First published on The Malaysian Insight here, on Tuesday 18 July 2017.
THE taxi feels like it is about to fall apart, as Beng Hock’s father takes me for a spin around the neighbourhood in the car that has been his livelihood for most of his life. It is creaky and shabby, as haggard as he and his wife have become in recent years, under the weight of their son’s death.
Inside the home, plain wooden furniture and an ironing board line the hallway. Old photographs of Beng Hock on the wall show him keen and earnest, a young man waiting to take on the world.
I interview the parents Teoh Leong Hwee and Teng Shuw Hoi in 2012, three years after the incident. I spend countless hours going through every report again, trying to pick out inconsistencies the way the lawyers did before. I am haunted by dreams at night – scenes from the funeral displayed on a large screen, a melancholic tune playing in the background.
You feel powerless when you have all of the state’s institutions operating against you.
On January 2, 2010, the MACC lodged a police report against Dr Porntip for allegedly leaking the post mortem report to unauthorised persons. This was following an interview she had given to Suara Keadilan, although the article actually cites sources from within the Ministry of Health.
This was obviously an attempt to further intimidate her and interfere with the due administration of justice, as she was to come one final time to give her testimony at the inquest following the second autopsy.
And it worked: Dr Porntip was reluctant to come to Malaysia. She was upset that she had helped willingly but instead had a report lodged against her. More importantly, she feared getting arrested upon landing on Malaysian soil. I wrote to her many times to persuade her to change her mind. The entire exercise of the second autopsy would come to naught if she did not submit the final report. It would be a walkover.
It was only when the Malaysian Attorney-General cleared Dr Porntip of any wrongdoing that she changed her mind.
But another obstacle came up. The Thai Ministry of Justice would not give her the permission to come. Dr Porntip was actively doing forensic work in the south of Thailand, which included transit to the border of Malaysia. Certain government officials from Malaysia had placed political pressure on the Thai government to block her from entering these areas. Suddenly this became a transboundary issue between two nations, a delicate situation I would be partially responsible for treading on.
We had hit a dead end. For four months, we had tried to negotiate with Dr Porntip but to no avail.
To our surprise, the Malaysian government suddenly became friendly – Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein even offered police protection for her safety. We tried another tactic: how about a video conference where Dr Porntip could be projected over the screen? Possible, but the court kept postponing the dates and there was no further word.
Finally, in July 2010, I received an email from Praew saying the Thai Ministry of Justice had a change of heart, and gave Dr Porntip the approval to attend the inquest in person. My heart leapt for joy – we were reaching the end and there would finally be some answers.
Since the government had offered police protection, we weighed the matter and decided it would be best to take them up on this offer. It was a double-edged sword – there would be protection but equally we could not tell to what extent the police would be cooperative with the state government, given they report back to Putrajaya.
I summoned my courage to meet with the police at the Selangor police headquarters in Shah Alam. The man in charge was large and gruff, grunting his way through the meeting – luckily, I had the foresight of bringing a male colleague with me because this top cop obviously had better things to do than acknowledge my presence. In any case, he agreed. Three policemen would accompany me throughout Dr Porntip’s visit: a special branch officer and two others from the criminal investigation division.
Organising this final visit was like conducting a live performance with multiple stage actors; lawyers, forensic pathology team from Thailand, the national police, our private bodyguard, backup security car from the state government, the Teoh family, and the politicians.
On August 18, 2010, Dr Porntip attended the inquest and gave her final testimony before the judge; that Beng Hock had bruises on the neck, where blood from these contusions extended deep into the muscle beneath the skin. This injury, she said, could have been caused by a blunt object prior to the fall. She said this based on her experience of examining more than 70 cases of a fall from height by suicide, none of which had injuries on their necks.
There were numerous other inconsistencies that were raised during the inquest, which this article was not meant to delve into. But recall that this was the main point of contention: if he had been struck unconscious before he fell, then there was no way it could have been suicide. If he was unconscious as a result of his injuries, then perhaps he was assisted out of that window in an unconscious state. There are some things I cannot say bluntly. But the implication here is clear.
Everything else that happened after that was a blur for me. The police became good buddies of ours and they all wanted photographs with Dr Porntip as we bid the Thai team farewell at KLIA. I remember being overcome by immense relief. For more than a year I had pushed as hard as I could to get a second expert opinion. And at least this, I thought, would turn the tide.
When the coroner, Azmil Muntapha Abas, delivered an open verdict in the inquest on January 5, 2011, I was devastated. I felt emotionally spent – all those months of trying, pushing the boulder up the hill, all gone in an instant.
It was not long after that that I decided to leave the Selangor MB’s office. At that time, I did not know the events were connected but looking back, handling this case might have taken more of a toll on me than I knew.
That was the last of the duties that I performed on behalf of the state government with regards to the case. What followed next is well recorded.
The government-formed Royal Commission of Inquiry conducted hearings for six months before concluding on July 21, 2011 that Beng Hock was driven to suicide due to the aggressive interrogation methods deployed by MACC officers, which caused public uproar.
The state government and Beng Hock’s family had both long withdrawn from the RCI citing inconsistencies in the manner of conducting the RCI (the RCI had independently requested for Dr Porntip to give her testimony, which she did).
But what gave a glimmer of hope was the Court of Appeal’s unanimous ruling on 5 September 2014 that Beng Hock’s death was caused by an unlawful act by a person or persons unknown, including MACC officers who were involved in his arrest and investigation. It ruled that this was a custodial death while under MACC detention. This ruling was a vindication for the entire team that had worked tirelessly on behalf of the family and state government. It was a bittersweet moment.
The ruling also instructed the police to reopen the investigation. But on May 19, 2015, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri said in parliament that the Attorney General found no criminal element involved in the death of Beng Hock after examining the report of the police’s special taskforce.
It was a death that catalysed the MACC to professionalise itself by introducing new standard operating procedures for its interrogations and investigations. And all this should certainly be commended, so that a senseless death like this never again takes place.
However, Hishamuddin Hashim, the person who led the interrogation of Teoh Beng Hock back in 2009, is today the Director of the Special Operations Division at the MACC. I have come to respect many officers of the MACC as most are simply doing their jobs. But I cannot and will not dismiss the wrongdoing of the one or ones responsible for the death of Teoh Beng Hock. Eight years on, we are no closer to finding the truth of what may remain an unsolved case. – July 18, 2017.
* Tricia Yeoh was Research Officer to the Selangor Menteri Besar from January 2009 to March 2011 and represented the Selangor state government in managing the Teoh Beng Hock case.