First published on The Malaysian Insight here, on Monday 17 July 2017.
THE air was thick with the smell of incense, grey smoke rising against the green, hilly backdrop of the Nirvana Memorial Park in Semenyih. It was a particularly hot, sticky and sweltering Monday afternoon on July 20, 2009 when Beng Hock’s body was laid to rest, more than 2000 bodies crammed into a large hall as the family prepared its religious rites to say goodbye. Political bigwigs made their presence felt at the funeral, including Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim, and the MB, whom I was accompanying.
Beng Hock was political secretary to the Selangor executive council (exco) member YB Ean Yong from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), so technically we were colleagues in the same state administration. I would see him regularly at the weekly exco press conferences – a tall, fair and lanky fellow with a serious look on his face and documents in his hands.
It was an exciting time for young ones enthusiastic about national reform. The political tsunami of 2008 had taken place just the year before, and suddenly there were numerous job vacancies ideal for politically conscious Malaysians in their twenties.
Selangor was a natural target for Barisan Nasional who had never before lost its prized state. The MACC investigated seven Pakatan Rakyat assemblymen in relation to their use of development funds in their respective constituencies, Ean Yong being one of them. The accusation was that he had paid RM2,400 for 1,500 Malaysian flags used in the Merdeka Day celebrations in 2008, without actually receiving them from the suppliers. Bear in mind that Beng Hock was only the witness and not the suspect when he died in custody.
After the funeral, the real work began of investigating the case. The federal government agreed to conduct an inquest into his death, and announced that a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the interrogation and probing methods used would also be set up.
The first autopsy was conducted by Dr Khairul Azman Ibrahim and Dr Prashant Naresh Samberkar, which concluded that the injuries on the body were “consistent with those that occur due to fall from height”. Because of the context and nature of Beng Hock’s death, this seemed altogether too simple an explanation and we needed more answers. The report was general and vague, with no elaboration on the wounds found on his body.
The Selangor government appointed Malik Imtiaz Sarwar as its lawyer to represent the state’s interests. In my discussions with him, we decided we should take advantage of Dr Porntip’s previous willingness to help. The inquest began on July 29 at the Shah Alam High Court, and I wrote once again to Dr Porntip to seek her expert opinion and advice based on the evidence we were beginning to gather, which she agreed to provide.
Thus began a flurry of email exchanges between Dr Porntip and myself, her trying to make sense of the case as best as possible from a distance. For the first time in my life I saw photographs taken by the criminal investigation unit of a dead body – graphic, gruesome and bloodied. I was forced to study the basics of forensic pathology and human anatomy, in order to summarise DNA, autopsy and toxicology reports.
The team and I – by this time, the legal team had expanded to include criminal lawyers Sreekant Pillai and Ashok Kandiah – wanted to get Dr Porntip to be present during Dr Khairul and Dr Prashant’s testimony at the inquest, so the right questions could be asked. Her preliminary view as sent to us over email was that there was an area of haemorrhage under the chin that was not compatible with a fall from height, but without seeing the body it was impossible to draw a firm conclusion.
On August 9, 2009, she sent her forensic medicine specialist Dr Triyarith Tehamivong and chief crime scene investigator Pol. Lt. Col. Somchai Chalermsooksant to Selangor, where they conducted a site visit of the crime scene, and observed while tests were being conducted. But by that time so many people had walked in the area that it was difficult to identify anything unusual. They could not add significant value given the constraints.
Back at the inquest, which seemed intentionally draggy, the government pathologist, Dr Khairul, testified that he was certain Beng Hock committed suicide, ruling out homicide, saying that all wounds on his body were consistent with a fall and there were no signs of pre-fall struggle whatsoever. In short, no pre-fall injury indicated that he committed suicide.
