Malaysian police a force to be reckoned
with By Ioannis
KUALA LUMPUR - While the world has
turned its attention toward abuse of prisoners by US
forces in Iraq, the Malaysian Royal Police has been
confronting its own spate of alleged abuse cases.
One such case concerns 24-year-old G Francis
Udayapan, a detainee who police claim escaped last month
from his holding cell and jumped into a river, though
the young man's mother suspects he died in police
custody. Since 1999, 67 people have died in police
custody in Malaysia.
Another case involves
human-rights lawyer P Uthayakumar, an outspoken critic
of the Malaysian police, who was beaten and assaulted at
gunpoint a few weeks later. Uthayakumar says police were
behind the attack; he happened to be investigating
Udayapan's death at the time.
What is noteworthy
is not that the police, notorious here for corruption,
negligence and excessive force, should find themselves
the accused perpetrators of the crimes in question, but,
analysts say, that the incidents provided the recently
formed Royal Police Commission with two high-profile
cases with which to tackle exactly what it was set up to
do: inquire into police misconduct and procedure and
start proposing reforms.
commission, headed by a former chief justice, was
launched by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in February
as part of his much-advertised pledge to reform
Malaysian government and civil society since taking
office in October.
The commissioners themselves
have a wide range of backgrounds, including political,
legal, activist, religious and business, and have vowed
to help restore credibility to the police. In time,
maybe they will. But according to lawyers,
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizens who
have dealt directly with the commission, it is already
showing some of the traits that are synonymous with the
police: arrogance, secrecy, complacency and
NGOs and concerned citizens have
been barred from some of the commission's "open
hearings". Uthayakumar, the human rights lawyer, said:
"They were set up to take immediate action on urgent
matters. But they have not taken any action on [these
cases of abuse]."
After his thrashing,
Uthayakumar requested 24-hour police protection. But
police denied his request, while the royal commission,
he said, stood apart, silent on the sidelines. On May 20
he left for the United Kingdom to seek temporary asylum;
he said he no longer feels safe in Malaysia and called
on Abdullah and also the home affairs minister to ensure
Before his departure, Uthayakumar
and other activists sent the commission dozens of
letters urging a prompt and thorough investigation into
Udayapan's disappearance from police custody on April 18
- police said he escaped and drowned in a river. He also
requested that the commission serve as an intermediary
between Udayapan's family and the police, saying the
police were unreceptive to his inquiries, and the
allegations concerned one of their own. That request
also was denied.
Then on Tuesday, the young
man's mother positively identified a macerated body as
that of her son. Police said they found the drowned body
in a river Sunday evening. It was covered with deep
bruises. Udayapan, who could not swim, was slated for
release the day after his disappearance.
Commission officials admit they didn't pressure
police to hasten investigations and had not taken a hand
in determiing Udayapan's whereabouts. What did spur the
investigation, observers say, was community outrage and
the tenacity of a few determined NGOs, including
Uthayakumar's Police Watch and Human Rights Committee -
the same forces that have been fighting an uphill battle
for police reform all along.
secretary Hamzah Che Rus acknowledged that the
commission has received letters from Uthayakumar almost
daily regarding police misconduct. However, he added, it
is neither the commission's job nor intent to interfere
with police investigations. "Let them settle [the cases]
by themselves and then report to us," Rus said. "Now
that [Udayapan's] body was found we will look into it."
Rus added that while the commission is
determined to help reform police conduct, it is not set
up to investigate individual cases - an approach critics
equate with collecting evidence based on hearsay.
Previously, the commission said it would investigate
specific cases involving alleged abuse by police.
The commission's supporters say it needs time to
establish its identity and direction and until then
should be given the benefit of the doubt. It should be
judged, they say, by its interim and annual reports,
which will contain findings and suggestions, including
proposed legal amendments, and will be presented to the
prime minister in August and February. Issues of
corruption and police violence will only be addressed in
the annual report, they say.
commissioner said, the commission has begun to draw up
plans to redesign some police stations; some holding
cells are on remote floors where torture can proceed
unheard and unseen. As well, several times a week, three
commissioners will be on hand at the commission's new
downtown offices here to receive and to field complaints
from the public. In due time, commissioners say, they
will be able to determine what issues are of deepest
concern to the public.
immediate past president of Hakam (the National Human
Rights Society), welcomes these steps but says they will
hardly solve what he calls the endemic problems within
the 80,000-member Malaysian police force. He says they
fatally shoot 1.3 people a week and are the subject of
more public complaints than any other segment of the
Malaysian civil service. The police say the killings are
"What we're seeing is a mismatch
between a concentration on soft issues and public
expectations of exercise of police power," he said.
Awareness of the police force's above-the-law
mentality was brought to the fore in 1998 when former
deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, being detained on
sodomy and corruption charges, appeared in court with a
black eye. Then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed
Anwar beat himself up; however, the national police
chief, Rahim Noor, later admitted to administering the
beating and was himself given a two-month jail sentence.
Police were also accused of using excessive force to
quell peaceful street demonstrations opposing Anwar's
detention. Faith in the force has since steadily waned.
Hence the Police Commission set up by Abdullah.
Some, though, are suspicious of the timing.
After all, Abdullah had been home minister since before
the Anwar beating scandal, and the police were under his
supervision. So, shouldn't the cleanup effort have
started long ago? Abdullah, these critics charge, has
all the while supported the Internal Security Act and
the Police Act, which give police wide-ranging powers.
He has also frequently reminded the media not to
question authority, all of which have done little to
foster police accountability.
And yet since
becoming premier in this election year, Abdullah has
unveiled various initiatives and committees in the name
of reform. He has shown a different face.
concern is whether he will see them through. Few of his
early moves have begun to pay dividends, raising doubts.
And analysts say if that is to change, Abdullah and his
fellow old-hands of the political elite will need to
show greater backing - political will and real action -
for their grand proclamations.
Tying this theory
to the royal commission, rights activist Tikamdas said,
"The allegations against the police are quite serious",
and by aggressively detailing them, the commission runs
the risk of ruffling feathers - akin in Malaysian
society to starting trouble. That's why investing in
appearance rather than reform has long augured better
for political survival in Malaysia than pushing for real
change - and perhaps that's why some of Abdullah's early
calls might appear to be lagging, and lacking real
Uthayakumar commends Abdullah
for putting the inspector general of police in charge of
the Udayapan case rather than leaving it in the hands of
the station from where he went missing. And according to
commission chair Mohamed Dzaiddin, Abdullah has
encouraged the commission to keep him abreast of its
progress and to pursue complaints made during its public
Uthayakumar, the human rights lawyer
seeking asylum in Britain, said it can't stop there,
though: real reform will require a total revamping of
the Royal Police. Others say something less drastic,
such as providing training courses to officers, would
help. Dzaiddin has said training and development courses
are being considered - as are many other steps in these
early days of the Abdullah administration.
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