By Rama Ramanathan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--In Malaysia, in every state, one sessions court judge (criminal division) is designated a coroner.

Why? Because we have no full-time coroners and coroners’ courts.

Why? Because most of our legislators and common folk treat avoidable deaths as fated, just like all other deaths.

Why? Because our government and those who head our institutions think covering up avoidable deaths is more important than eliminating them.

Take the case of Soosaimanickam. He’s the 27-years-old cadet who died on 17 May 2018, seven days after he began naval training in Lumut.

The navy chose to be deathly silent over the cause of his death. The family asked the Attorney General to order an inquest. He did.

53 months have passed since he died. The inquest is still ongoing. This morning, in Ipoh, three of his fellow-trainees testified.

One assisted Soosai when he struggled to walk on his last day. Another was Soosai’s roommate. Another gave Soosai his last shower.

They couldn’t remember much of what happened.

Why? Because the Officer assisting the coroner (an Ipoh Deputy Public Prosecutor) couldn’t assist the witnesses by allowing them to refer to “112 statements” recorded from them by trained evidence-takers while the events were fresh in their minds.

Why? Because the statements weren’t taken. This is my best guess, though the Investigating Officer said he had recorded 16 statements.

I’ve written much about this case. I won’t repeat previously suggested elements of the factual matrix. I think eight new suggestions emerged.

First, many trainees had injuries like those found on Soosai’s body. Why? Because it’s what happens when you adopt the “commando rest position.”

Second, in the 3-day period before Soosai died, he told his roommate he wanted to apply, on medical grounds, for a rest day.

Third, unlike Soosai, two other trainees with similarly high Body Mass Index (BMI) survived the training and are now serving as officers: family counsel read out their names, an officer testified they are in service.

Fourth, hours before he died, Soosai was so unstable while on the balance for the BMI measurement, it took a while to get a steady reading.

Five, Soosai was breathing normally, not panting, during his last shower. He did not smell of urine or vomit. Soosai stood on his own strength while another trainee washed him.

Six, the trainees were not allowed to have cellphones.

Seven, there were no seniors in the building the trainees occupied (this is relevant since deaths in service of trainees are often linked to ragging).

Eight, the day after Soosai died, “someone” assembled the trainees, distributed sheets of paper and told each trainee to note down “anything relevant.” The witness who said this couldn’t remember who led this exercise. Nothing was said about how the resulting notes were used.

It’s important to observe two facts in this case. (1) The police classified this case as “sudden death” and (2) the police did not prosecute anyone.

These two facts make it the coroner’s responsibility to establish the cause of Soosai’s death, and to report it, with reasons, to the Public Prosecutor. The reporting is prescribed by Section 333 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The coroner may decide whether to conduct an inquest.

I don’t know if anyone measures coroners' compliance with the law.

In the afternoon, the Investigation Officer, an ASP and station chief, who retired from the police service two years ago, was called to testify.

At the end of his testimony – which took about 90 minutes – the coroner asked him: “Why do you think Soosai died?”

His answer: “Soosai’s body could not handle the vigorous training required to shape a cadet into an officer.”

The coroner followed-up: “Out of the 63 cadets, why was it only Soosai who died?” His answer amounted to “I didn’t investigate that.”

His answer was shocking for another reason, which family counsel Zaid Malek of Lawyers for Liberty brought out during his questioning.

Soosai had been health-screened and found to be suitable for cadet training. He didn’t have any underlying medical conditions which could have led to acute renal failure and death by pulmonary oedema, as stated in the pathology report. Shouldn’t this have ruled out “Soosai’s body couldn’t handle the training” as the cause of death?

If the police, who alone have the power to investigate, don’t do so, how can the coroner arrive at an opinion as to cause of death? How can the Assisting Officer effectively support the coroner?

Who will pull the unpublished data and prove or disprove the hunch of observers that coroners and the Attorney General are in non-compliance with the law pertaining to sudden deaths?

*Rama Ramanathan is spokesperson for Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) and an independent writer.*