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Just how did Dinesh die? (Part 2)

The latest post on Dinesh


Something’s not right. We’re not talking about Leslie Chew’s run-in with the courts over his cartoons. It’s for him to argue that he was not scandalising the judiciary with his cartoons, which implied among other things that the courts favoured foreigners and the rich over members of the hoi polloi.

We’re talking about the death of the prison inmate of “positional asphyxiation”. Sorry to belabour the point but too many questions remain despite the Attorney-General’s Chamber “clarification” on why there was no coroner’s inquiry into the death.

The only newspaper which reported this was TNP two days ago. A coroner’s hearing was held, the family of the inmate turned up – and the hearing was discontinued. ST played catch-up today by publishing the AGC’s clarification. TNP also carried its response.

To recap, it had seemed odd that a criminal case was held before a coroner’s inquiry into the death of Dinesh Raman Chinniah, 21. Out of eight prison officers who were involved in subduing the lanky youth who had kicked a warden, the most senior was taken to task for neglecting to supervise the incident adequately. He was fined $10,000. There was also a committee of inquiry held by the Home Affairs ministry. It took place before the court case and its results are not made public.

TNP reported a lawyer saying it was “uncommon” for the court case to come before the coroner’s findings. To a layman too, it would make perfect sense for the coroner to rule on whether the death was un-natural or not and then the case passed on to the justice system to see if someone was responsible.

But the AGC said it was “not uncommon” for inquiries to be adjourned or discontinued, where the AGC commences criminal prosecution in respect of the death caused.

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Now, the Coroners Act appears to have two limbs: The Coroner is required to hold an inquiry into any death that occurs while in official custody – for instance, where an inmate dies in prison. The inquiry will look at the cause of and circumstances connected with the death, including how he died.

But if someone is charged with somehow causing the death, the Coroner “shall await” the conclusion of such criminal proceedings. It is up to the Coroner to decide to carry on or discontinue the inquiry. For good measure, the AGC said that it has no power to compel the Coroner to have or halt the inquiry.

“Where a finding has been made in criminal proceedings as to the cause of and the circumstances connected with the death, the Coroner has a discretion to discontinue the proceedings before him if he determines that there is no longer a need for an inquiry to take place to determine the cause of and circumstances connected with the death,” the statement added.

In Dinesh’s case, the Coroner said “no need” and the family and its lawyer did not appear to have raised any objections. Perhaps, they too were satisfied that the criminal case answered all their queries – so why should anyone else bother?

We should, because this is the case of a young (and, yes, even violent) man who died in a public institution. The machinery of the G went into overdrive when the case was concluded to reassure the public that was all done according to the book. So it seems the prison officer was merely “careless”.

What if the coroner’s inquiry had been held first? Then there would have been a step-by-step reconstruction of events, an expert forensics report on the state of the body (got bruises or not?) and leeway given to the family to ask questions that still nagged them. The coroner would say he died of un-natural causes perhaps and the ball thrown into the criminal court to see who was at fault.

Makes perfect sense.

If this was an out-and-out case of murder, there really would be no need for a coroner’s inquiry. No one would be clamouring for an inquiry into the deaths of the father and son in the Kovan killings, for example. But the circumstances surrounding Dinesh’s death is considerably more opaque. It occurred within the confines of an institution which is in the charge of trained men.

The G has “clarified’’ why there was no inquiry by referring to legislation. But surely the public deserves to have more, rather than less, light shed on this? It’s too late for the Coroner to overturn his decision, but there is always still that intriguing COI report that has not been made public.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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