By Teo Soh Lung
The Attorney-General’s Chamber (AGC)’s statement of 25 July 2013 clarifying netizens’ concern that the discontinuance of the coroner’s inquiry was the exercise of his discretion continues to bug me. (link)
Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah died in unnatural circumstances and in official custody. Under the law, the coroner has the duty to hold an inquiry into his death.
But the Public Prosecutor proceeded to charge the deputy superintendent of the prison with causing the death of Dinesh through a negligent act almost three years after his death. He died on 27 September 2010. The officer pleaded guilty and a “statement of facts” was read out whereupon the judge imposed a fine of $10,000. This sentence coincidentally is also the maximum fine for the offence of failure to report a death in a place of custody within 24 hours. Could this almost three year delay in proceeding against the officer be due to delay in reporting a death?
The AGC raised section 39 of the Coroners Act as a reason for the coroner in abandoning the inquiry. He said there was already a finding in the proceeding against the senior prison officer and on that basis, the coroner exercised his discretion. He further claimed that “The Prosecution does not have powers under the law to compel the Coroner to adjourn or discontinue an inquiry.”
The AGC is wrong.
Firstly, there was no finding on how Dinesh died. It was only the AGC’s finding and not the court’s finding. The senior prison officer was charged for causing death through a negligent act and had pleaded guilty. The judge accepted the plea and imposed the fine. The judge did not make a finding but simply accepted a plea of guilt and sentenced the officer after hearing what the public prosecutor and presumably, the defence counsel had to say.
Secondly, the AGC has the duty to ensure that a death in unnatural circumstances and worse, in official custody must be fully investigated and the cause and circumstances of death determined by an independent judge or coroner. Dinesh did not die because of the negligent act of one senior prison officer. He probably died because eight strong prison officers pounced on him, pepper sprayed him and drowned him with water. It was probably the use of excessive force on a thin and weak inmate who for reasons unknown, kicked one officer. Was there an altercation?
We do not know the reason why the coroner abandoned the inquiry. He reports to the Public Prosecutor and the Commissioner of Police and not to the public. However, to avoid speculations as to how Dinesh died, it is in the interest of the Public Prosecutor to direct the coroner to re-open the inquiry and make further investigations under section 26 of the Act.
There is also a bugging question as to why the AGC took nearly three years to prosecute the officer? Is it an attempt to thwart a civil claim for damages for personal injuries and death which will be time-barred after three years from the date of death?
In the interest of transparency and accountability, the inquiry into the death of Dinesh should be re-opened. The public needs to know why and how Dinesh died and whoever is responsible for his death should be brought to justice so that death in custody will not happen again.
AGC’s statement on 25th July