Out of Court Settlement of Ulaganathan Case Proves Police Abused its Powers

Ulaganathan s/o Muniandy was a 19 year old young man when he died while under police custody. He was in general good health and not suffering from any illness. With no previous criminal records, he was detained on 12 May 2003 as a murder suspect in Balakong, Selangor. At the time of his arrest, he was helping his mother, Mdm Tamil Selwee at their family operated food stall.

On 13 May 2003, Tamil Selwee tried to visit Ulaganathan at the Kajang Police Station, but she was denied from doing so. She was subsequently allowed to meet her son on the 16 May 2003. She saw Ulaganathan’s swollen eyes. Her second visit was on 23 May 2003, where she noticed that this time, Ulaganathan was walking with a limping leg because the sole of his foot was swollen. The swell on his eyes were still visible.

The mother’s third visit was on 30 May 2003. No improvements to his eyes and leg. She noticed Ulaganathan had lost tremendous amount of weight and he complained to her that his body was aching and he could not sleep well at night. His foot and eyes were still visibly swollen. Mdm Tamil Selwee’s last visit was on the 11 July 2003. Ulaganathan’s condition had worsened to the state where he was unable to sit down and have his meal.

Finally, on 20 July 2003, Ulaganathan was rushed to Kajang Hospital after he had difficulties in breathing and vomiting. He was sent back to lockup after released by the hospital. The next day, 21July 2003, at or about 3:00AM, Mdm Tamil Selwee received the news that her only son in the family had left them for good. A police officer who spoke to her informed that Ulaganathan had died of asthma. To further make thing worst, the cause of death was classified as “undetermined” in the death certificate.

In the case of Ulaganathan, an inquest was only held in 2007, four years after his death. In August 2011, the findings of the inquest returned with an “Open Verdict”. The Magistrate was unable to determine the cause of death of Ulaganathan.

SUARAM with the help of Human Rights Committee of Bar Council filed a civil suit against the police in July 2006. Two years later, the judge granted the following:

a. A declaration that the death of Ulaganathan, deceased on 21 July 2003 in the custody of the PDRM was caused by the unlawful acts of the PDRM; and

b. A declaration that the death of Ulaganathan was caused by the breach of statutory duties of the PDRM.

After 11 years, the government is liable to settle the death with an amount to the family. Although no amount of money can compensate the lost of their loved ones, but the settlement proves that the state is responsible for the death of Ulaganathan while under their care. Ironically, not even a single officer has been charged for their irresponsibility and negligence and possible acts of violence for the death of Ulaganathan although the civil suit proves that the death was caused by the unlawful acts of PDRM officers.

Many more names were added to the list of deaths in custody after Ulaganathan’s name. In 2014 itself, 8 deaths have been recorded and this trend is worrying. This year 5 deaths have occurred in the police lockup and 3 deaths in the prison.

The government must have the political will to reform the police force to see changes happening. Every custodial death must be treated as any other crime scene of deaths. The place no matter it is a lockup or a prison should change into a crime scene investigation area and officers on duty during the death must be investigated and punished if found sleeping on his job or committed acts of violence that caused the death. Enforcement officers should not be able to abuse their powers with impunity and should equally face the force of the law as any other individuals.

With the recent spike of cases of death in custody, it is clear that cases such as Ulaganathan continues to repeat and recur year in year out with police and the prison authorities enjoy total impunity. The fact that deaths in custody cases have not stopped but actually increased proves that the Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission (EAIC) is a total failure in tackling accountability of the police force.

SUARAM calls on the government to legislate anti-torture law in order to prevent torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners and penalize police officers that committed such offences. The government should establish immediately the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to bring justice to victims’ family and to prevent future custodial deaths. Any less will show that the government condones violence and impunity of the police.

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Having six sisters and being the only son, M Ulaganathan was forced to drop out of school when he was in Form Four due to his father’s illness.

On May 12, 2003, Ulaganathan, who was then 19, was helping his mother at their food stall in Balakong, Selangor, when the police arrested him over a murder case.

And after being detained for 69 days in the Kajang police lock-up, he returned home in a coffin.

