Updated at 12:30pm, 29 July 2009
ATTORNEY General (AG) Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail’s argument for setting up an inquest to look into the death of political aide Teoh Beng Hock is simply that, as there is a specific provision under the Criminal Procedure Code for such an inquiry, “it is only proper that a court of law determines the cause of death”.
We know that there are such provisions for setting up an inquests. But the AG is missing the point that all such inquiries into deaths in custody have failed to identify the perpetrators and achieve any just outcome. No one has been held responsible for any of the deaths in custody since 2003.
These inquests failed for a variety of reasons. Junior judicial officers were investigating where they were entirely dependent on the evidence placed before them through police witnesses, when the core issue was often police misconduct itself. The deputy public prosecutors from the AG’s chambers, who were assigned the responsibility of presenting the evidence, were also responsible. Rules of evidence were technical and the participation of lawyers also limited.
The failure of the inquests had underlined the call for the IPCMC in the 2005 Report of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Police so that an independent body would investigate such misconduct, and also for a proper and independent Coroner’s Court.
The failure of all our key institutions — the AG’s chambers, the judiciary and the police — to hold anyone responsible for these custodial deaths has created a culture of impunity among some of our enforcement officers. It is the failure of these inquests that fuelled the strong public outcry for a Royal Commission into the cause of Teoh’s death.
Furthermore, the announcement in the media today that a Deputy Registrar of the Shah Alam High Court, Azmil Muntapha Abas, has been appointed as the coroner also goes to reinforce the point we are making. With no disrespect, Azmil’s standing is not comparable to the personalities who were appointed to the Royal Commission to investigate the assault on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and identify the assailants, such as former Chief Judge of Malaya Tan Sri Anuar Zainal Abidin, and retired Court of Appeal Judge Datuk Mahadev Shankar.
It was also misleading for the AG to refer to the Commissions of Enquiry Act 1950 to imply that royal commissions were for the purpose of inquiring into “conduct and management of government officers and departments, or for the public welfare”.
Such inquiries can also be made into crimes committed by government officers or departments, such as the aforementioned inquest set up in January 1999 to investigate the assault on Anwar and to identify his assailant.
There is nothing mandatory about the setting up of this particular inquest; this is obvious in the statement issued by the AG himself, where he confirms that he directed the setting up of the inquest by the magistrate. This is not the case of the magistrate invoking his own powers to conduct a mandatory inquest, under the circumstances provided in the Criminal Procedure Code.
It would have been appropriate if, as legal adviser to the government, the AG had advised the cabinet to broaden the terms of reference of the Royal Commission to include investigating the circumstances of Teoh’s death and identifying those responsible, [on top of scrutinising the mode of questioning employed by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the cause of Teoh's death].
What we see now is a hastily set up inquest by a junior judicial officer, which has been directed to start tomorrow, as a fait accompli. It will only confirm further to all Malaysians that the government does not intend the Royal Commission to touch on the question of the circumstances of Teoh’s death at all.
This regrettable situation will continue to raise questions about whether the Barisan Nasional sincerely intends to find out the truth behind the mysterious circumstances of Teoh’s death, or to perpetuate a cover-up.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat
28 July 2009
See also: Inquests are hamstrung