Sri Lanka Brief
NewsIs shooting at peaceful demonstrators a government policy? AHRC

Is shooting at peaceful demonstrators a government policy? AHRC

Mr. Rajitha Seneratne, the Cabinet Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, when answering a question to a BBC Sinhala Service correspondent regarding the shooting of a fisherman at a peaceful demonstration in Chilaw stated that the shooting of demonstrators is a usual practice of the Sri Lankan police.

 Sri Lankan policemen have shot demonstrators in the past beginning from the 1953 Hartal protest and ever since.

The minister was thus, attempting to excuse the government from its responsibility for the shooting and also point out that no action will follow relating to the killing of Anthony Fernando, the young fisherman who was shot dead while demonstrating the increase in the price of diesel and kerosene which affects the fishermen.

 The Asian Human Rights Commission says in a statement that the minister’s casual dismissal of the seriousness of killing a citizen engaged in a peaceful demonstration is indicative of the careless manner in which serious violations of human rights are treated by the government. It did not occur to the minister that shooting at peaceful demonstrators is murder and murder cannot be dismissed as a usual practice of the police or anyone else.

 The law in Sri Lanka recognises the right of peaceful demonstration and the peoples’ right to express their views freely. Participation in peaceful demonstrations is a well established practice in Sri Lanka and except on a few rare occasions this practice has been respected by the state authorities. Those who are in the government today were known for their persistent demonstrations against the former government.

 The law of Sri Lanka has prescribed the manner in which the police or the military are required to act in protecting the rights of people to demonstrate peacefully. The duty of the police is to provide protection to the demonstrators and not to obstruct the demonstrations. If and when the demonstrators become unruly and begin to violate the law then the state authorities have the right to use minimum force to restrain them. When using minimum force there are well established rules in the Police Orders which is the code of conduct for the police. As is well known, the police should first warn the demonstrators so that they can handle the situation without the use of force. If that fails the police are under obligation to use restraint and if the use of live ammunition is required at all warning shots should be fired first. Thereafter, if the situation is still out of control rubber bullets should be used before live ammunition. Any firing should be done only on the order of the commanding officer at the scene. The full responsibility for the shooting lies with the commanding officer who gives such orders.

 The issue of weapons and ammunition has to be done in compliance with the regulations which are clearly laid down. If any weapons or ammunition is used it must be reported and recorded. The policemen are not allowed to engage in shooting in a hide and seek manner and secretively. The commanding officer should know who fired the shots when this happens.

 What the minister’s remarks show is that the government’s policy is now to shoot at peaceful demonstrators and to ignore the law relating to this matter. The use of deadly force is thus treated as a normal practice.

 There was no reason at all to use force at this demonstration. As it has been pointed out, the demonstration had taken place at a remote village where there were no shops or other establishments and there was no possibility for the demonstrators to do a great deal of harm, even if they turned unruly. Clearly at this instance there is no indication that the demonstrators resorted to any kind of violence. The cause which gave rise to the demonstration was a legitimate one of protesting against additions to the cost of living which has become unbearable. Similar demonstrations took place almost everywhere in the country.

 The remarks of the minister, notwithstanding, it is the duty of the government to hold a thorough and credible investigation and to bring the culprits to book including the commanding officer at the scene. It is the duty of the Magistrate to inquiry into the shooting which killed one person and seriously wounded several others. The Magistrate needs to conduct the investigation in terms of the law of the land and the provisions for the respect of human rights enshrined in the Constitution.

 It is the duty of the trade unions, the political parties and civil society to question the apparent policy of the government as indicated by the minister’s remarks for allowing demonstrators to be fired upon. The government should be held responsible for the shooting as well as for the remarks of the minister, the AHRC statement added.

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