October 18, 2013
By Andrew Loh
THE Singapore High Court on Wednesday, Oct 16, dismissed the application by the mother of a deceased inmate for the courts to order the State Coroner to re-open his inquiry into the death of her son.
Mdm Selvi Narayanasamy, the mother of then 21-year old Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah who died while in the custody of the Singapore Prisons Service (SPS) at Changi Prison in 2010, was hoping that a coroner’s inquiry would get to
the bottom of how her son had died.
Her earlier appeal to the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) to order the re-opening of the inquiry had been rejected by the AGC.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), after an internal investigation which took some 28 months to complete, had put the cause of death down to “positional asphyxia”.
The family of Dinesh Raman disputes the MHA’s findings.
The Coroner discontinued his inquiry after Deputy Superintendent Lim Kwo Yin was charged and fined S$10,000 for “negligence” during the restraining of Dinesh Raman, resulting in the death of the inmate.
Although there were a reported 8 officers involved in restraining the prisoner, only Lim has been charged and fined so far.
Wednesday’s court decision, handled down by Justice Tay Yong Kwang, is another blow to Dinesh Raman’s family.
Mdm Selvi, however, is not deterred and says she will lodge an appeal with the Court of Appeal. Her lawyer, M Ravi, says this could be within the next two weeks.
Justice Tay’s decision marks a long 3-year wait for the family for answers into how Dinesh Raman had died.
Pictures taken by the family after they received his body in September 2010 showed bruises on about 20 areas of his body. At the time of his death, Dinesh Raman, who was 1.75m tall, was believed to have weighed a mere 51kg.
There have been many questions raised about the case by several quarters, including the family’s lawyers, and many of these questions remain unanswered.
One of the more pertinent ones involved the recording of the closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at Changi Prison on the morning Dinesh Raman died.
MP Janil Puthucheary had asked, in Parliament, how much “objective corroboration of the extensive eyewitness testimony … was obtained as part of the investigation, for example, by CCTV footage.”
The Second Minister for Home Affairs, S Iswaran, replied that “clearly the Police did not just rely on the testimony of eyewitnesses” and that there were “references to external experts and all other sources of information before arriving at a definitive view on the facts.”
Mr Iswaran did not directly address Mr Puthucheary’s question about the CCTVs, which remains an open question.
Also in the same Parliamentary sitting, Mr Iswaran said the “MHA has initiated disciplinary action against the superintendent, supervisors and other officers involved in the incident.”
Yet, 2 months after that statement was made, the Government has not disclosed what “disciplinary action” has indeed been taken against the officers involved.
Nonetheless, what would puzzle the public would be two peculiarities, namely; one, that the Coroner had evidently only asked one question of the Public Prosecutor before he (the Coroner) decided to discontinue his inquiry.
“A cursory read of the Notes of Evidence show that the Coroner completely failed to address his mind to any of the evidence before him,” Mdm Selvi’s court submissions read.
“He never considered the Conditioned Statements, neither did he even appear to have had the Statement of Facts before him.”
The Coroner appeared to have asked only one question of the Public Prosecutor – “What should he have done?”, referring to Lim Kwo Yin during the restraining of Dinesh Raman – before he decided to discontinue his inquiry.
“If the Coroner had addressed his mind to the
proceedings,” Mdm Selvi’s court papers said, “how could he not have asked the very pertinent question of how the restraint caused the death, when that was what the Prosecutor appeared to be submitting?”
The second peculiar point is the reason given by the AGC in rejecting the request for the Coroner to re-open his inquiry. The AGC explained that since a criminal investigation had already taken place, it was prudent to ensure that “there is no multiplicity of proceedings
that would be a drain on the state’s resources” by also conducting a Coroner’s inquiry.
However, as some have pointed out, there is a
difference between an internal MHA investigation (keeping in mind that the MHA is an interested party which is involved, through the SPS, in the death of the inmate) and a Coroner’s inquiry.
The MHA investigation was private and confidential, there are no public hearings during the investigation, the family was not directly involved, and its findings are not published and made available to the public to scrutinise.
A Coroner’s inquiry, on the other hand, as in the Shane Todd example, is open to the public, with witnesses called, and the family lawyers are able to directly question those involved in the matter, such as the 8 prison officers in Dinesh Raman’s case. Its findings are also available to the public and the media.
To thus dismiss the family’s request for an inquiry on the grounds of not wanting a “multiplicity of proceedings that would be a drain on the state’s resources” is rather puerile.
This is especially so given the fact that this is an
extraordinary case of death in prison custody, which is not a frequent or normal occurrence. Also, in the Coroner’s Act, the law specifically gives weight to a deceased family’s request for an inquiry.
Additionally, this is a matter of public interest,
given the importance of public trust in our security forces.
Wastage of state resources would therefore be the least of considerations, given the circumstances.
In the wider context of public trust in our public
institutions, which government officials have taken pains to defend and highlight in recent times, and the recent spate of high profile corruption cases of highly-placed government officers, one would think that the Dinesh Raman’s case would be a golden opportunity
for the government to restore trust in the system. That it would be entirely open and go the distance to show that it has nothing to hide in how it handled the case.
Unfortunately, many questions have been raised – and rightly so – about the matter.
It is also unfortunate that instead of being open and empathetic towards the family’s search for answers, the MHA in fact has chosen to cast aspersions on the grieving family.
It had seemingly accused them of exploiting the death of their loved ones for “substantial windfall amounts” of compensation, a charge which the family rejects.
It is an unfair allegation, to say the least, levelled
on a family which had patiently waited 28 months (and more) for the authorities to complete their investigations into the matter – only to be told that a Coroner’s inquiry is out of the question.
The Court of Appeal, it seems, is the family’s only hope now.
Andrew Loh helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011..