Crusading lawyer N. Surendran has encountered many harrowing cases of deaths in custody over the past 12 years

TIME and time again, Malaysians have met their deaths in grim circumstances behind the bars of a police lock-up.

These aren’t sanctioned executions nor fights between prisoners, but appear to be something altogether more sinister.

In recent weeks, a number of high profile lock-up deaths in Malaysia have brought to the fore an issue which surfaces from time to time, most notably with the death of A. Kugan at the USJ Taipan lock-up in January 2009.


The deaths of P.Karuna Nithi, R. Ramesh Jamesh, N.Dhamendran and Japanese national Nobuhiro Matsushita all made headlines recently.

N.Dharmendran’s death was particularly gripping as the 31-year-old was abused and tortured when he was detained for questioning at the Kuala Lumpur Police Headquarters.

Since then, three policemen have been charged with murder while one remains at large.

Human rights lawyer and Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president N.Surendran has taken up the case of behalf of Dhamendran’s family, who has much experience in cases dealing with lock-up deaths.

Harrowing deaths

In an exclusive interview, the Padang Serai MP said that deaths in custody are all too common.

Surendran also described the condition of Dhamendran’s body, which he said rendered him speechless.

“After Kugan’s case, I didn’t expect to see one that bad but it was my fate to see Dhamendran’s body,”

Surendran knew something was wrong when he saw staples on Dhamendran’s ear lobes.

“The pathologist and I saw the body together and we were shocked to see something shiny on the ear lobes, which were staples. His body was full of bruises,”

N.Dhamendran’s widow M.Marry (left), his father S.Naraiyan with lawyer N.Surendren.

“I even asked the pathologist, why there were staples in his ear and does the hospital tag them for identification?

“It was a horrible to see a human being in that condition!” he said.

He also recalled his reaction on seeing Kugan’s body.

“The family walked in with me and the moment they saw his body there were howls of grief. They couldn’t take it.

“What made it worse is the act was not committed by criminals it was committed by the very people who are supposed to protect the public,” alleged Surendran.

Victims are often poor Indians

Surendran has taken on many cases, knowing that victim’s families are often left helpless because of their financial situation.

“In many cases, victims from poor socio-economic background – especially Indians – are affected when it comes to custodial deaths,” said Surendran.

Many deaths are not reported but one case that went national was Francis Udayappan’s case in 2004.

Udayappan’s disappearance and death after his detention at the Brickfields police station in Kuala Lumpur on April 16, 2004, highlighted the many flaws in lock-ups.

He reportedly escaped from custody and there was conflicting evidence whether a partially decomposed body found in the nearby Klang River was his.

“That was a long-drawn battle. The body was in the morgue for almost a year pending post-mortems,” he said.

According to him, Udayappan’s case catapulted the issue of deaths in custody into people’s minds.

“Death in custody and is the ultimate denial of human rights. If we don’t arrest it, we can become a banana republic – where people will disappear in the middle of the night and enforcement officials takes lives at will,” he said.

According to Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) statistics, 64 Malays, 30 Chinese and 28 Indians – a total of 122 – died in custody from 2000-2010.

However, Surendran states that based on these statistics, the percentage of Indians dying in lock-ups (about 18%) is clearly disproportionate to the seven to eight percent ratio of Indians who make up the population of Malaysia.

“It is an inevitable conclusion that there is some racial targeting going on in here. This has to stop,” said Surendran.

Number of deaths increasing

More alarmingly, the number of deaths in custody have increased since 2010.

According to Surendran, more than 211 deaths were reported in the last two-and-a-half years.

“We have enough anecdotal evidence from newspaper reports as well as reports from NGOs like Suaram and Lawyers for Liberty who have built their own data. There is definitely an increase.

“I’ve put in a question for Parliament, asking the government to come out with exact figures from 2011 to June 2013. Hopefully we may be in a clearer position to find out exactly what the figures are,” he said.

Countries like India, Pakistan, United States and Bangladesh have also been criticised for their high number of lock-up deaths.

In many countries, lock-up abuse tends to affect the minorities as enforcement officials tend to be of the majority race.

“No doubt it happens all over the world but our concern is for our own country.

“There is an institutional failure in our country – failure to take action when it incidents like this happen,” he said.

Surendran feels that the setting-up of an independent body like the proposed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) would be the first step to deter deaths in custody.

“It’s basic in any civilised jurisprudence or legal system that the perpetrator cannot investigate the perpetrator.

“It may not be possible to end custodial violence completely. It’s something we have to work towards but what we really want is a mechanism (to deter it).

“It wouldn’t be the perfect solution but it would be the first step.” said Surendran

Some quarters have claimed that he is doing this for political mileage but Surendran denied it as he has been doing this long before he became active in politics.

“I came to politics as a human rights lawyer. I only came into politics in December 2010 when I became vice-president of PKR.

“It’s not about politics, but human lives. It’s completely meaningless for them to say it is about politics,” he said.

He added that even though some families in bereavement, still go through public campaigns to ensure that their loved ones get justice.

“Justice is important to them. They yearn for justice and they want to see every see single person involved in it charged.

“In Dhamendran’s case, I saw tremendous relief on the faces of the family members. Though they lost their loved one they were glad to see justice prevail,” he said.

Surendran wants to see more action from the Government to stop deaths in custody.

“There should be action from the Government – especially the Home Ministry to combat these issues. It is a burning issue that needs to be solved,” he said.

He is disappointed with Datuk Paul Low’s statement that IPCMC will not be established as the Government looks to set up the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EIAC).

“Let me strike a foreboding note here – deaths in custody will continue if there is no political will.

“The Government will have to bear full responsibility for these deaths,” he said.