Whose lives mat­ter?

Po­lice bru­tal­ity ex­ists around the world, and eth­nic mi­nori­ties fre­quently bear the brunt of it.

The Star Malaysia - - World - Martin Ven­gade­san @mar­t­in­vthes­tar

“IF you ever get stopped by the cops at a road­block, don’t be a smart alec,” I told my Chin­dian sons. “They will see you as In­dian, and po­lice here are no­to­ri­ous for their mal­treat­ment of In­di­ans in the lock-up.”

Some of you may know what I mean. And oth­ers won’t. Maybe I am be­ing para­noid but I think there’s a jus­ti­fi­able rea­son for it.

Fran­cis Udayap­pan (May 2004), A. Ku­gan (Jan­uary 2009), N. Dhar­men­dran (May 2013) and S. Bala­mu­ru­gan (Fe­bru­ary 2017) are among the most cel­e­brated cases of death in cus­tody. That doesn’t mean that only eth­nic In­di­ans die in the lock-up but it does seem to im­ply that there’s a strong slant in this in­stance.

I have ac­tu­ally been study­ing this sort of case for many years and there is in­deed a wide dis­crep­ancy in fig­ures. When I first made re­quests eight years ago to a pre­vi­ous Home Min­is­ter for clar­i­fi­ca­tion be­cause deaths in cus­tody fig­ures were then be­ing cou­pled with prison deaths, they were re­buffed.

These are the stats that I find rel­e­vant: In­di­ans are 7% of the pop­u­la­tion. Ac­cord­ing to an an­swer by Zahid Hamidi in par­lia­ment last year, 23% of lock-up deaths were In­di­ans. Ac­cord­ing to Suaram that num­ber is 56%.

In my own study of re­ported cases over a 15 year pe­riod, the num­ber was nearly 80%!

Re­gard­less of which stat you choose to em­brace, it must be clear that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of In­di­ans have died in the lock-up. And be­lieve me this sort of statis­tic is mir­rored around the world.

Many in­jus­tices do not have a racial slant to them, but po­lice bru­tal­ity does ap­pear to. For more than 20 years, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional has cited ex­am­ples that a large ma­jor­ity of vic­tims in­volv­ing deaths in cus­tody or ques­tion­able shoot­ings are racial mi­nori­ties. These in­clude the Abo­rig­ines in Aus­tralia, men of Arab de­scent in France and the African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion in the USA. Hence the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

A look at re­ports on po­lice bru­tal­ity on­line re­veals the case of Ethan Say­lor, a white man with Down’s Syn­drome who died by as­phyx­i­a­tion when cops man­han­dled him in a cinema in Mary­land and Mau­rice Gran­ton Jr, a 24-year old black man shot in the back while run­ning away from Chicago po­lice of­fi­cers.

Then there are no­to­ri­ous cases like that of Rod­ney King who was beaten re­peat­edly in a 1992 in­ci­dent that was cap­tured on video and sparked racial ri­ots in Los An­ge­les, and Tamir Rice, a 12-yearold shot dead by a trig­ger happy cop when play­ing with a toy gun in Cleve­land, Ohio.

Last month PWC ac­coun­tant Botham Jean was killed in his own home in Dal­las by a po­lice of­fi­cer who mis­tak­enly went to the wrong house and thought he was an in­truder.

So why do in­no­cent peo­ple die at the hands of the po­lice, par­tic­u­larly when in their cus­tody?

Deaths in cus­tody oc­cur as a re­sult of sui­cide, mur­der by other de­tainees, or gen­uine ill health that is not treated un­til it’s too late. What’s per­turb­ing, is that many deaths clearly re­sult from tor­ture and abuse on the part of the au­thor­i­ties them­selves. Yet not once in Malaysia has this re­sulted in a con­vic­tion for mur­der.

Years ago, Tan Sri Si­mon Si­paun, who served on Suhakam for over 10 years from 2000-2010 told me: “I don’t re­mem­ber any prose­cu­tion emerg­ing from in­ves­ti­ga­tions. In the case of sus­pi­cious deaths, you have to make a re­port to the po­lice, and chances are they will de­fend their own kind.

“Many times dur­ing my vis­its to lock-ups af­ter a sus­pi­cious death, the of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tions do not tally and cru­cial ev­i­dence is not forth­com­ing. For ex­am­ple, if there is sup­posed to be a cam­era at the po­lice sta­tion where a death had oc­curred, it would ei­ther be miss­ing or not work­ing. I also no­ticed that more of­ten than not, when Suhakam re­ceived a com­plaint about a sus­pi­cious death, it in­volved those of In­dian eth­nic­ity.”

The Ku­gan case is dif­fi­cult to for­get. He was an able-bod­ied man de­tained by po­lice for ques­tion­ing un­der sus­pi­cion of car theft and who died a few days later. A rushed au­topsy in­di­cated he had died due to fluid ac­cu­mu­la­tion in the lungs, but an an­gry crowd led by Ku­gan’s fam­ily and sev­eral politi­cians stormed the morgue at Ser­dang Hospi­tal. Upon ex­am­in­ing his body, they found clear signs of tor­ture. A sec­ond au­topsy was or­dered, re­veal­ing that Ku­gan had been beaten, burnt and starved prior to his death, and the case was later re-clas­si­fied as mur­der.

In the cases of both Ku­gan and Dhar­men­dran, there was prose­cu­tion, how­ever in nei­ther case did it end in a sat­is­fac­tory man­ner.

So­cial ac­tivist Janakey Ra­man who spent most of his life work­ing with es­tate com­mu­ni­ties says that the fear among the In­dian com­mu­nity is that they have been tar­geted and branded as crim­i­nals, and that there is a vi­cious cy­cle of sus­pi­cion and blame that re-in­forces it­self.

I don’t want to spend my time fear-mon­ger­ing. For all the back and forth of poli­cies and prom­ises, it has been a good week for New Malaysia, with wel­come an­nounce­ments about the abo­li­tion of the death penalty and the sedi­tion act.

Long live new Malaysia, I say. And it is my fer­vent wish that cus­to­dial deaths soon be­come a relic of the past.

News ed­i­tor Martin Ven­gade­san re­mem­bers what it was like to live in a po­lice state.

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