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Monday, April 15, 2024

Sri Lanka: Police Brutality in the Dock

Today the Lankan Police is placed in the nation’s dock, publicly indicted with the charge of resorting to inhumane and primitive methods to wring confessions out of suspects in police custody.

The time has arrived for the Chief of Police to publicly take cognizance of

Brutality claims: Hakmana residents stage a street protest on Monday over the wounded boy’s claims he was badly assaulted while in police custody

the allegations made by the victims, to take note of the concerns raised by various human rights groups and to make his own confession — voluntarily, of course — of the rotten state of affairs that exists in his department and affirm to the nation his vow to clean his barracks: not cover up his mess. The good name of the police is at stake; and, as the head of the khakied Sam Browne force under his command, the baton stops in the Police Chief’s hands.

September’s gruesome murder of little Seya provoked a riot of reactions. The horrific rape and murder of that five-year-old girl caused an unbridled outbreak of public fury and repugnance which gripped the people in a frenzied mob mentality that thirsted for blood and demanded an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

At a time when the public clamour had hit fever pitch it signalled open season for the police to do their worst to satisfy the public’s lust for vengeance best. The method employed was not painstaking detective work to elicit the killer’s identity but the hit or miss mode to beat the living daylights out of the first unfortunate suspect who fell into their net and to wring a convenient confession from him that would prove his guilt beyond all doubt.

In the case of Seya’s murder, Dunesh Priyashantha, never had a chance. He seemed the perfect fit for the identity kit the police had already conjured up in their minds a child killer would possess. A vagabond, a recluse, a part-time grave digger, a man convicted of molesting a child two years ago and enjoying his freedom under a suspended sentence, he was the dream star at the Policemen’s Ball the police could ever have wished for. So much so that he was even baptised by the police with a stage name and made infamous as Kondaya, a name Dunesh claims no one had ever used before to refer to him.

After a few days of being smothered with police hospitality whilst in police custody, he could not help himself but voluntarily agree to accept the authorship of his ghost-written memoirs which described in graphic detail how he had raped and murdered Seya.

“I noticed that one of the little girls sleeping in the bed was very beautiful. I too was yearning to be with this little girl. I like children,” Dunesh wrote in his confession which was immediately released to the media by the police who hailed it as final confirmation of their successful investigation. But in their jubilance to trumpet their triumph from their watch towers, the police had jumped the gun. When the DNA test results arrived from the private lab, it showed that Dunesh’s DNA samples did not match with those found on Seya.

Luckily for the police they had a spare. Dunesh’s brother, Saman. To cover up their embarrassment when their stage-managed conclusion came a cropper – a conclusion they had so cockily announced to the public even without waiting another week for the DNA verdict to come – they did not apologise for their gross error which had condemned a man as a child killer, but brazenly replaced Dunesh with Saman and held a confession by him which was almost identical to the one the police had produced as Dunesh’s confession, as damning evidence of his heinous crime.

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“But when I saw Seya, lying on the bed with her mother and the other children, my thoughts turned to her,” Saman had confessed to the police giving a detailed account of the tragic night which has an uncanny similarity to Dunesh’s confession. This time the results of the private lab did not let the police down. When the DNA verdict arrived on October 6, it would have thrilled police cockles to the brim and ironed their puckered brows with relief to find that the samples matched.

The police may have solved the mystery of Seya’s killer though it will be to the courts to determine Saman’s guilt. But it has not solved the mystery of how Dunesh came to make his statement confessing to the murder. On October 23, four days after he was released by the Gampaha Magistrate, Dunesh held a press conference and claimed that he had been brutally assaulted by the police whilst in police custody. “I am not that literate. I did not make such a statement and therefore I did not know what the statement contained. I signed it because I was forced to do so after being beaten by the CID officers several times,” he said.

