By Sivarasa Rasiah
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".
Abdul Gani (Source: agc.
gov.my) 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. 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.
It is the failure of these inquests that fuelled the strong public outcry for a Royal Commission into the cause of Teoh's death. 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".
Teoh 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.
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].
Instead, we have the hastily set-up 15-day inquest that has been directed to start tomorrow. It will only confirm for all Malaysian that the government does not intend for the Royal Commission to touch on the circumstances of Teoh's death at all.
Of the two issues at hand, it is the MACC's method of interrogation that has riled up national anger. Concerned citizens want the truth about how a young man about to be married to a woman pregnant with his child entered the MACC office and wound up dead.
The cabinet might have misread public sentiment when they decided on the Royal Commision's narrow and ineffectual terms of reference. The commission has much greater moral authority and legal prowess to probe into Teoh's death and dig out the truth from behind the veil of Malaysian officialdom. To relegate this critical task to a junior magistrate court of inquest opens the Barisan Nasional government to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) charge that the cabinet has put the cart before the horse.
Already, Teoh's death has reunited the PR and rescued them from their receding image damaged by public internal bickering and their poor showing at the Manik Urai by-election. Mishandling of the investigation into causes of Teoh's death will only give them an opportunity to accumulate their political capital towards the next general election.Sivarasa Rasiah
Parti Keadilan Rakyat