Sunday, March 21, 2010

Are the police shooting to kill?

Norizan Salleh (file pic)

POLICE-shooting victim Norizan Salleh never imagined she would ever be shot at. She describes how she felt lying on a highway near Gombak on 30 Oct 2009 after being shot five times by the police while on her way home: "I kept asking myself, 'Betul ke, saya kena tembak? Is this what it feels like?'

"I felt my body and saw blood on my hands. My breath was becoming shallower and my hands were very cold. I wondered, 'Is this how it feels like to die?'" Norizan tells The Nut Graph.

Norizan isn't the only person to have been shot by the police in 2009. In August, two men were gunned down when they reportedly charged at the police with machetes after committing armed robbery in Shah Alam. Then on 8 Nov, police shot dead five men in Klang, also alleged armed robbers. Just a week later, police fatally shot a man who had reportedly run amok with a dagger in Guar Sanji, Perlis.

While we would certainly like to see less armed robbers and criminals on the streets, does it have to involve the police shooting suspects dead? Are there alternative means of apprehending these suspects alive? And who is policing the police to ensure that they are not indiscriminately using their weapons, thereby causing unnecessary deaths in the process?

Numbers game

Charles Santiago (file pic)
According to Klang MP Charles Santiago, media reports show there were 39 deaths from police shootings in 2009. A Suaram press statement says in 2008, there were 44 such deaths. On average, that's more than three deaths a month. And that's not taking into account unreported shootings and deaths in police custody.

Yes, the police must surely have a right to defend themselves and those whom they protect from suspected criminals when life is being threatened. But why is the death rate from police shootings so high in Malaysia? Consider this. In countries like the United Kingdom, with more than twice our population, there was only one fatal shooting by the police in 2006. In some years, there were none at all.

Unanswered questions

Suaram coordinator Lucas Yap says that the killing of individuals by unlawful police shootings is a common occurrence in Malaysia, although the precise number is difficult to ascertain.

"The circumstances of police shootings in Malaysia indicate that the police do not try to apprehend suspects alive but shoot with the intention to kill," Yap tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview. "In virtually all cases of shooting deaths, the police claim that the suspects were armed and dangerous, that the suspects shot first, and that return fire was necessary."

"Of course, police say they shoot in self-defence...But there are instances where it is difficult to justify their actions. Shooting is something that should be avoided," Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk Siva Subramaniam tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

Senior lawyer and former Bar Council president Raja Aziz Addruse says that proper justification must be given for the taking of a life. "Just to say, 'Because they were shooting at me,' is insufficient," he says. "In many of these cases, there's always a gun found in the car. It's just too coincidental. Very often, all the people allegedly involved are killed."

Siva Subramaniam
"Police must justify how they use their firearms," Raja Aziz says. "It doesn't mean that in all these cases, they have to shoot to kill."

Yap says that even if the claims of armed suspects are true, the police could consider other means of neutralising suspects, such as by using stun guns, tranquiliser shots or tear gas that are not lethal. "In the limited circumstances where shootings are warranted by law, suspects could be shot in the legs or arms and captured alive," Yap adds.

"Whatever it is, a shoot-to-kill policy is against human rights," says Siva. "The right to life is one of the basic rights which we should have to ensure."


Yap says that if suspects are shot dead by police, inquests must be held within a month to determine whether the police made any efforts to apprehend suspects alive. In the long run, a coroner's court should be set up to investigate all deaths involving the police.

"Where killings are found to be avoidable, the police must be held accountable for their action," Yap says.

Raja Aziz also cites the need for an independent tribunal to look into police shootings. "In other countries, an independent inquiry would be held to find out what happened," he says. "For example, in the UK, an inquiry was held in the case of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes." The inquiry eventually found the Met police force guilty of endangering public safety, and it was penalised for shooting de Menezes dead.

Raja Aziz says the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) is inadequate to monitor the police, as its jurisdiction is too general. "With the rampant abuses that have been perpetuated by the police, there should be a proper, separate commission," he says. "Also, police officers have much greater powers than those in other agencies such as the MACC, immigration or customs."

Written guidelines

lucas yap
Lucas Yap (pic courtesy of Lucas Yap)
So what aspects would a tribunal scrutinise in a police shooting?

Yap cites the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials as a guide.

"Intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life," states Article 9 of the basic principles. The article states that discharging firearms is meant as a last resort, when less extreme means of protecting lives have proven insufficient.

Article 10 goes on to state that in using firearms, "officials shall identify themselves as such and give a clear warning on their intent to use firearms, with sufficient time for the warning to be observed." This must be adhered to unless to do so "unduly places the law enforcement officials at risk or would create a risk of death or serious harm to other persons..."

Malaysia's written guidelines for the police on the use of firearms is supposedly a "restricted" document which the public cannot access.

"So far, we have not managed to get a copy of the written procedures," says Siva. "This will be brought up during our meeting with the police." Attempts by The Nut Graph to get a copy from the Home Minister also went unanswered.

Political will

Raja Aziz says unless the government has the political will to deal with these issues regarding the police, nothing will change.

Hishammuddin Hussein (file pic)
He recalls writing an article on a spate of deaths by police shootings in the late 1990s. "...[then Prime Minister Tun Dr] Mahathir Mohamad openly criticised me saying, 'Wait until someone holds a gun to his head.' If this is the attitude of the prime minister of the time and the government, nothing is going to be done."

Recently, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein reportedly said that police would be responsible for their actions, including shooting criminals in self-defence.

But with no inquest or inquiry in sight for the numerous deaths by police shootings, one has to wonder, just what does that mean?

courtesy of Nut Graph

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