The official police spokesman brushed his claims aside saying that Dunesh had been produced in the magistrates’ courts on many occasions but had not complained of any police brutality to the magistrate. But as the SUNDAY PUNCH asked in its comment on October 11 “Was it fear of any further assault upon returning to the remand cell from the court house that kept him silent?” Dunesh’s answer to the police spokesman given at his October 23 press conference was “I badly wanted to tell the court that I was not guilty, but I feared for my life due to threats by the police.”

In this regard Dunesh was not alone. Within a week of Seya’s body being found dumped in a thicket two neighbours had been arrested. One of them, a 17-year-old boy had been taken in because he had known Seya and her family and had a photograph of her in his laptop. After they were freed by the magistrate on October 1, they broke their silence. They both complained they had been brutally assaulted and subjected to torture by the police.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the 17-year-old youth, a GCE A ‘Level student, has filed a fundamental rights violation action claiming Rs. 10 million in the Supreme Court, alleging that he was unduly and wrongfully arrested abused and assaulted by the police over the abduction, rape and killing of five year old Seya. The other neighbour who was also arrested, a 31-year-old father of one, has also filed a similar action.

This Monday, Hakmana residents took to the streets to protest against another instance of police brutality upon a young lad taken into custody on October 24 over a mobile phone he had purchased. Confined to a wheelchair with his head, legs and hands in bandages and his feet swollen, the young man spoke of his ordeal.

He claimed: “When I went to the police I was told that a shop near our home had been burgled. They asked me to say it was I who had done it. When I refused I was badly beaten. They put petrol on to my head and forced me to drink some petrol too. They beat me further and told me to confess to the crime or else they would kill me and dump me in the Deiyandara tank with the handcuffs. They then removed my clothes and beat me with kurudhu poles and forced kurudhu poles down my mouth.”

On October 27, he was produced in the Deiyandara Magistrate’s Court and released on bail. Responding to this incident, the official police spokesman stated that with regard to a house break-in, the Hakmana police had taken a wanted suspect into custody on October 27. “He has complained that police officials at the Hakmana police station had assaulted him and had been admitted to the Kamburupitya hospital. A complaint to determine as to why he was assaulted has also been received by the Additional Police Commissioner of Matara in charge of the Hakmana Police station and an inquiry has commenced,” he announced to the media.

At least these suspects who claim to have been subject to police brutality were lucky. They lived to tell the tale. Others in the recent past were not so fortunate. During the former regime, when selective law enforcement was practised, almost as a rule, many mysterious deaths of suspects in police custody gave rise to the worst suspicions being cast on the mavericks in the police which in turn tainted the entire force. These suspicious deaths occurred in cases involving the most horrific murders — the sort of gruesome murders that provoke utmost public outrage.

On November 16 2013, a 32-year-old police constable and his wife were shot dead at their home. The police constable, Sunil Weligamaarachchi, had been an officer attached to the Matara Division Anti-vice Squad and had been engaged in a number of drug raids. He and his wife and their two-year-old daughter had been attacked with clubs and swords. As public anger mounted over the killings and demand to find the murderers grew, police action was swift and to the point.

The key suspect was shot dead when he was taken to a hideout in search of weapons. Another suspect was also shot dead when he was taken by the police in hand cuffs to show productions. Two more suspects drowned after reportedly jumping into the Denagama River, while trying to escape from police custody. There was no need for further investigations. Within a few days all the suspects were dead. The case was closed.

The public applauded, their bloodlust sated.

On February 2014, a businessman dealing in gems was shot dead in the Hidellana area in Ratnapura. On March 11, the main suspect in the murder, Sugath Chaminda alias ‘Palankada Heena,’ was killed by the Police. It had occurred during a confrontation with the police. The suspect had been arrested in Hikkaduwa the previous day. He was taking the police to the Mahawalawatte area to recover hidden weapons when the confrontation had taken place. He was also wanted for 21 murders and 31 kidnappings, the police added.

It should be noted that merely because a person is wanted for a murder does not necessary make him guilty. He could be a key suspect or he could be just one in the long list of the usual suspects the police generally round up to question if only to exclude him from the investigation as a possible suspect. If he was indeed responsible for all the 21 murders and 31 kidnappings, then doesn’t it only serve to show the gross incompetence of the police in their abject failure to apprehend the suspect before he committed his 22nd murder?

