It was disturbing to read that there will not be a coroner’s inquest into the case of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah who died inside Changi Prison on 27 September 2010.
Responding to queries from The New Paper, an [Attorney-General’s Chambers] spokesman replied in an e-mail: “In view of the conclusion of criminal proceedings, the inquiry has been discontinued.”
— 24 July 2013, The New Paper, Coroner’s Inquiry into prisoner’s death stopped
It is common practice, I would have thought, that any death in unclear circumstances would need a coroner’s inquiry to establish the cause of death. Such a process, open to the public, ensures transparency in the interest of justice. Although it is not the purpose of an inquest to establish liability, the inquiry, based on witness and expert evidence, would be able to point to potential defendants.
Such a process helps ensure that the right persons are charged, and with an appropriate level of potential culpability.
As it turned out in this case, it was all over in an afternoon. Deputy Superintendent of the Prison Service Lim Kwo Yin, 36, pleaded guilty to causing the death of Dinesh through negligence. The judge said he “did not adequately observe the acts of restraint” after Dinesh hit another warden in the abdomen. Lim was fined $10,000 and has been transferred to a desk job (Source: Channel NewsAsia. Link)
The prosecution provided a timeline of events and the mainstream media carried it almost word for word. But without a coroner’s inquest, the public has not had a chance to hear the originating witness testimony as to what exactly happened. We only have the prosecution’s version. It is therefore hard to judge if the charge that Lim faced was too heavy or too light, if the fine was appropriate, or whether other wardens who were involved that day were also culpable to a degree.
A foreign friend remarked to me yesterday that there was no way the government would prefer a charge against Lim that would send him to jail. His life might be in jeopardy should he be locked up alongside inmates whom he used to lord over. This, with the implication that Lim has enjoyed special leniency, is of course an entirely speculative comment, but it goes to show how the lack of transparency leads people to ascribe ulterior motives to officialdom.
The timeline as provided by Today newspaper, which I reckon was read out by the prosecution in court, goes like this:
Around 10.45am, Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah is outside his cell; it’s part of the day’s routine. He kicks prison officer Sergeant Lee Fangwei Jonathan in the abdomen. Other wardens respond to restrain him and pepper spray is used. Senior Prison Officer Lim Kwo Yin supervises the operation.
Dinesh Raman is taken to a solitary cell, where he is placed in a prone position, i.e. chest and abdomen down. His face, says the prosecution, is turned sideways. Lim fills a pail of water to “de-contaminate the prisoner”, presumably of the pepper spray.
Then officers leave Dinesh. The timeline says he was “unresponsive” even then.
At 12.45pm, Dinesh is pronounced dead.
The timeline says “he died of breathing difficulties from being in a prone position.”
Immediately I can think of several questions to ask. For example,
- How many officers participated in restraining Dinesh?
- Did any officer hold him with a chokehold around the neck at any time?
- How much pepper spray was used, from what distance, and what were the guidelines for its use?
- The timeline says his face was turned sideways when he was laid in a prone position. Did the post-mortem medical examination find evidence to support this assertion (generally the pooling of blood when a person dies indicates the posture he was in at the time of death)?
- Why does it say that Dinesh was “unresponsive” even before Lim and his officers left him alone in the cell?
- How did they test for unresponsiveness? Were they not disturbed even then?
- Was the amount of water used and the method (not described, but one imagines the officers just throwing the entire pail at Dinesh) sufficient to wash off the pepper spray? What were the guidelines?
- Why is the cause of death — “breathing difficulties” — so vague? Isn’t it obvious that many things can cause breathing difficulties and one needs to get to the bottom of it?
- Was it the effect of pepper spray? Did he drown? Had he been asphyxiated by a chokehold way earlier?
- Were there any bruises on his body that might be indicative of excessive force used on him, e.g. broken ribs and punctured lungs?
As you can see, a quick rush to judgement is hardly satisfactory.
It is true that many cases of unnatural death are not followed by coroner’s inquests. We hardly ever hear of such proceedings when murder is committed, for example. But some causes of death are far clearer than in Dinesh’s case. If a victim is stabbed several times or run over by a truck, it is pretty easy for a medical examiner to determine cause of death.
But several things happened to Dinesh, which in the normal course of events should not cause death. Yet he died. Moreover, it happened in a prison, which makes his case a matter of considerable public interest, unlike say, a domestic dispute that results in someone bashing the spouse’s head in. So all the more, the state should have bent over backwards to hold a public coroner’s inquest before rushing to charge Lim.
The state may argue that Lim was free to contest the prosecution’s case at the trial, and if he chooses to plead guilty, which he did, it means there is no issue with the timeline as provided. That glosses over the real question. Lim had a variety of reasons to plead as he did; it may just be more convenient for him. His action is hardly the final measure of the substance and credibility of the timeline.
Only a proper coroner’s inquest that does not seek to pin liability and is thus carefully devoted to fact-finding can provide the credibility our authorities crave. But do not achieve.