Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bar Council: Deaths of migrants in prisons, rehabilitation and detention centres

Malaysian Bar Council

No. 13, 15 & 17, Leboh Pasar Besar, 50050 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 03-2031 3003 (Hunting Line) Fax: 03-2034 2825, 2026 1313, 2072 5818

Press Release
Deaths of migrants in prisons, rehabilitation and detention centres
The Malaysian Bar is disturbed about the high number of migrants who have died while in custody.
In July 2009, the Dewan Rakyat was told that some 2,029 persons died in prisons, rehabilitation centres and immigration detention centres between 2002 and 1 June 2009.  More recently SUHAKAM Commissioner Datuk Siva Subramaniam was quoted as saying that 1,300 foreigners died in detention within the past six years.  The Dewan Rakyat figure would mean that an average of one migrant dies in custody almost every day!
The authorities should conduct a thorough investigation to identify the underlying causes for this large number of deaths.  Brushing off these deaths as being due to illness, asthma or suicide is unacceptable.  When individuals are placed in custody and denied their freedom of movement, the detaining authority is responsible for their well-being and care.  The detaining authority has a duty of care towards all such individuals, which is a responsibility that should be taken very seriously.
In the event of a death, the questions that should be asked include whether the death could have been avoided, and whether the authorities were negligent in fulfilling their duty of care.
In order to address the worrying situation of deaths of migrants in custody, we call on the authorities to:
i. Take greater care to regularly monitor the health of all those in custody, especially those held in immigration detention centres.  This will involve conducting regular medical check-ups and allowing the detainees easier access to medical personnel and facilities;
ii. Give serious attention to health-related complaints made by the detainees;
iii. Conduct an inquest each and every time there is a death in custody;

iv. Reprimand and take disciplinary action against all staff members who, through neglect or indifference, fail to prevent a death from occurring;
v. Give lawyers and family members greater access to detainees and detention centres; and
vi. Monitor those in custody more carefully, including the use of closed-circuit surveillance and more regular patrols.
In addition, one concrete step to reduce instances of neglect and abuse and to improve conditions in detention centres is to set up a Board of Visitors in each and every detention centre.  The establishment of such Boards, which would have the power to conduct unannounced visits, will demand greater accountability from the system.  It will compel the detaining authorities to upgrade their facilities, become more transparent in their operations and be more vigilant regarding what is happening within the detention centres. 
The reports of deaths of migrants in custody are not new.  Migrants, especially those in custody, are extremely vulnerable.  They are more cut off from their families and community than Malaysians held in custody, hence there is an urgent need to take immediate measures to ensure that their welfare is protected and nothing untoward happens to them.
The Malaysian Bar also reiterates its call for open inquests to be held promptly and expeditiously to determine the cause of death of any person in custody. 
The litmus test of how civilised we are as a nation is measured by the treatment we accord those who are most defenseless and vulnerable among us.

Dato’ M. Ramachelvam
Law Reform and Special Areas Committee
Bar Council
18 November 2009

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