KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 (Reuters) - Malaysia's police force suffers from a glaring lack of accountability that leads to abuse of suspects and hampers its performance, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The critical report comes as the Southeast Asian country's police force comes under the international spotlight for leading a criminal investigation into the disappearance last month of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner with 239 people on board.
"Vague policies, substandard training, lack of transparency, and failure of leadership to investigate and prevent illegal practices all create opportunities for police abuse," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The 102-page report documents multiple accounts of suspects who died, were tortured in custody or were shot by police, despite witness accounts that the victims were unarmed.
There were 231 custodial deaths between 2000 and May 2013, the government told parliament in June 2013.
The Human Rights Watch report criticised the government for failing to act on the recommendation of a Royal Commission in 2005 to set up an oversight agency focused solely on the police.
"Malaysian police evidently believe that their, at times, outrageous, public statements on shooting deaths won't be subject to competing evidence and accounts in the media," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"And so far, sadly, victims have little recourse because police investigate themselves, ignore external oversight requests and manipulate the system."
Last October, Zahid said the state would "no longer compromise" with criminals. "There is no need to give them any warning," he said. "If we get the evidence, we shoot first."
His comment came after a nationwide police crackdown on suspected gang members, in response to rising violent crime.
Malaysia's police chief said on Wednesday the criminal investigation into the jetliner's disappearance on March 8 was focusing on the cabin crew and pilots, after all 227 passengers were cleared of possible foul play. Police say the probe into the crew, including the two pilots, has failed to turn up any red flags. (Reporting by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)