Growing fear of brutality in Malaysia police cells
Death of a truck driver has prompted task force to look into the scandal of more than 160 suspicious deaths of prisoners in custody
Truck driver N. Dhamendran entered a Malaysian police station on May 11 to record a statement over a scuffle he was involved in. He never came out alive.
Ten days later, police produced the 32-year-old’s battered corpse, his ears grotesquely pierced with a stapler, and said he died of a heart attack.
The case has brought new focus to a shocking and persistent scandal tarnishing Malaysia’s security forces – routine deaths at the hands of police officers widely viewed as corrupt and brutal.
More than 160 such deaths have been reported since 2000, three in an 11-day span beginning with Dhamendran’s.
“Nowadays, we don’t have to be afraid of gangsters, we must be afraid of them [the police],” Dhamendran’s widow, M. Marry, said.
Yesterday, the government charged three police officers with murder in connection with the Dhamendran’s death.
Dhamendran’s family lawyer, N. Surendran, said it was thought to be the first murder charge since the 1990s in response to a custodial death.
The episode also highlighted the comparatively sorry state of Malaysia’s ethnic Indians, who make up 8 per cent of the country’s 28 million people.
Like Dhamendran, those dying in police custody are typically ethnic Indians, in what activists see as a deadly symptom of their marginalisation.
Imported under British colonial rule since the mid-1800s as plantation workers, Indians have fared poorly relative to majority Malays, who control politics, and the large Chinese minority who dominate the economy.
“Indians, who have the least amount of political and economic power, are dehumanised,” said Michelle Yesudas, of rights group Lawyers for Liberty.
The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the dominant party in the ruling National Front coalition, that has towered over politics since independence in 1957, maintains policies that give Muslim Malays business and educational advantages. The measures increasingly anger other races and, activists say, have set a tone of racial bias in key government bodies.
“The custodial deaths clearly show the police force is institutionally racist and the Indians are seen as soft targets,” said longtime Indian rights activist P. Waythamoorthy, who was recently appointed a deputy minister in a gesture to his community.
Indian rights group Hindraf says nearly a million Indians lost their jobs in plantations due to an influx of cheap foreign labour in recent decades and some 350,000 remain stateless, lacking proper citizenship documents.
Faced with mounting disgust, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has announced the formation of a task force to be led by the national police chief. The task force is to look into preventative steps – but it is not to investigate past deaths.
Lawyer Surendran, an ethnic Indian vice-president of the opposition People’s Justice Party, called the task force a “complete whitewash”.
Dhamendran’s wife said she faced threats and extortion at two police stations in Kuala Lumpur – handing over food, soft drinks and cigarettes – before she was allowed to visit her husband.
“I assure the public that as long as we are entrusted [with resolving the problem], we will not compromise on the issue of deaths in custody,” Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said. His ministry controls the police.
Najib’s government says crime is down, but critics allege official data is tampered with to hide police failures, amid a widespread perception of a rising wave of robberies and assaults.
Media reports said that in the past month even the well-guarded homes of relatives of the national police chief and deputy prime minister were burgled.
Police, meanwhile, aggressively bring charges against the political opposition or activists, prompting allegations of bias.
Several people have been charged with sedition after calling for protests against alleged electoral fraud by the coalition in May 5 elections.
Malaysian politics is bitterly polarised, but the issue of brutality has prompted calls from across the political divide for an independent commission on police misconduct that was recommended by a 2005 Malaysian royal inquiry.
Najib’s Malay-dominated government and police, however, have resisted, saying an existing commission was sufficient. That commission was reported to have one investigator to probe complaints against 19 enforcement bodies.