Saturday, August 08, 2009

Who polices the police?

Recently I bumped into one of the newly employed security guards at my workplace. As we talked , our conversation led to a harrowing account of his with the local police some time back. At the time, he was a long distance lorry driver. During one of those trips, he and his co-driver were tied up, gagged, blindfolded and left stranded while a gang of thieves robbed their truck together with the full load.

When they went to the police station after being rescued the next day, they were instead held as suspects who had collaborated with the robbers and customarily interrogated. According to him, the interrogation process was the most terrifying moment in his life. They were told to plead guilty or else. When they didn't, they were confined to a dark room where they were stripped to their underwear and hung upside down from a beam and subjected to repeated blows from anyone who walked into the room. This went on for a few days - even after their boss tried to bail them out. Eventually, because the police couldn't find any evidence against them, the charges were dropped and they were released. In time, he recovered physically but the experience has scarred him both mentally and emotionally for life. He quit his favoured job and now works as a security guard.

Obviously, this is not the only case of its kind. Over the years, especially in the last 20 years or so, there has been a steady increase in the number of abused police suspects. In a query to Parliament on 8 July 2009, Bernama, the national news agency provided a staggering statistic:
1535 deaths in police custody since 2003. That's an average of 255 deaths a year for the past 6 years.

In 2005 the previous Badawi administration had buckled under huge public pressure and set up a IPCMC (Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission) . Yet, more than 4 years on, the recommendations made then are yet to be implemented. It's largely due to the fact that the police force itself has been very resistant to the IPCMC. To placate them, the government tried to push through a much watered down bill in 2007, renamed as the Special Complaints Commission.

As expected, the backlash from the public meant that the SCC came to nought. The saga finally ended when the government tabled the Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission (EAIC) bill in Parliament in March 2009. While the EAIC seems more inclusive that it includes not only the police but all 21 government enforcement agencies, the one major sticking point is that it has NO powers to act independently, like initially suggested under the IPCMC. The Edge reports on the differences between the IPCMC and the EAIC.

Under the EAIC, the Anti Corruption Agency was renamed MACC, which in turn has been implicated in the mysterious death of Teoh Beng Hock, an aide to Selangor political secretary Ean Yong Hean Wah. Tunku Abdul Aziz, a co-founder of the Malaysian chapter of Transparency International blogs:

“What a waste of public funds! The creation of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission will go down in history as a feeble and pathetic final clutch at the straws by a sitting duck prime minister best remembered for his inexhaustible supply of good intentions but with nothing to show for them. The MACC was hastily conceived against a murky background of a web of duplicity and deceit. It was a desperate attempt at deluding the people of this country and the world anti-corruption community that the Abdullah Badawi administration still had a lot of fire in its belly to make corruption a high risk and low return business. The whole process was nothing more than a charade, a sleight of hand that we have come to expect from this government. In the meantime corruption continues to be in robust good health.”

Raja Petra, perennial thorn in the Barisan Nasional's behind, quotes the Tunku in his Malaysia Today blog:

"The police, in spite of claims by the IGP and others to the contrary, have not changed one bit. The Royal Commission that inquired into the police service, for all practical purposes, might as well not have been appointed judging by the outcome".

In the meantime, the circus continues. The latest count of police abuse was during the 1st August 2009 march for the repeal of the Internal Security Act in Kuala Lumpur. More than 20,000 demonstrators who had gathered peacefully albeit without a valid permit, were systematically blasted with chemically laced water, threatened with truncheons, kicked, beaten and shot at with tear gas canisters. Independent and opposition parties condemned the police actions as over the top.

Public perception of the police force is probably at the lowest ever in history. Everyone knows how corrupt the entire system is. The policing itself is left much to be desired. True, there are police officers who diligently carry out their duties but high handed actions such as the ones described above only ensure the growing distance and distaste of the police force from the public.

Ironically, the police force exists in the country to ensure and protect the rights and security of every citizen and person who lives in the country. Over the last 20 years though, it has come to be seen as only interested in protecting the interests of a certain group of privileged people. The people on the ground know what's the score for them and are demanding changes. The police force largely wants to ignore that and operate business as usual. The PM knows what has to be done. The question is, whether he and his cabinet have the political will to do it.