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Police brutality is a way of life in the North and East

”A number of people have died, and scores more badly injured. Some of the assaults, notably in Naavanthurai, were not only brutal but also designed to humiliate and degrade citizens. Recently, we have even witnessed the assault of individuals by police officers within Court premises in Jaffna”

 M.A. Sumanthiran
Text of TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran’s Speech on 6th October 2011 about Sri Lankan Police
 Honourable Speaker, we – the lawmakers of this country are debating this Bill on the National Police Academy in the midst of a crisis of lawlessness that has plagued the administration of the police. On Monday the 4th of October – just two days ago – we heard of the ‘drowning’ of a suspect in the Bolgoda lake while he was in police custody during what the police called ‘a scuffle’ between them and the suspect. How many times must such tragedies be endured?

We can only recall the horrific and macabre scene, played out in public and in broad daylight, of the drowning in the Bambalapitiya seas of Balawarnan Sivakumar, a young mentally unstable man after he was forced deeper and deeper into the water by police officers assaulting him mercilessly with clubs. Just last week, the killing of Gayan Rasanga by the police in Dompe while he was in police custody provoked the local community to protest outside the police station. Some months ago, Roshen Shanaka – another young man of 22 – was killed when police opened fire on protestors in the Free Trade Zone in Katunayake.

In the North and East, Mr. Speaker, police brutality is a way of life. Public protests that have erupted all over the North and East in response to the widely believed involvement of the police and armed forces in the ‘grease devils’ phenomenon have been met with violent retaliation from the authorities. A number of people have died, and scores more badly injured. Some of the assaults, notably in Naavanthurai, were not only brutal but also designed to humiliate and degrade citizens. Recently, we have even witnessed the assault of individuals by police officers within Court premises in Jaffna – following which the members of the Jaffna Bar took courageous action to protest the assault.

And let us not forget that today the Sri Lanka Police is predominantly Sinhala institution. Out of its estimated 84,000 strength, only a paltry 1143 officers are Tamil. That too is after the recent recruitment of 669 policemen – as mentioned by his Excellency President Rajapakse, during his speech at the UN General Assembly. That is less than 2% of the total police force. At the higher echelons the situation worse – there not even 10 Tamils officer in the Senior officer grades.

Mr. Speaker, the Tamil National Alliance has for many years now raised the plight of young Tamil women and men who are victimized by police brutality. One example is the practice of extracting confessions through torture – a medieval practice that has contributed to the brutalization of the collective psyche of the Tamil community. This practice has been encouraged, Mr. Speaker by section 16 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which departs from the regular law of the land and permits statements made to police officers by persons in custody to be produced against them in courts, and which imposes the burden of proving that a confession was elicited involuntarily through torture on the suspect himself!

What is striking, Mr. Speaker, is the near blanket impunity with which these assaults on citizens are carried out. How many police officers have been convicted of these crimes against the citizenry that we entrust them to protect us against? How many have been convicted of torture? How many have been convicted of murder? The answer, tragically, is not more than a handful of which many are overturned in appeal. Even the convictions allowed to stand are marked by the extraordinary leniency of the sentencing. What, Mr. Speaker is the message successive governments have sent to police officers when crime after crime, and wave of crime after wave of crime, go uninvestigated and unpunished? Is it that they will never be held accountable for their actions? That convenient, and often incredulous, fanciful alibis can be trotted out to a powerless citizenry? That victims will never receive justice?

Mr. Speaker, the violence and brutality unleashed with impunity on our citizens does no flattery to a land that aspires to be governed by the principles propounded by the Lord Buddha. On the contrary, the use of the police as a tool of repression is a throwback to the colonial era where the governors and the governed were clearly defined and distinct. The Public Security Ordinance – which has been used so perversely against the citizens of this country time and again was a colonial piece of legislation – designed to ensure control over the so called natives by the Governor General. It is a great shame that such repressive laws remain in force

Mr. Speaker, the violence being perpetrated against our citizens today is evidence of a deeper malaise afflicting the country at all levels. The problem of impunity is not limited to police brutality. Violations of the law at all levels are tolerated, and sometimes even celebrated.

With reference to the administration of the police Mr. Speaker, the Constitution explicitly mandates the establishment of a Provincial Police Force for each Province which would exercise powers in respect of, and I quote, “the preservation of public order within the Province and the prevention, detection and investigation of all offences (except the offences specified in the Schedule) and subject to the powers of the Attorney-General in terms of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act, the institution of prosecutions in the relevant Courts in respect of such offences.” End of quote.

Further, D.I.G. of the Province is to be, quote, “responsible to and under the control of the Chief Minister thereof in respect of the maintenance of public order in the Province and the exercise of police powers in the Province.” End of quote. These are not exhortative clauses found in a set of recommendations Mr. Speaker, nor are they even gleaned from the text of one of the many abandoned Bills mooted in the past to amend the Constitution. Instead, they are binding provisions of our Constitution – the Supreme Law of the Land and the organising document on which the Sri Lankan state is constituted.

Today, not a single one of these provisions of the Constitution relating to the administration of police through the Provincial Council system has been implemented. The government has exposed itself to the charge of intentionally violating the Constitution, and yet, impunity reigns. If we are a society governed by laws and not by men, how can this continuing, systematic violation of the Constitution be permitted unchecked? Once again, Mr, Speaker, impunity and a lack of accountability, even at the highest levels of government, subvert the expressed will of the people.

It is no surprise therefore that impunity has crept into all aspects of the functioning of the police. Police brutality is only one manifestation of this impunity, but the police are not always the perpetrators of impunity.

In recent times, the public has borne witness the naked political interference with our system of law and order. We have watched with disdain as charges in the law courts against a number of politically influential persons have been summarily dropped. Hours and hours of painstaking work by police personnel are rubbished on the whim of the powers that be.

The system of political patronage that has infected the public service undermines the functioning of the police. It is at undoubted fact that there are many fine, officers in the police force. Men with fierce integrity and commitment, who view their occupation as a duty, bound in public trust, who carry out their work with courage and fortitude with meagre resources, in the face of blatant political meddling and intimidation . At the same time the large majority of Honest, efficient officers are often overlooked for promotions, which are granted to less principled and undeserving officers, often as a favour from powerful politicians.

Further, we have seen the deployment of the military to perform the tasks of the police, often where civil commotions have occurred. This practice is a dangerous one, Mr. Speaker. As someone once said “There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people” and this is precisely what we have been seeing in recent times.

The assumption behind the deployment of the military, Mr. Speaker, is that the police are incapable of handling their functions effectively. This treatment of the police is also reflected in the significant disparity in the salary scale between the police force and the armed forces. Section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance, which enables the President to call out the armed forces, applies only where, I quote, “circumstances endangering the public security in any area have arisen or are imminent and the President is of the opinion that the police are inadequate to deal with such situation in that area.”

The calling out of the armed forces to maintain public order in every single one of the twenty-five administrative districts in Sri Lanka by the President on 6 September 2011 is therefore an insult to the police forces. The very same government that tells its citizens and the world that the country has returned to normal and that order has been restored does not trust its police force to maintain public order in any of the Districts of the country.

We must not for a minute be deluded into thinking, Mr, Speaker, that the disillusionment that these practices engender amongst the police force does not have long-term consequences. The systematic emasculation of the police in respect of crimes committed by those close to power and the endemic corruption within the system has and will continue to undermine the safety and security of citizens


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