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prisonYet another Malaysian has died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Twenty-five year old Syed Mohd Azlan Syed Mohamad Nor died November 3rd at the Sungai Renggit police station in the state of Johor.

The police account of what happened is confusing at best. According to press reports, Azlan’s father was initially told that his son had difficulty breathing due to asthma, something that Azlan’s father strenuously denied his son suffered from. Police later said he sustained injuries resisting arrest and classified his demise as “sudden death.” A post-mortem, however, revealed, that Azlan died of blunt-force trauma to the chest; there were also bruises and puncture marks on his body.

Azlan now joins an ever-increasing list of Malaysians who have died in suspicions or at least unexplained circumstances while in police custody. According to SUARAM, the Malaysian rights group, 12 people died in police custody last year, 10 this year. Amnesty International estimates that more than 230 people have died in police custody since 2000.

Most recently on 16 July this year, 26-year-old Chew Siang Giap died shortly after police took him to the Batu Gajah rehabilitation centre in Perak State. The victim’s father said his son’s body was covered in bruises but his request for an independent investigation has been ignored by the authorities.

In another case, P Karuna Nithi died in police custody in Negeri Sembilan state on 1 June 2013. Local police denied any “foul play” but an autopsy report showed 49 injury marks on his body. Family members said his corpse showed signs of beating with blood coming out of the back of his head.

And just this week, a coroner’s inquest began into the death of security guard, C. Sugumar, who was found dead, half-naked with a yellow powder smeared on his face, and wearing two pairs of handcuffs.

Perhaps the most infamous case of custodial death was that of A. Kugan who died in police custody in 2009. A second postmortem revealed Kugan had 45 external injuries and extensive internal injuries. His cause of death was acute renal failure due to blunt force trauma.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court, ruling on a civil suite brought by Kugan’s family, found that the Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, who was then the Selangor police chief, was liable to misfeasance in the case. Kugan’s mother was award RM 851,700 in assault and battery, false imprisonment, misfeasance, and pain and suffering damages.

In August this year, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s decision and maintained that a former constable, the police force and the government were all liable for the death of A. Kugan. In a strongly worded statement, the three-judge panel led by Justice Datuk Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, said that “Custodial death are unacceptable.. [and] cannot and should not happen in this country. There should be zero tolerance to any custodial deaths in all the remand centres in the country and should custodial death happen, a public, independent inquiry must be initiated….”

Despite this clear and unequivocal statement, custodial deaths continue with sickening regularity in Malaysia. Most are not followed by the kind of public and independent inquiry that the justices called for and is indeed required by law.

The definite and recurring pattern of custodial deaths is both shocking and deeply troubling. It must surely say something about the moral turpitude of the government that it lacks the political will to establish and enforce rigorous standards for the treatment of prisoners in police custody in keeping with the law of the land. Surely a nation that currently sits on the UN Human Rights Council and which has recently been elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council has a moral and legal obligation to protect the legitimate rights of all its citizens.

All Malaysians must unite around this great and grave injustice and demand greater accountability and transparency from our police. This abuse of power is as pressing a national issue as the corruption that, sadly, is so rampant in our nation today ~ Dennis Ignatius, November 29th 2014