Court rules Malaysia police liable in detainee's death

A Malaysian court on Wednesday found the country's police chief liable for the 2009 death in custody of a young ethnic Indian, the victim's lawyer said, in a closely watched case that has highlighted the issue of police brutality.

The decision by the High Court was a major blow to a police force already under fire over more than 200 such deaths since 2000 and could raise the spectre of further civil suits in similar cases.

The family of the deceased, Ananthan Kugan, sued Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, who was a state-level police chief at the time of the death, accusing him of a cover-up.

News portal The Malaysian Insider said judge V.T. Singham found "glaring" contradictions between the statements of Khalid and other witnesses, ordering the defendants to pay 851,700 ringgit ($267,500) in damages.

Four other people were defendants in the case, including Khalid's predecessor as national police chief, Ismail Omar.

N. Surendran, the lawyer for Kugan's family and a litigator in a number of similar cases, told AFP the ruling was the first time in a civil suit that a judge ruled police had failed in their duties, leading to a death.

Plaintiffs have won some civil suits on other grounds in the past, Surendran said, but lost on appeal.

Courts last year imposed a three-year jail term on a police officer held responsible for Kugan's death.

Kugan, 22 at the time, died at a police station near the capital Kuala Lumpur after being detained on suspicion of auto theft, sparking an uproar among minority ethnic Indians and activists who allege frequent police corruption and abuse.

More than 1,000 ethnic Indians attended his funeral, which turned into a street protest.

Indians, who make up about eight percent of Muslim Malay-majority Malaysia's 28 million people, complain of discrimination and economic marginalisation.

Home Minister Zahid Hamidi said Wednesday 231 people had died in police custody since 2000 but insisted only two were due to police brutality.

Media reports said a disproportionately high number of the victims were ethnic Indian.

The long-running scandal over such deaths was revived last month when three fatalities in police custody occurred in a span of 11 days.

They included ethnic Indian truck driver N. Dhamendran, who died May 11. His body was bruised and battered with staple wounds in his ears, his family said.

Police said he died of sudden cardiac arrest but the government eventually brought murder charges in early June against three police officers in the case after a public outcry.

Activists said it was the first time since the 1990s that murder charges were brought in a death in custody case.