“I don’t know what happened except that he died”: The unsettling pattern of death-in-custody cases

Before Umar Faruq Abdullah, there was Surendran Shanker. Before Surendran Shanker, there was SivabalanSubramaniam. Before Sivabalan Subramaniam, there was A Ganapathy. Before A Ganapathy, Gunasegaran Rajasundram, Dhamendran Narayanasamy, there was Chandran Perumal.

At 47 years old, Chandran was considered a “star employee” among the lorry drivers at LM Partners Sdn Bhd. He worked hard to earn him a “special vehicle” at the construction sites. He also understood enough that he needed to get along with everyone and avoid arguments since he was an outsider. 

But above all he was quiet. And the only thing that could make him happy, it seems, was his family. Twice a week, he would travel 300 KM back to Johor to see his wife and 6 girls – the youngest was only 5. Of the RM4,500 he earns every month, he gives RM3,000 to his wife as household expenses. Having a big and loving family was the greatest joy of his life. 

One day, he heard that an Indonesian woman wanted to give her child up for adoption to avoid the child’s stateless status. Chandran called his wife, Selvi, to ask if Selvi’s sister and her husband wanted this child. They have been waiting 10 years without one. 

Selvi’s sister and husband were overjoyed, and they paid for the Indonesian’s hospital fees and walked home with a new child. But two days later, the Indonesian had a change of mind, and she filed a police report on Chandran, Selvi’s sister and husband and Chandran’s colleague. They took the baby away. 

After his arrest, Chandran was thrown into a lock-up. The conditions in the lock-up were inhumane. Other than depriving food and drink, there was nothing on the floor to sleep on. The lock-up does not have a toilet. When the night turns cold, the cement floor feels like ice, and that was where Chandran had to sleep on. 

“I learned that… my husband’s lock-up spot was inhumane,” said Selvi. “I specifically requested not to be shown any of the photos of the lock-up [during the inquest].” That was how bad it was.

What happened?

When Selvi heard about her husband’s arrest, she rushed to the police station with her family. When she asked to see her husband, the police at IPD Cheras said no. What happened? When she pleaded for her husband’s high blood pressure medication to be passed to him, this was also not allowed.

Soon this turned into a game. A police officer demanded RM300 from Selvi in exchange for information about her husband. She paid, but she still did not get anything. She does not know how Chandran was keeping up, she does not where he was, she does not know whether he was still alive. What happened?

Four days have passed. What happened? Selvi finally receives a call from the police. They asked if Chandran has high blood pressure that requires medication. Yes! – that was what Selvi was trying to tell the police.

The police told her that Chandran has died. 

Only later did Selvi find out that Chandran has died in the morning, 7.48 AM, and he was left lying on his right side until the night. “I knew nothing about what happened to my husband in the lock-up”, said Selvi. Until he died. What happened?

The most unsettling thing about death in custody cases is how familiar the patterns are. Chandran’s case was in 2012, but its pattern reverberates to cases before and after.

The confusion over what crime of arrest (GanapathySugumaran); the refusal of visits (Dhamendran); the refusal of providing medication (Ganapathy); not knowing about the whereabouts (Dhamendran, Gunasegaran); money in exchange for information (Dhamendran); the enormous delay between the police call for family visit and the death of the detainee (Sivabalan, Gunasegaran). 

In Sivabalan’s case, “The police incident report says he died at 12.25pm. However the police called Sivabalan’s sister at about 3pm to say her brother was in critical condition at the Selayang Hospital,” said NGO member Iswaree Subramaniam.

“Up till now,” said Sivabalan’s sister, “we still do not know what happened to my brother except that… Sivabalan died.”

If you had covered the names of these cases and only looked at the details, you might not be able to tell one story from the other. The patterns of death in custody cases are too familiar. 

Police reactions and our reactions in the five-letter word

The police reactions after every death in custody case also have a similar pattern. The police would either give a contradictory (as in Kugan Ananthan’s case from saying the cause of death was he “asked for a glass of water and then collapsed and died” to “water in lungs” to “acute renal failure… due to blunt trauma to skeletal muscles”) or dubious explanation (as in Ganapathy, Mohd Ramadan, Gunasegaran’s cases where post-mortem or autopsy eventually pointed to likely violence), or they would attribute it to a “few bad apples” and pledge an extensive and complete investigation into the issue.

In Kugan’s case, Judge VT Singham said there was a “common pattern” for officers responsible for the custodial deaths to “quickly deny the allegations of torture and suppress the actual cause of death which makes it difficult for claimants and family members to establish their case as to what happened at the lockup.” 

Prosecutions of death in custody cases remain dismal. Of the 284 cases between 2000 to 2016, only 7 were charged. And of these 7, only 2 saw any punishment meted out. Is there a growing “culture of impunity”? Is there a growing “cultural habit of being oppressive”?

Our reactions are also starting to follow a tired pattern. Whenever we hear about death in custody cases in the news, we would express outrage and disbelief on social media, MPs will issue media statements calling for police accountability, and we would resort to the five letters that seems like a huge, immovable boulder: I.P.C.M.C.

We have had the same incidents, same outrage, same analysis, same reactions, and same 17 years since “IPCMC” was first mentioned in the Royal Commission of 2005. 

Judge VT Singham called Kugan’s 2009 custodial death an“oppressive and unconstitutional misconduct offences” that is “unacceptable and objectionable”. Fast forward to three months ago, 2021, Judge Nallini Pathmanathan called custodial deaths “one of the most reprehensible wrongs in a civilized society”, who are “perpetrators of inhumane acts and omissions of neglect or violence.”

But we stay the same. No answers, no apology. 

Rita Chandran was a teenager when her father, Chandran, died. She was the only working member of her family while pursuing her IT certificate on the side. 

“We need justice,” she said. Do we?

(Malaysiakini: https://m.malaysiakini.com/columns/578158)


1. Malay Mail

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