A damning report on Malaysia's police issued Monday by a government-appointed commission of inquiry, asserts that the country's law enforcers constitute the government's most corrupt department and are guilty of "extensive and consistent abuse of human rights."
Among 125 recommendations to the government, it calls for the creation of an independent monitor to investigate alleged abuses.
The commission also called for inquests into the deaths of prisoners in police custody, a key concern of human rights groups. It reported 80 people had died in custody between 2001 and 2004 but inquests had followed in only six cases.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said over the weekend that he would set up a task force to examine the commission's recommendations and how best to put them into effect.
The extent to which he lives up to that commitment, analysts said, will test his dedication to political reform in Malaysia.
The performance of the law enforcement authorities has become a question of increasing public concern. Many Malaysians have also come to question whether the prime minister has either the desire or the political strength to meet public expectations that he make Malaysia a more open, transparent society.
The opposition leader Lim Kit Siang described the commission as Abdullah's "most significant reform measure."
The commission's report was "comprehensive" and contained "nice words," but more important is what the government will do to follow up, said Elizabeth Wong of the independent human rights group Suaram.
Among its other findings, the commission said that the police had abused powers of preventive detention.
While it stops short of calling for repeal of the Internal Security Act, a controversial, colonial-era statute that allows indefinite detention without trial, it recommends repeals of other laws with similar powers and procedural changes to the act to strengthen safeguards against abuse.
"Change has to be pervasive and profound," the commission said in its more than 600-page report. "A comprehensive reform is required," if the police force "is to emerge as an efficient, accountable and trustworthy organization."
Abdullah's decision to set up the commission 14 months ago was warmly greeted as evidence of his commitment to tackle corruption.
It was also seen as an effort to adopt a more liberal, less authoritarian style of rule than his domineering predecessor, Mahathir bin Mohamad. Mahathir's 22 years in power saw a drastic decline in public confidence in the police.
Rampant corruption within the force and the brutal excess of police methods were cited, as well as the government's use of the police and judiciary instruments for curbing political opposition. Those failings came under critical international scrutiny with the 1988 arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was beaten in jail by the former police chief.
Eighteen months after Abdullah took office, however, many Malaysians were starting to question whether he had both the political will and the muscle to push his changes through in the face of opposition from powerful and entrenched vested interests in the National Front coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for 47 years since independence.
"I think he has been trying his very best in every respect," said Param Cumaraswamy, a veteran lawyer and UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, pointing to the government's decision to publish the report as evidence of Abdullah's commitment to transparency. "But what we are concerned about is whether he has the support of the people around him. Whether the recommendations will be implemented is a $64,000 question."
The commission of inquiry into the police, headed by a former judge and including a former police chief, said the government should form an independent monitor to investigate complaints against the police. The report includes a draft act of Parliament for creating such a monitor and a timetable with suggested deadlines for implementing its proposals.
Although its members would be government-appointed, they should be answerable only to Parliament to ensure independence, said Kuthubul Zaman Bukhari, a member of the commission, who said it drew on the examples of the police monitoring agency in Australia's New South Wales and Britain's Police Complaints Authority.
The report calls for appointment of nine commissioners to minimize delays in investigating complaints, he said.
The commission, which toured Malaysia collecting evidence and consulting the public, had received large numbers of complaints of police corruption, Kuthubul added. The details of these complaints had been passed to the relevant government authorities and would also be available to the new monitors for further investigation.
The commission also criticized the police for resorting to preventive detention powers as an easy way out when they lacked evidence. At the end of 2004, Malaysia held 97 detainees without trial under the Internal Security Act, more than 1,000 under an Emergency Ordinance and an additional 686 under antidrug laws, Suaram reported. "Although such laws have helped ensure Malaysia's peace and security, the commission feels not all preventive laws in the country are necessary," the report says.
The commission calls for repeal of the Emergency Ordinance and a Restricted Residence Order but limits itself to recommending amendments to the Internal Security Act. These include allowing detainees access to lawyers within 24 hours, instead of the 60 days detention allowed under the existing act.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"