This was a direct discrepancy with what Dr Porntip had observed based on the photos. It was time to arrange for her to come personally and attend the inquest, where previously she was preoccupied with work. Finally the stars aligned: on Monday September 14, 2009, Dr Porntip arrived at the Shah Alam court and declared that marks on Beng Hock’s body suggested he had been tortured and strangled. A month later, she came back again on October 21, 2009, for another testimony at the inquest, where she announced that there was an 80% possibility of homicide and 20% chance of suicide, because his injuries were inconsistent with a fall.
Foolishly in my haste, I had not considered any security for Dr Porntip for the first two visits despite how high-profile and politically charged the case was. Travelling to and from locations were just her, her assistant Praew, and myself. On the day of the inquest, we just drove to McDonald’s in Shah Alam and had a simple lunch there. Dr Porntip ate very little, and never touched meat because she said it reminded her of human flesh being dissected.
After sending her and her assistant off at KLIA in October, I was walking back across the hall when suddenly a man took a photo of me with his handphone from a distance. I immediately tried to follow him to do the same to him, but he quickly scurried away.
And then again: as I was moving towards the doorway of Exit 4 of the departure hall a few minutes later, the same man walked by me on the right side in the opposite direction, and muttered under his breath, but clearly enough for me to hear, “Nanti kamu tahu”. I knew this was a veiled threat and hurried to the car waiting for me outside.
I thought little of it and returned to the case.
After Dr Porntip’s revelation in court, the family contacted me via Kerk and indicated that they would be willing to have Beng Hock’s body exhumed for a second autopsy. I felt a rush of relief, but also anxious that the body would not be sufficiently intact for a proper examination after more than three months.
Another rush of activity, this time to arrange the exhumation, second autopsy and reburial: I spoke to Datuk Freddy of Nirvana, who proudly assured me that they had embalmed Beng Hock’s body particularly well because he suspected that the body would need to be seen again.
So it was settled: Dr Porntip would fly in with her assistant, the exhumation would take place on Sunday November 21, 2009, and the body would be transported to Sungai Buloh hospital and kept overnight. The autopsy would be conducted the following day.
It was a bright cool morning when Beng Hock’s body was exhumed. A 30-foot area around the lot was cordoned off by the police. At least ten Chinese Special Branch officers were present, several of whom struck up a conversation with me while waiting under the canopy.
The Fengshui master had advised that nobody should be in bright clothing at the exhumation ceremony. Those born in the years 1924 and 1984 (year of the rat) and 1935 and 1995 (year of the pig) should not be present. For those born in other years of the rat and pig, they would be allowed to attend but not look when the coffin was lifted from the grave and to the vehicle.
There was concern that the body might get conveniently lost while being stored at the hospital, so the family decided to take turns sleeping in front of the mortuary’s door. Everyone was exhausted with little sleep. The autopsy was conducted smoothly, also in the presence of another foreign pathologist, Dr Peter Vanezis, MACC’s appointment. The body was reburied at 10am on November 24.
Having learnt my lesson, this time I had secured a private bodyguard for Dr Porntip. Sure enough, another car followed our car everywhere we went. We had no idea who they were.
It was late at night after a long day of the autopsy. After dinner with the lawyers and dropping Dr Porntip back at One World Hotel in Bandar Utama, the driver was about to send me back to my house. We noticed a man trying to hide from us, ducking behind a van – not a very good spy, I thought.
He got into his car and started following us. I told the driver not to bring me back home yet, since I didn’t want this stranger knowing where I lived. And so we drove on. And on. Up and down highways, speeding round corners, trying to get rid of this nuisance of attempted intimidation. He had halogen headlights on, so we could see his car from miles behind us. 1am, 2am.
Finally, my driver devised a plan. He drove into the Shell station in Shah Alam through its back access road. His “members” were already there, several cars blocking the entrance so the other car would be trapped after following us in. In the meantime, I had arranged for my friend to be there. When my driver said the word “go”, I leapt from the Selangor car to that of my friend’s. The plan worked – we sped off through the back of the station and I was delivered safely home at 3am. – July 17, 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.