Malaysian Coroner's Explosive Ruling

An explosive and confusing verdict by Malaysia's Coroner's Court has kicked off a furor in Kuala Lumpur. Azmil Muntapha Abas Wednesday ruled out both homicide and suicide in the death of an opposition party aide whose body was found in July of 2009 on the fifth floor roof of a building next to Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Commission.

Azmil returned an open verdict into the death of Teoh Beng Hock, raising a whole new series of questions beyond the one of how the 29-year-old aide to a Democratic Action Party opposition leader died. Teoh was being questioned on the 12th floor of the MACC building in the middle of the night before his body was found atop the adjacent building.

"This doesn't make sense, right?" asked an observer in Kuala Lumpur. "It can't be an act of God so it must be the hand of a ghost that took him to the ledge and pushed him off, or the boy sleepwalked."

There are widespread demands in Malaysia for the appointment of a Royal Commission to look into the case and particularly into the anti-corruption agency's interrogation methods. The case has been a bitter contest between the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition and the government and has inflamed the Chinese community, many of whom believe Teoh was murdered in an interrogation gone wrong.

Months after Teoh died, a note said to have been found in the aide's bag was tendered into evidence, apparently in a bid to show he had committed suicide and raising criticism that evidence had been withheld. Critics pointed out that Teoh was expected to marry his fiancé, who was two months pregnant, on the following Saturday after he died, and would hardly have been expected to be suicidal.

Some 37 witnesses testified, including 12 expert witnesses, in a marathon series of inquests into how Teoh died. The most controversial was a celebrated Thai pathologist, Pornthip Rojanasunand, who testified that the odds were about 80 per cent that Teoh's death was not a suicide although two government pathologists testified earlier that Teoh apparently had killed himself. Marks on Teoh's body, she testified, indicated he was probably beaten and sodomized with an unknown instrument before his death. Pornthip was roundly criticized for her findings. At one point she declined to come back to Malaysia to present further testimony because she said she feared for her safety.

However, Azmil told a packed courtroom Wednesday that "There remain unsettled issues on the case of suicide and to find this on guesswork is unacceptable. I rule out a verdict of suicide," adding that there exists sufficient evidence to indicate that Teoh had suffered a neck injury before his fall, but that there is "no evidence to confirm that this injury facilitated or contributed to Teoh's demise."

The Bar Council of Malaysia roundly criticized the coroner's decision, saying that "while it is heartening that the Coroner ruled out suicide, the inability to make a definitive finding is unsatisfactory and leaves many issues unresolved in this matter of great public interest.

"Such indecisive findings cast grave doubts on the effectiveness of the inquest mechanism and renders the whole process meaningless," said Ragunath Kesavan, the president of the Bar Council of Malaysia in a prepared press release. "Teoh was under the custody of the MACC when he died, which invariably places the burden on the MACC to account for his death."

Teoh was being questioned over the use of RM2,400 (US$710) in public funds by his boss, Selangor State Executive Council Member Ean Yong Hian Wah, to buy flags for a Merdeka (freedom) Day celebration. Teoh drove himself to the inquiry, police said, adding that he had volunteered to appear for questioning. According to testimony, he had been questioned continually for several hours over the night and, investigators said, had asked for time to rest before driving himself home. No one apparently saw him after that.

Pornthip testified during the earlier inquests that stripes on Teoh's upper thighs indicated he may have been beaten with a stick, and that several bruises on his neck could have meant he had been strangled. Teoh's skull fracture, she was quoted as saying, was not typical of an injury from a fall, but more compatible with the result of blunt force applied directly to the skull.

An anonymous letter written in Malay language on MACC stationery was sent to the Teoh family's lawyer in August of 2009, charging that Hishamuddin Hashim, a top commission official, had conspired with Mohammad Khir Toyo, a leading united Malays National Organisation politician, to conduct corruption probes into opposition politicians, and that Teoh had been brought in for questioning as a part of that effort. The letter stopped short of accusing either Hishamuddin or other offices of being involved in the death.

Opposition politicians have repeatedly complained that MACC investigators were targeting them for allegations of minor scandals while much bigger ones originating within the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition have gone largely unremarked.

Najib is expected to make an announcement over the appointment of a Royal Commission over the next couple of days.

"The royal commission must be given a wide ambit to investigate the circumstances and causes of Teoh's death and to conduct a concomitant review of the MACC's interrogation and investigation techniques," the Bar Council said in the prepared release. "These two aspects are intrinsically interlinked and cannot be analyzed in isolation from one another."

"No stone will be left unturned in finding out the real cause of death and, if there is any foul play, action will definitely be taken," Najib told the family, according to the state-owned Bernama news service.