By Rama Ramanathan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Today, 12 November 2021, the KL coroner announced her decision in the case of 34-year-old Nigerian student Thomas Orhions Ewasinha. Her decision comes 28 months after Thomas died in custody at the immigration depot in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

I attended many hearings in this case and wrote much about it.

In this post, I write about 17 outrageous but true facts which I observed during the course of the inquest. I include a brief summary of the case.

I conclude with a set of questions and an appeal to Dato’ Johari bin Abdul (Sungai Petani – PH – PKR), chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Security, to take the lead in ending the awful treatment of foreigners taken into custody by Malaysian immigration officers.

We must not waste the life and death of Thomas Orhions Ewasinha. Let us be ashamed and make things better.

Please read on.

Today, Coroner Puan Mahyun in Kuala Lumpur concluded her inquest into the death of Thomas Orhions Ewansinha.

Thomas, a 34-year-old Nigerian, died in the Bukit Jalil Immigration Depot on 9 July 2019. A popular man, he was married, with two children.

The coroner delivered the main points of her decision orally, in about 3 minutes. She said she would send her written decision to the parties.

She may have kept it short because the gallery was empty, save for me, one reporter, and one member of the firm representing Thomas’ family.

The fact that the gallery was near empty is telling.

I don’t know if the coroner’s office informed the immigration authorities and the police that the coroner would release her decision today. Or to the police who investigated his death. Isn’t it reasonable to expect that the court would have informed them?

Notice I didn’t say I’m surprised no one from immigration or the police attended. I’m fairly sure the coroner’s decision and observations mean nothing to them. Such is the respect they accord to human life, to families of the deceased, and to the courts. Outrageous, but true.

Ten days after Thomas died, seven NGOs issued a press statement calling on the Attorney General (AG) to order an inquest into the death of Thomas. The family, through their lawyer, also asked the AG to order an inquest. The AG’s Chambers registered the inquest on 13 Nov 2019.

It was necessary for the AG to order an inquest. Why? Because the law as it stands does not automatically trigger an inquest into a death in immigration custody. Outrageous, but true.

The first public hearing (“mention”) was on 25 November 2019, nearly 5 months after Thomas died in custody. Outrageous, but true.

During the “mention,” the Conducting Officer (Deputy Public Prosecutor, DPP) said the Sudden Death Report (SDR) – in document terms, the starting point for an inquest – had not been completed by the Investigating Officer. She requested a 30-minute recess. 5 months after Thomas died in custody, the bare facts hadn’t been collated. Outrageous, but true.

Notice I wrote “bare facts.” That’s important. Because the next thing the DPP requested was a second hearing date (I use ‘hearing’ to mean any gathering of parties in open court). Why? To prepare documents to hand over to the family’s lawyer. 5 months after Thomas died, the DPP asked for one month to prepare the documents. Outrageous, but true.

By “prepare,” I mean “investigate unexplored angles and document the findings.” I say this based on the fact that the DPP said the Deputy Head of Prosecution had instructed the police to do so! Clearly the police work done till then was seriously inadequate. Outrageous, but true.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the case, in 3 parts.

Part 1 – Arrest. Around 10.30 pm on 4 July 2019, in KL, Thomas and a friend were waiting for food they had ordered. They looked out. They saw what looked like a sweep of foreigners by immigration officers. Thomas ran to his car to get his passport. Before he got to his car, he and his friend were apprehended, together with 15 others. Thomas produced his valid visa and valid student pass – a kind passerby, a Malaysian, helped get documents from Thomas’ car. Yet, he was consigned to be taken to the immigration depot to be held for upto 14 days pending confirmation of the validity of his documents. Outrageous, but true.

Part 2 – Incarcerated. At the depot, to bring down his presumed high blood pressure, a Health Assistant (H.A.) gave him the drug amlodipine. I say ‘presumed’ because the H.A. never took his blood pressure. Also, amlodipine is not to be prescribed without close monitoring of pressure. His pressure was not taken because the depot didn’t have a cuff large enough to encircle his arm. Outrageous, but true.

Part 3 – Death. On the night of 8 July, in the cell reserved for sick persons, lying on the floor, dressed only in shorts, resting his head on a water bottle, Thomas went into cardiac arrest. He shrieked. He wet himself. He stopped breathing. Two officers from the ‘medical records unit’ at the depot, following instructions over the phone from an emergency medical despatcher, attempted to resuscitate him. They performed 600 cycles of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) on him. He did not revive. Ambulance crew pronounced him dead at 12:30 am on 9 July. The officers who performed the CPR, despite serving in the ‘medical unit,’ had no training in either first aid or CPR. Outrageous, but true.

An autopsy was performed on Thomas. It’s important to stress this, because in some recent years, 50 people died while detained by immigration officers. The autopsy on Thomas suggests these others may have been autopsied as well. What were the causes of death? There is no reason to believe anyone has collated the findings. Outrageous, but true.

It is said that 600 cycles of CPR were performed on Thomas. According to experts, CPR is “a life-saving technique based on applying repeated blunt force trauma.” It is striking that the autopsy didn’t find any evidence of CPR performed on Thomas. This suggests the officers performed CPR superficially, and thus Thomas didn’t’ revive. Outrageous, but true.

The pathologist who performed the autopsy said blood analysis showed Thomas had previously contracted dengue and leptospirosis – a disease transmitted through rat urine. He did not order a test for amlodipine because he had no reason to suspect it. Outrageous, but true.

The Investigating Officer could not recall whether the Chemistry department had returned Thomas’ blood and urine samples to her. She said she had looked in the evidence room of her station but could not find them. Outrageous, but true.

The immigration officers should never have detained Thomas. They should have released him as soon as they verified his documents (they did, on the day after his arrest). They should not have given him amlodipine without monitoring his blood pressure. They should have sent him to a hospital earlier for treatment. He died. Outrageous, but true.

The coroner noted that the pathologist had said Thomas died of cardiac arrest and would not have died if he had received prompt and appropriate medical treatment. She noted that the officers had tried to resuscitate Thomas. She said Thomas did not die due to any unlawful act or omission on the part of any other person.

The coroner has to decide on the basis of evidence and conventions for legal decision making. I will say no more about her decision.

The fact remains that Thomas would still be alive if the authorities had not detained him. The fact remains that we keep thousands in cramped, unhealthy conditions, for years on end – during the hearing we heard of a Nigerian who had held for 3 years and a Moroccan who had held for 5 years. The fact remains that officers can use the threat of 14 days in immigration detention to extort bribes. (One of those arrested together with Thomas lodged a report with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission about a bribe paid that night.) Outrageous, but true.

Many believe this is the first case of a death in immigration custody which has been treated to an inquest. Outrageous, but true.

It took 28 months to establish the cause of death. Outrageous but true.

What will the coroner say in her written decision? Will she include the things I’ve touched on? Who will read her decision? Who will order changes to make things better? Who will monitor? How will foreign missions respond? What will Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin do? What will Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein do?

Will Dato’ Johari bin Abdul (Sungai Petani – PH – PKR), Chair of the Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Security, take the lead?

Thomas' family was represented pro bono by lawyer Rajesh Nagarajan. We are grateful for the service he has rendered.

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