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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Sri Lanka – Religious complaints: Police in unholy mess

Namini Wijedasa
The new unit manned by predominantly Buddhist offi ers in the wilderness, without guidance; confusion over its duties and responsibilities
Members of the police unit dealing with complaints related to religious activities have no special training in their assigned field and are still uninformed about the types of offences they are expected to investigate.
Officials admitted that the answers will only become clearer as the weeks progress.
Critics say the task delegated to the unit — that of dealing with “complaints related to religious activities” — is too broad and poorly defined. Several senior politicians have also questioned the rationale for setting up a separate unit to deal with offences regular police stations should handle.

The unit has 20 members including a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) and an Officer-in-Charge (OIC). It is attached to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious affairs. There is only one branch in Colombo.

BBS monks act like police while police act like helpless victims during the recent incident at the Industry and Commerce Ministry. The BBS monks stormed the ministry in search of a monk who had spoken in favour of religious harmony. Pic by Nilan Maligaspe

“The President decided on Wednesday to appoint the unit and by the following Monday it was done,” said an official source, requesting anonymity. “There was really no time for training.”

Police Spokesman Ajith Rohana said the training would come.

“We will use the assistance of distinguished professionals in the field, university academic staff, law enforcement officials, religious leaders. We will develop a curriculum,” SSP Rohana said.

SSP Ranjith Kodituwakku, the head of the unit, has a cubicle on the sixth floor — behind a table that holds flowers, joss sticks and a Buddha statue. For now, there is no religious or ethnic diversity in the unit. Its members are predominantly Sinhala Buddhist but the Police Department has pledged to change that.

On Wednesday, SSP Kodituwakku could still not shed light on whether his unit would implement specific laws related to religion or address more general complaints. “When we receive complaints, we will consult Ministry officials and take their advice,” he said, adding that he is yet to familiarise himself with the specific laws. His OIC has been instructed to collect information about religious issues. Any further questions would have to be answered by the police spokesman.

With 290 reported incidents already before the unit, the police and the Ministry will have a daunting task deciding on relevancy — especially when the special unit has not been given any terms of reference. The largest number of complaints has been lodged by former Colombo Municipal Councillor Azath Salley who submitted a file of 284 cases. All of these had previously been submitted to other police stations.

Police Spokesman Rohana said the public must first visit the area police.If unhappy with the outcome, they could seek the intervention of the special unit. This implies the creation of an informal hierarchy within the Police Department, with the public being able to appeal to a separate division if they felt the area police are not effective.

“The main objective of establishing it in the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs is for them to work together,” the Spokesman continued. “The Ministry makes its decisions and the police will provide security.”

Critics pounced on the lack of clarity. “They are now not too sure of this unit’s operational framework,” said Chrishantha Weliamuna, human rights advocate and convenor of the Lawyers Collective, an activist group.

The Lawyers Collective wants the special unit to be disbanded. They say it will be perceived “as a licence for ordinary police officers to shirk their legitimate responsibilities and pass them on to this unit and get away with their duties”.

Mr. Weliamuna said the Police Department “knew very well” that its officers were ineffective in stemming religion-related crimes. This was because excessive interference meant they were shackled from dealing with “high profile criminals, in this case the Buddhist monks”.

Ironically, the Buddhist monks against whom such allegations are made also expect the special unit to be free of interference. They claim that powerful politicians, including Members of Parliament and MPs, prevent police from acting against religious offences reported by Buddhists.

Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Ven. Galagodaththe Gnanasara said that, after a spate of recent incidents, his organisation had been summoned by the authorities. They included the Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and the Inspector General of Police. All of them asked the BBS “not to take the law into your own hands”.

In turn, the BBS had strongly urged the Government to set up a police unit for religious offences. “When a complaint goes to a police station, it is directed to the senior officer who then receives a call from the area MP or Minister and that’s the end of the law,” he said. “The Buddhists of this country also have problems. Now we have got a police unit, finally.”

Justice Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem is among those who maintain that the special unit is redundant. He was reported as saying the police have sufficient powers to tackle prevailing issues.

Even the Jathika Hela Urumaya opposes the Government’s BBS-backed move. Party General Secretary and Technology Minister Champika Ranawaka said that such a mechanism, if at all, should have been created through Parliament. It might be a precursor to “religious police” in Sri Lanka, he cautioned. Confusion remains over what the unit will actually do. The Western Province’s Senior Deputy Inspector General, Anura Senanayake, has said unethical conversions, religious disturbances and threats to religious personalities are offences the new unit would handle. However, there is no law governing unethical conversions while disturbance and threat already fall under the ambit of existing police stations.

SSP Rohana first said the unit would take all complaints concerning religious activities. But he clarified that issues such as the blaring of religious prayers over loudspeakers would not be entertained by it. Supporters say the unit might help resolve conflict before it worsens. Even this, however, is deemed to be the job of the Ministry.

A common reason for recent religious strife has been the setting up of “prayer centres”, mostly Evangelical Christian and Islamic, around the country. These are also unlikely to be taken up.

“Prayer centres are generally not illegal,” SSP Rohana said. “If you know there is an (unauthorised) prayer centre, the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs must handle the matter internally. If there is no breach of peace of offences under criminal law, the police have no role there.” If there was a breach of the peace, he said, the local police should mobilise. The parties could go to the special unit if they were not satisfied with action taken. Critics say this procedure might not work in volatile situations when quick intervention is needed.

The BBS expects the unit to collate complaints and incidents, provide statistics and analyse the trend in offences related to religion. It could help the Government formulate policy on matters such as unethical conversion and Wahabism, says Ven. Gnanasara. It might even be able to inform the Government’s opinion on what to do about Buddha tattoos.

But SSP Rohana said data collection and policy guidance were the job of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. The BBS also expects the special unit to act in cases where the clergy are guilty of offences, including corruption. It is not clear whether other religious leaders or groups expect the same.

The Ministry says all manner of problems are brought to its officials for resolution, including within religions. There are complaints about corruption in the clergy, about inappropriate personal behaviour, about violation of rules and norms, and about ordinary crimes.

Among religions, a most emotive issue is the setting up of prayer centres, often in private residences or buildings rented for other purposes. Another is unethical conversion. “We don’t hope to investigate each and every complaint,” said M.K.B Dissanayake, the Ministry Secretary said. “We will decide whether they should be handled by ordinary police or by this unit. Our objective is to give a fair solution to people of all religions.”

In attempting to reach this goal, however, the Government’s special police unit might find the meeting of conflicting expectations to be its most difficult task of all.

Offences related to religion: What the Penal Code says

The Penal Code lists out several offences related to religion. They are:

Destroying, damaging, defiling any places of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons, with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage, or defilement as an insult to their religion;

Any act, in or upon, or in the vicinity of, any place of worship or any object which is held sacred with intent to or in veneration by any class of persons, with the intention of wounding the religious feelings of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such act as an insult to their religion;

Voluntarily causing disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies;
 With the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, uttering any word or making any sound in the hearing of that person, or making any gesture in the sight of that person, or placing any object in the sight of that person;

With deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, insulting or attempting to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class;

With the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, committing any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sepulchre or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites, or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offering any indignity to any human corpse, or causing disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies
Sunday Times


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