). (Hector, Aliran, November 2010).

Some of the ones we may recall are: January 2008, a police constable was charged with causing hurt to extract a confession from A Kugan, 22, who died in police custody. In July of the same year, P Gunasegaram, 31, was found dead in the Sentul police station. In 2010, sawmill worker P Bapu, 28, was found dead in the Jempol police station.

The statistics cited above may not even include deaths “outside” the lock-up, for instance, at detention centres due to illnesses or negligence. And they definitely do not include freak incidents such as of Teoh Beng Hock (July 2010), and Ahmad Sarbani (April 2011) who both fell from a height at MACC offices (Selangor and Federal Territories, respectively).

One thing that ties all these deaths together, though, is that the immediate reaction from the authorities was to claim at first instance these were suicide cases. It is almost like a predictive tool that whenever a death in custody (or now, under interrogation) occurs, authorities will allude to suicide, the family calls for a second independent autopsy, and the government forms an enquiry into the matter. This has become practically SOP by now: Standard Operating Procedure.

Autopsies in Malaysia

What this really highlights is the growing distrust of Malaysians towards an official line taken on the causes of death. In Malaysia, all autopsies are conducted entirely by forensic pathologists representing the government.

There is a list of criteria required to qualify one as a “Forensic Pathologist” under the National Specialist Register (NSR) that must eventually be approved by the Forensic Pathologist Specialty Committee. For instance, medical degrees have to be recognised by the Malaysian Medical Council, and postgraduate degrees in Forensic Pathology recognised by the Malaysian government. There are other detailed requirements that can be found on the NSR website but as a general rule, all medical practitioners who practise in the country have to be registered with the Malaysian Medical Council, and those working in government hospitals and healthcare facilities must be gazetted by the Ministry of Health.

Even in the cases where a second autopsy took place, this needed to be conducted by a pathologist approved by the government. For example, Teoh’s second autopsy was carried out by Dr. Shahidan Md Noor from the Sungai Buloh Hospital, representing the government of Malaysia, although the government was gracious enough to allow foreign pathologists present as observers.

What Shall We Do?

Malaysians were taken by surprise at the flamboyant Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan who represented the Selangor government in the Teoh case. She is Director General of the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS) at the Thai Ministry of Justice. Very public about her stand-offs with the Thai Police, she is still given the independence to carry out the work at the CIFS despite these occasional disagreements. This is perhaps because her team is considered a pioneer in many new methods including setting up a DNA database for local authorities in the south of Thailand, actually assisting the police in their work on identifying terrorists.

Human rights activists have long called for the Malaysian government to act immediately to (in Dr. Porntip’s words) work for the “rights of the dead”. These include urging the government to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and form an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission. The Malaysian Bar has most recently called on the government to introduce a Coroner’s Act and establish a Coroner’s Court, and “to conduct a comprehensive review of the manner in which inquiries into deaths are undertaken”.

One more thing to add to this list. Autopsies conducted by the government and their conclusions which follow after are increasingly seen to be biased. Is it time to think of independent autopsies from an institute that Malaysians can grow to trust? After all, you and I have every right to demand a system of justice we have absolute faith in, a system of justice to protect us in the time we most need it.

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