On July 16, according to the testimony of a Thai pathologist, Teoh Beng Hock, a 29-year-old aide to an opposition politician, was probably beaten during a marathon questioning session, sodomized, strangled unconscious, dragged to a window of the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission in Kuala Lumpur and thrown to his death.
The country’s law enforcement establishment maintains that Teoh committed suicide by leaping from the MACC building after the inquiry was concluded into irregularities in his boss’s accounts. But it is far from the first “suicide” in custody and what happened to Teoh happens all too frequently when the luckless collide with the powerful in Malaysia. His real killers are unlikely ever to be identified. As many as 350 people have died in custody since 1990. The privileged are rarely brought to trial.
The most infamous recent case before Teoh’s is that of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28 year-old Mongolian translator who was murdered in 2006 by two bodyguards of then-Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Altantuya had been jilted by Najib’s best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and was demanding money from him.
Although numerous witnesses and evidence connected Najib to the affair, he was never questioned or put on the witness stand, nor was his chief of staff, Musa Safri, who Baginda said in a cautioned statement he approached about getting Altantuya from ceasing her harrassment. His two bodyguards were convicted of the murder although one, in his confession, said the two men were to be paid RM100,000 to kill her. The court never asked who would pay the money. The confession wasn’t allowed in court. Baginda was acquitted without having to put on a defense and promptly left the country and Najib was eventually named Prime Minister.
Such questionable cases go back to at least the early 1980s when Sultan Mahmud Iskandar of Johor was dubbed the “killer king” by the British tabloids after he shot a trespasser to death on his property. He also reportedly assaulted and killed a golf caddy who was said to have laughed when the sultan missed a golf stroke and he maimed the caddy’s brother. He later was alleged to have assaulted and injured a hockey coach, kicking off a constitutional crisis that led to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s removal of legal immunity from prosecution for all of Malaysia’s nine sultans, although Iskandar was never either arrested or jailed.
There are plenty more. In 1988 an attractive young woman named Mustakizah Jaafar, who owned a video rental business in Malacca, was found hacked to death by unknown assailants. Mustakizah reportedly was pregnant at the time of her death. She was believed to be having an affair with Megat Junid Megat Ayob, the onetime UMNO deputy home affairs minister, who died in January 2008 of cancer.
No one was ever charged with Mutakizah’s murder. The widespread gossip about Megat Junid’s connection with Mustakizah didn’t do his political career any harm. He was ultimately named Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister in 1997 although he lost his parliamentary seat two years later and retired from politics.
In 2002 the decomposed body of Haslezah Ishak, the attractive young second wife of Raja Jaafar Raja Muda Musa, second in line to the throne of Perak, whom he had met in a karaoke lounge, was found under a bridge, clad in a bra and jeans. Four men, including a palace aide, a bomoh or witch doctor, a fisherman and a carpenter were arrested and jailed for the murder. No one was ever arrested or questioned for hiring them to kill her although suspicion fell on the prince’s wife, Rajah Mahani, who had been publicly consulting witch doctors over her suspicion that Haslezah had put a spell on her husband.
In 2003, another attractive young woman, Norita Shamsudin, was found murdered in an apartment in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. A night club guest relations officer, Norita had been rumored to be having an affair with Shahidan Kassim, then chief minister of the state of Perlis. Although another individual was arrested and charged with the murder, he was later declared not guilty and no one else was ever charged. According to local news reports, the inspector general of police, Mohd Bakri Omar, classified the case under Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act and no details were ever released.
Earlier this year, authorities finally completed an inquest into the 2007 death of beautiful ethnic Indian actress Sujatha Krishnan, who also worked part-time as a secretary to S.Vell Paari, chief executive officer of Maika Holdings and the son of S. Samy Vellu, the head of the Malaysian Indian Congress, a component of the ruling national coalition. Sujatha died in a hospital in a Kuala Lumpur suburb of Klang three days after she had been rushed in for treatment. Her body was cremated almost immediately after her death. The coroner ruled she had died after poisoning herself by drinking poison. The family vainly requested an investigation into her death.
For those at the bottom end of Malaysia’s power spectrum, life can be considerably tougher if suspicion falls on them. According to the reform organization Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (MADPET), a distressing number of suspects have died in custody. “Relying merely on data provided by the government, it has been disclosed that there have been 150 deaths from 1990 until 2004 (10.7 per year), 108 deaths between 2000 and 2006 (18 per year), and, 85 deaths between 2003 and 2007 (21.25 per year),” the organization said.
According to a 2003 report by the Asian Human Rights Commission – the same year Norita was killed ‑ statistics released in Malaysia’s parliament in October of that year by the Home Ministry, showed 23 people died in police custody between 2002 and July 2003. Of those, 16 died in 2002 although according to the report, other figures indicated that 18 had died in custody in the first nine months of 2002 alone. Parliament was told in October 2002 that a total of 34 persons had died in police custody since 2000 ‑ six in 2000, 10 in 2001 and 18 from January to September 2002.
According to the report, then-Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung denied that methods of torture used to obtain information from suspects led to their deaths. He claimed that the majority of deaths were the result of attempts to escape from police custody. Typical seemed to be the case of Hasrizal Hamzah, who had been detained on suspicion of murder in October of 2003. According to a senior assistant police commissioner, Harizal confessed to the murder and then, as he was being moved to a new location, supposedly shoved the accompanying policeman aside despite being handcuffed, and leapt over a balcony to his death.
Earlier this year, the Indian community was enraged by the death of a 22-year-old named Kugan Ananthan who was detained on Jan. 15 on suspicion of stealing luxury cars. He reportedly collapsed during questioning and died on Jan. 20 from “acute pulmonary edema,” or fluid in the lungs. However, after his body was released to his family, an autopsy found that he had suffered from internal bleeding in his heart, left lung, spleen, kidneys and scalp area. The soles of his feet had been beaten and the back of his neck and spine area were bleeding. His back was covered with contusions, beating marks and bruises. He had sustained more than 10 serious burn marks, probably as the result of being burned by a heated v-shaped iron bar. He had also been starved during the entire time he was being tortured, allegedly by as many as seven police officers, his family charged.
“There is a clear lack of supervision, medical care and concern for the general well-being and rights of suspects while under police remand,” the Human Rights Commission said in its 2003 report. It does not appear that anything has changed. The odds are that the cases involving both Kugan and Teoh will end up the same way scores of others have.