The information that the man was wanted for 21 murders and 31 kidnappings serves to cast him beyond the pale of redemption and prompts the required response from the public, ‘serves him right, he got what he deserved’. In the eyes of criminal law, when a man is charged with a crime, similar crimes committed in the past cannot be admitted as evidence to prejudice his innocence of the specific crime charged unless the accused presents himself as a saint.

On May 6, 2014, two police constables were on traffic duty on the Dambulla Kurunegala road from 10 pm onwards. They stopped a van to inspect it around 1 a.m. when a man armed with a T-56 assault rifle pointed it at the two policemen and bundled them into the van. They were taken to the Badagamuwa forest where they were stripped. The armed men had shot one policeman while the other had managed to escape.

The IGP offered a reward of Rs. 1 million for information leading to the arrest. Two weeks later the police arrested a suspect. The suspect led the police to show them where he had hidden his weapon. Suddenly there was an exchange of fire, the suspect had thrown a hand grenade and in the confrontation he had been shot dead. With the file closed, the mystery as to why these two constables were abducted and taken to a forest area where one was then killed will remain unsolved. Did anyone claim the Rs. 1 million reward?

This January, Lankans awoke to find the dawn of the New Year besmirched in blood. A 49-year-old lady dentist, her husband, and their son, 15, and daughter, 13, had been brutally hacked to death. The daughter had been raped before she had been killed. Two days later the police arrested a suspect. But he committed suicide, said the police. He had been taken by the police to obtain some information when he had jumped into the Ma Oya and drowned. Unlike in Kondaya’s case, no DNA tests were done to determine whether his DNA matched any samples found at the murder scene.

Whilst some sections of the public may welcome such deaths in police custody as good riddance of bad rubbish, whilst police sleuths may be spared of all the attendant inconveniences of the due process and heave sighs of relief that the case file on such heinous crimes can be closed, while the families of the victim may think justice has been done and their loss avenged, isn’t there a danger that the police may have got the wrong suspect and that the real killer may still be at large and laughing?

In all these instances, the Police Chief has creditably ordered internal police inquiries. But has any report done in-house ever been published? Even if it has been, can any credence be placed on an internal report so tainted with the possibility of partiality? Will it serve to strengthen public confidence and enhance the respect accorded to the Sam Browne? After years of being the pawns of politicos in power, is there any ground for optimism that the police, like the weather cock on the tower, will not turn in the way the winds of change blow?

But as selective law enforcement has been practised almost as state policy by the previous regime during these last ten years, the police cannot be totally blamed for a frightening drop in standards. Promotions, transferences all depended on who best served the will of the political masters and orders followed to achieve vested political interests were granted unofficial immunity. That had been the practice. Now, in keeping with President Sirisena’s vision of ‘just governance’, it is time to change it.

Internal police inquiries, vital as they are, to probe individual cases of police brutality or deaths in police custody, are not the answer. What is required is a complete overhaul. President Sirisena should appoint a Presidential Commission to inquire into the state of Lanka’s Police Force and to make recommendations on how best to ensure more accountability and transparency at Police stations.

In all fairness to the police they must first be presented with the new guidelines to follow when arresting, questioning and detaining a suspect. The Commission should be given the mandate to inquire into the whole gamut of police operations and come with the recommendations that will ensure that the police are not able to become a law unto themselves and allowed to usurp with impunity the role of the judge and the task of the hangman.

Police Chief Illangakoon is presently in Uganda and is expected to return this week. Most probably, he would have made use of the opportunity and collected a dossier on how the Ugandan police functioned under the brutal regime of Idi Amin and how their actions contributed to the regime’s inevitable downfall. This, no doubt, would strengthen his resolve to ensure that his own force does not descend to Amin’s sewers but will emerge smelling roses under his command and, in the new maithree era set to dawn, receive once more the honour and respect the nation traditionally accords to the guardians of the law.

– Sunday Times


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