Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

MALAYSIA: Demand Rises for Independent Body to Check Police Force

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, May 5 2010 (IPS) - Aminulrasyid Amzah was just a normal 15-year-old schoolboy who hung out with friends, watched football and occasionally took his sister’s car for a spin.

On Apr. 28 his life came to a sudden and tragic end – shot dead by police after a short, high-speed chase in his hometown of Shah Alam, about 30 kilometres south of the capital. His death has sparked a huge public outcry against the police and rising demands for an independent panel to investigate the incident and also for the creation of an independent oversight committee to monitor police conduct.

"We need an independent authority to watch over the police, to bring them to reign and punish them when they abuse their powers," said prominent human rights activists and opposition lawmaker Charles Santiago.

"This tragic death is a case of rampant abuse of police power," he told IPS. "They shoot first and ask questions later."

"People are angry the police killed him [Amzah] in the prime of his life…. people see the callous cruelty behind the killing," said human rights lawyer Karpal Singh.

Santiago said he and other lawmakers concerned over the rising cases of human rights abuse involving the police force would move a motion in parliament for an urgent debate on the incident.

"We want the police held accountable for each and every death connected with them. This is an absolute must," said opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan.

According to human rights lawyer Uthayakumar Ponnusamy, who closely monitors the police force, about 50 people are shot dead annually but accurate figures are hard to get.

"But the figures are rising and some of the deaths are questionable like the case of student Aminulrasyid Amzah," he told IPS. "How can anybody justify his death? It’s simply impossible."

A proposal to set up an oversight committee watching over the police force was extensively discussed and debated during the administration of former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the police force and check abuse in 2004. It came up with numerous recommendations in 2005.

The high powered panel’s most important recommendation – the creation of an oversight committee, an independent body to watch over the police force and check abuses – was never implemented, largely because of strong opposition from the police force.

At one point police even threatened to pull out their personnel from the streets and abandon policing if the proposed oversight committee was implemented. The move to set up an independent panel to oversee and check the police force was subsequently abandoned.

"The reason why an oversight committee was not set up until today to check a rampant police force is a lack of political will," prominent human rights lawyer N. Surendran told IPS.

"The government benefits from unfettered police action against the legitimate opposition and as a reward, the government allows police a free hand to manage themselves," he said.

"It’s a trade-off and one that works against the people, human rights and democracy," he told IPS.

Public anger at the shooting is palpable and demands to check the police force have been mounting following the death of Amzah.

A Facebook account titled ‘We hate the cruelty of Malaysian police, Justice for Aminulrasyid’ attracted over 100,000 fans within a week of his death, with many people slamming the police.

"We want to show how sick the police institution is; this is not the first case," said a statement on the account.

The government of Prime Minister Najib – which is wooing alienated, younger voters after a drubbing at the general election in 2008 – has quickly responded to the rising anger with an eight-member panel of mainly establishment figures to probe the shooting.

"I promise a fair and transparent probe," Najib said in a statement issued on May 4. The panel will also review the standard operating procedures on the use of firearms by police and make changes, if necessary.

But there is no mention of an oversight committee to check abuses in the police force, something the police still strongly oppose and the government is reluctant to implement out of regard for the police, lawmakers said.

"There is no point in (creating) a panel consisting of establishment figures probing the shooting. I fear they might even whitewash the whole affair," said lawmaker Murugesan.

"What we need, what the people desire is a strong, independent and fearless authority to check the police force … to watch over the watchers and punish the abuse of police powers. This is what we urgently need," he told IPS.

The influential Malaysian Bar Council also said it was "sceptical" that the eight-member panel, headed by Deputy Home Minister Abu Seman Yusop, is "sufficient and effective to uncover the truth regarding the death of the student."

"An independent and credible external mechanism for oversight of the police like the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission suggested by the 2004 Royal Commission is urgently needed to watch over the police force," said Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council.

"The establishment of an ad hoc panel each time there is an incident cannot be a substitute for an institutionalised, transparent and competent entity that is fully focused on police operations and policies alone," he told IPS.

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