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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cracking down on Police brutality in Sri Lanka

This week, Medawachchiya Magistrate court ordered the Inspector General of Police to hand over all investigations being carried out by the Kebithigollewa Police against two police officers who allegedly assaulted a 23-year-old man causing him grievous injuries leading to the removal of a testicle, to the CID.

The alleged case of police brutality is the latest in a long list, spanning decades, and is a part of a dark sub-culture of brutality, custodial death and torture within the law enforcement community, which has never been robustly addressed by the State. The Medawachchiya Magistrate has ordered a report to be submitted regarding the incident to the Court. A Police Sergeant and a Constable, who are currently on remand in connection with this incident, were further remanded until 24 April by the Courts.

It is ironic that the order, issued for the compliance of the IGP, is to be executed by the head of Police who was earlier (2023) found guilty by the Supreme Court (SC) which ruled that the then Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) Deshabandu Tennakoon, along with two other Police officers, have violated the fundamental rights of an individual by illegally arresting, torturing, and detaining him a suspect. The fact that despite the Supreme Court’s order on the violation of fundamental rights by the senior police officer, the President proceeded to confirm Tennakoon as the IGP, highlights the nature of the political culture which has long acted as an enabler for the subculture of police brutality to take root in Sri Lanka.

Last year, the Sri Lankan judiciary recently sentenced the former Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) in charge of the Sabaragamuwa Province to five years imprisonment over trying to influence a fellow police officer and prevent a government politician being arrested over a shooting. The wheels of justice turning and holding those who enforce it accountable is a refreshing sight. Particularly, due to the long-standing impunity some police officers seem to work with. Over the last several decades, lack of oversight, politicisation of the service, militarisation of the Police and detonation of professionalism has left the Police service in shambles. Heavy handed tactics, and police brutality are routinely reported in the press, and have become the norm, not the exception. It is tragic that several generations of Sri Lankans have been brought up believing that the Police are expected to act heavy handedly. The Police Department has been long viewed as a corrupt organisation, mainly due to politicisation and bribery.

Over the years, there have been multiple occasions where the Police have displayed criminal behaviour, police brutality or barefaced incompetency. The arrest of 15 officers from the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) with a haul of nearly 200 kg of Heroin for drug trafficking a few years ago, and their alleged links to organised crime did not come as a surprise to many Sri Lankans, as police collusion in crime, particularly which of narcotics trafficking and selling, has long known. Similarly, the number of acts of police brutality and custodial deaths reported over the last decade are many. A spate of custodial deaths, linked to high profile narcotics suspects has cast a dark shadow over the possibility if the Police was trying to suppress their testimony before courts. They have however, maintained their long used ‘Suspect tried to pick up a weapon which was hidden, and shoot at us’ or ‘tried to lob a grenade’ while ‘showing’ the Police where evidence was buried–explanation. The explanation has now come under criticism by the Judiciary. The inability of the Police, who are trained and equipped by the State to restrain adequate suspects, and manage them when seeking evidence, especially firearms and explosives, where as a suspect has the freedom to effect an armed attack on the Police, is a poor excuse, and one which points to professionalism and tact within the organisation being near non-existence.

The Court sentence given by the former Senior DIG, the Supreme Court decision regarding the IGP Tennakoon’s violation of a suspect’s fundamental rights, and the order by the Medawachchiya Magistrate court, all point to the scale and depth of the issue at hand. Even though, there have been only one of the few instances that a senior policeman has been persecuted successfully and sentenced to prison, the judiciary has been rather consistent in holding the ‘Law enforces’ accountable.

Similarly, issues with lack of professionalism, training and abuse of power by the Police keep propping up. The April 2022 protest in Rambukkana, and how the Police responded to it is now before courts. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) found that the police had used excessive force and caused an unjustifiable death of the late Kuruvitage Chaminda Lakshan. Five others were injured due to police gunfire during the crackdown at Rambukkana that day. According to the HRCSL report, “police officers have aimlessly shot at the people and failed to target the shooting within the legally prescribed target area, which is below the knee of a person”. The use of heavy handed tactics by the Police was observed by the HRCSL as “police officers had very little knowledge on the operation of the lethal weapon that was given to them to be used during the crowd control operation.

At the turn of the century, a survey carried out by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) indicated that many Sri Lankans viewed the 150-plus-year-old institution as the ‘most corrupt’ state institution. A more recent survey in 2017 indicated that public sentiments about the Police had not changed a decade and half later. When will the Government, who has expressed the need to reform and restructure the State-owned Enterprises (SOE), and make them more transparent and accountable, turn their attention to critical instruments of democratic and good governance, like the Police Department?

Editorial. The Morning. 18.04.0224


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