As she arrived at the police station in Johor Baru in October 2009, Saphiah Mohd Elah spotted the unmistakable sight of her son Mohd Afham Afrin's motorcycle - covered in blood.
“The police made me wait for hours (at the station). I saw his motorcycle outside the station. It was covered with blood. I asked (the police) ‘Is Afham alive or dead?’ They said he was okay. They lied.”
Her harrowing account appears in a 102-page report entitled ‘No Answers, No Apology: Police Abuses and Accountability in Malaysia’ released this morning in Kuala Lumpur by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Hours before that, on the night of Oct 19, Afham, 20 and his friend Mohd Firdaus Marsani were shot at by plainclothes police personnel.
Firdaus is quoted in the HRW report as saying that they were stopped by men who did not identify themselves as police.
Fearing they were going to be robbed, Afham, who was the rider, sped off only to be shot at. Firdaus said he fell off the bike and ran into the jungle.
He found his way home three hours later, and later lodged a police report upon reading media reports quoting police claiming that the duo were snatch thieves and had been wielding a parang and sword.
Firdaus was never charged with any offence, while Afham's family's civil suit against the police is pending in court.
From extra-judicial killings of teenagers to custodial deaths, threats to lawyers and assaults on journalists covering demonstrations, the report gives chilling and bloody first-person accounts of police abuse and misconduct.
Police version of incidents
Besides information gleaned from victims and their families, the report includes excerpts from interviews from 75 individuals including police officers and representatives of oversight bodies.
“While police shootings may sometimes be lawful, reported incidents of police shootings show a pattern in which police justify shootings by asserting the suspect had a parang ... or (had) failed to stop at a roadblock or after a car chase,” it reads.
“In some cases, the police also attempt to justify their use of lethal force by alleging that the suspect was a criminal associated with ongoing police investigation.
“Wholly absent from police narratives is any attempt to demonstrate that lethal use of force was the only available option to save lives at imminent risk.”
In many cases, it says, the police version of events appears “completely at odds” with the accounts of witnesses and victims who say the victims were unarmed or did not pose any threat.
Despite accusations of criminality, those who survived shootings were often not charged with any crime, says the report, quoting police personnel, lawyers, victims and officers of oversight bodies.
Inquests, despite being mandatory according to the law for police killings, are also rare and only take place if there is public outcry and pressure.
Similarly, police personnel are rarely prosecuted for extra-judicial killings or custodial deaths.
“The filing of murder charges against the police officers in the (N) Dhamendran case counts as a significant exception to the common practice of police delay and cover-up in death-in-custody cases,” says the report.
Police initially said Dhamendran had died of breathing difficulties but the post-mortem showed he has suffered blunt force trauma. Staple marks were found on his ears and ankle.
Little justice for victims
HRW also notes that, despite widespread public condemnation, allegations of such abuse and misconduct are still being investigated by the police themselves, compounding conflict of interest.
“The (Criminal Investigation Department) conducts an investigation and if, for example, the use of weapon is not according to the IGP Standing Orders then (the) case is referred to the disciplinary authority of the (Attorney-General’s Chambers),” Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar (left) is quoted as saying.
Between January 2005 and May 2012, the HRW reports, the CID opened 4,334 files against police personnel but only about a third were referred to the AG's Chambers for prosecution.
About a quarter of the investigation papers led to prosecution, but the rest were not prosecuted due to ‘lack of evidence’ and 68 percent of the cases were pending investigation as at May last year. Some files were opened in 2005.
“Malaysian police evidently believe that their at times outrageous public statements on shooting deaths won’t be subject to competing evidence and accounts in the media,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.
“And so far, sadly, victims have little recourse because police investigate themselves, ignore external oversight requests and manipulate the system.”
HRW notes that numerous cases have been dismissed using a legal precedent which requires the individual who committed the misconduct to be identified.
“Victims of police abuse, such as indiscriminate shooting or excessive use of force during demonstrations, told (HRW) about the difficulties they face in identifying members of the riot police who have attacked or shot at them.
“For instance, during the two Bersih rallies in 2011 and 2012, riot police were not wearing name tags or identification numbers on their uniforms.”
Robertson said that the first step in fixing this is to set up an independent oversight body which has enough resources and teeth to compel action against police abuse.
Until then, he said, “distrust” will continue to pollute the relationship between police and the public.