The establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) cannot exist without checks and balances, especially feedback from the public, said a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer.
Relating the establishment of the National Police Commission in Sri Lanka and applying it in the Malaysian context, senior advocate Kishali Esther Pinto Jayawardena told fz.com the IPCMC cannot exist without a framework that would constantly place pressure on the government for its importance.
“Legal abstracts are well enough in their own place but they are not sufficient to get the message across. Public opinion on why the IPCMC is necessary and essential for the people is extremely relevant,” she said.
“So keeping at it, highlighting individual cases are important,” said Kishali, who was part of the Forum-Asia fact-finding mission on restriction of freedom of expression and public assembly post-13th general election.
According to Kishali, police torture is seriously endemic in Sri Lanka, not only to categories of people but across the board, and it is not limited to a group of people based on ethnicity.
“In the southern majority villages, if a boy is caught stealing bananas, the immediate recourse is torture. We have instances where 14-year-old boys are being mercilessly tortured,” she related.
Despite the huge constraints Sri Lanka is facing now, “a very oppressive government with two-thirds majority in Parliament, entire judiciary on the government side, the torture cases have really brought the pro-government media together because the cases have been intolerable”, she added.
The Sri Lankan lesson
The Sri Lankan National Police Commission was set up under the constitution in 2001, comprising eminent lawyers and judges who were given the authority to examine the functions of the police independently of the Inspector-General of Police (IGP).
Kishali said the commission was recommended to punish police officers who were errant and committed abuses.
“It functioned quite well for three years,” she said. “But the reaction this got from the political establishment was extremely harsh, even from the opposition parties because I think they realised in unison that having an independent police commission may impact on their own powers to an intolerable extent.”
Within four years, the commission was diluted and dismembered. “We had a farcical commission operating for about four years. They were all government appointees. Now the commission is completely without power. They have only been given the power to investigate,” she added.
However, the establishment of the IPCMC alone is not enough to curb power abuse in the police force.
“The assumption in Sri Lanka was that once the commission was established, the battle was won, the process would change automatically. It was very short-sighted to think that way,” she said.
However, Kishali said the process of establishing the commission in Sri Lanka had a marked difference to Malaysia’s current situation – the lack of awareness among the public.
“It was a very elitist process. The government was unstable at that point in time and they needed cooperation of intellectual and academic communities. This was used as leverage to get them to agree to a National Police Commission,” she said.
“This elitism was actually part of the reason why it failed. Once the commission was established and the government was stable, they turned around and said it is not important and didn’t care about the dissent.
“So the people were never advised on why the commission was important for them. That is very crucial here in terms of moving forward. So if you go forward with only political parties and seen as a measure limited to the political elite or the intellectual elite, then it will face a lot of problems as the process go on because the political elite can change,” she added.
The spate of custodial deaths which have garnered much attention in the Malaysian media over the recent months have highlighted the importance for an IPCMC to be established.
Opposition politicians have repeatedly called for the IPCMC to be set up, but the government has brushed off such calls, even terming the establishment of the IPCMC as unconstitutional.
Government representatives have opined that the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) is sufficient to deal with misconduct in the police force, which has been dismissed by Pakatan Rakyat MPs.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had reportedly said on July 10 the establishment of the IPCMC based on recommendations of the Royal Commission Inquiry in 2005 would be unconstitutional and runs against principles of natural justice.
According to human rights organisations, 218 custodial deaths were estimated to have occurred from 2000 to date.