Eleven years on, his mother Tamil Selwee, 56, is still looking for answers.

Unable to hold back her tears at a press conference today, she lamented that the police cannot find her son’s killers nor even give her a reason for his death.

In exchange, the state offered to pay her an undisclosed sum and that came only after human rights NGO Suaram and the Bar Council pressed her case through a civil suit against the police.

“What I have gone through, no one else should have to go through,” she said in Tamil amid tears.

She saw her son four times after his detention and each time, his condition deteriorated. He had swollen eyes, bruised feet and legs, had lost weight and complained of sleep deprivation.

When she last saw him alive, Ulaganathan was unable to sit down to eat. A week later, he was hospitalised for fever, breathing difficulty and toothache. Discharged a day later, he vomited, had breathing difficulties and passed away at 2 am on July 21 , 2003.

Ulaganathan’s death certificate reads that he had died ofb “unidentified causes”, in effect granting police and the prison authorities total impunity from any charges.

Police abused the law

Ex-Suaram coordinator S Arutchelvan, who was also present at the press conference, believes that the police abused the Penal Code and Emergency Ordinance to detain the teenager for over two months without any charge to try and coax a confession out of him.

Later, some of Ulaganathan’s friends were charged for the murder.

Arulchevan (left) said deaths in custody cases number over 100 and many were still unaccounted for. This year alone, Suaram counted eight people who have died under suspicious circumstances in police custody, five in lock-ups and three in prison.
In Ulaganathan’s case, Arulchelvan pointed out that the teenager was cremated soon after his death, with no inquiry ordered.

“This is because the victim is not there to tell the truth. We asked for an inquest four days after his death, but that only came four years later,” the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) secretary-general added.

Fast forward another three years, the magistrate court handed out an “open verdict” on Aug 19, 2011, which means they could not find the true cause of Ulaganathan’s death even after the inquiry.

Before this, the family had been verbally told by the police that he died of asthma even though Ulaganathan was never sick before.

Where is this country headed?

Another good Samaritan who took up Tamil’s case was Roger Chan, a lawyer from Malaysian Bar’s Human Rights Committee.

Chan helped the family file a civil case in the High Court against the police for negligence and recklessness in 2006, working free-of-charge as the family could not afford him.

In the 11 years, Tamil had to move house three times due to the lack of a stable income.

“The guidelines were not followed and the law was flouted,” Chan told reporters, adding that an inquiry was called only a year after a civil lawsuit was filed.

“The inquiry was started only as an attempt to jeopardise our case,” he said.

However, in 2008, the Kuala Lumpur High Court found the police guilty of an unlawful act, breach of statutory duties, recklessness as well as gross and wanton negligence.

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But negotiation of a settlement, pending an appeal from the Attorney-General’s office which was later dropped, took another six years.

On April 9, Tamil received compensation for her son. The settlement amount was private but Arulchelvan said that it amounted to no more than to help the mother buy a house.

“It looks bad on us. If you ask me, I don’t know where this country is heading and we need to do something very fast,” Chan said, pointing out that there were no fixes available when the police and the AG-office, both tasked to enforce the law, became lawbreakers themselves.

He said that even with the civil suit settlement, the guilty parties are not exonerated.

“Liability is still an issue. There are provisions under the law that should account for the death of somebody in custody. If you can’t account, then there is going to be serious trouble,” he added.

IPCMC is needed

Meanwhile, Suaram has renewed calls for the Independent Police Complaint and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), which was first mooted by a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on the police in 2005.

“We have never failed to push for IPCMC. The moment somebody is killed, the IPCMC should immediately come into play as an independent body,” Suaram’s director Kua Kia Soong said.

Kua said that after 25 years, cases such as Ulaganathan and others showed that Suaram still had its work cut out.

“In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for Malaysian NGOs to receive grants because of the tight economic situation.

“As such, financial contributions from ordinary Malaysians are more vital than ever in ensuring the continuing existence of Suaram,” Suaram’s executive director Yap Swee Seng said.

The privately-funded Suaram hopes to raise RM200,000 to back its causes in 2014 through a fund-raising dinner on May 23 which will also auction away artworks contributed by famous artists.

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