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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Why do Sri Lankan Police officers torture suspects? 

Image: SriLankan policeman jumping on a lorry driver after assaulting him in broad daylight.

“Police officer” refers mostly to persons working for the Sri Lanka Police Service. But in the context of custodial torture, it also includes others who at times are called upon to do police-related duties such as conduct interrogations, similar to the military and other agencies. Another aspect, relevant to this discourse, generally speaking, concerns persons from low income-earning groups. They are the ones who are tortured. There are rare instances where someone outside that social group may be tortured. The latter are few in number as compared to the vast majority of the cases where the victim is from a low-income group. Observations contained herein are made based upon actual case studies, and while one case may be mentioned under each heading, it is only a sample of very many similar cases.

Reasons for torture

Obtaining rewards

A school teacher complains that he has lost Rs. 50,000, which he thinks was stolen from his home by someone. The teacher suspects a young man who has been working in the vicinity as the culprit. He seeks the help of the Police to find the Rs. 50,000. Police records do not show any complaint being recorded from this teacher. Later, the said youth is arrested. At the police station, he is beaten by the police officer-in-charge (OIC) and another officer. He is requested to give back the Rs. 50,000. He denies the allegation. However, due to the severe beating, he becomes unconscious, and is taken to hospital where he subsequently dies.

Why was he tortured? Was it as part of a criminal investigation? If it is part of a criminal investigation, the very first thing that should have been done was to record the complaint of the teacher in the complaints book. In the process of recording such, the teacher should have been asked about the details, such as where the money was kept as well as the particulars which would lead to an understanding of when and how the loss took place. The complainant teacher should have been asked as to what reasons he had to suspect a particular boy as the possible culprit in this theft. The Police should have sought out other evidence in support of the suspicions by the teacher. All such steps that should have been taken for the recording of the statement should be based on the law, as laid down in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP).

However, that procedure is valid only if the OIC or any other police officer was sincerely interested in conducting an inquiry as per the criminal law, with a view to collecting evidence to prosecute the offender. This means that the officer’s involvement in the case is basically as a criminal investigator. The functions and the methodologies within which a criminal investigation takes place have been well laid down both by law and institutional principles that evolved over time within the policing system.

What appears in this case is that the police officer or officers who arrested the boy did not have an intention to conduct a criminal investigation. They did not have the view to collect evidence which could be placed before a court, leading to a criminal trial against the suspect. This is not the mindset or the intention of the Police who intervened in this case.

They had taken a complaint made by the teacher who we could assume in terms of the local rural area, wields some kind of influence. The details on the relationships between the teacher and any of the police officers have not been revealed. What is clear is that the Police acted to help the complaining teacher to find the money and that this was their sole objective.

Then the question becomes: Why did the police officers go out of their way to help the complainant get what he wanted? To that purpose, did the police officers ignore all that they are officially bound to do as acting investigators? One could postulate yes to these. Either it is due to personal reasons or they wanted to help the teacher, or they were acting with hope. Hope due to the promise given by the teacher to reward them if they find the money.

When the officers fail to find any information leading to the recovery of the money, they brutally assaulted the boy, which finally led to his death. Now, this instance cannot be in any way explained as an overenthusiastic criminal investigator’s act, the result of his eagerness to solve the crime.

This kind of brutal torture, leading to the boy’s death, would not be consistent with the activity of a criminal investigator. His sole aim is to collect evidence so a successful prosecution could be made. The recovery of the money and the handing over of the money to the complainant under the CCP could only take place through the courts. The money, if it was found, has to be deposited under the courts’ jurisdiction. It would be after the trial that the court could be satisfied that the money belonged to the complainant. The money was to be handed over to him after the suspect is found guilty.

Such a procedure is cumbersome. In terms of the general practice in Sri Lanka, it would have taken a long time. Therefore, the interest of the complainant would have been to obtain the money as soon as possible. Any interest of pursuit against the subject in a criminal case would hinder the achievement of his immediate objective – which is to get the money back as soon as possible.

Here, the police officer is transformed from a criminal investigator’s position to some sort of an assistant. He could provide help for a complainant to acquire what he wants materially but not in terms of justice. The police function is not exercised in order to enforce justice within the framework of the law but in a sort of practical way, so as to resolve a person’s problem. It is not within the legal function of a police officer to engage in such work. For example, if the teacher, instead of going to the Police, went to the ordinary criminal who engages in the use of force to settle matters, the teacher could have sought such a person’s help. And that person, in turn, by threatening directly, assaulting, or using some other means, could have forced the suspect to give back the money. Now, the teacher, instead of completing this in a criminal fashion, uses the police officers to accomplish the same objective. When the Police, in their uniforms and with official authority, act in a worse way than the criminal, they are protected by the law. Therefore, the matter could be brought to an end in this manner.

We are seeing this process in a majority of theft and robbery cases; against complainants or persons in low-income groups. They fall into this kind of category of crime and this kind of transformation.

This cultural transformation could have happened not entirely due to the bad quality of policing but due to other societal changes. It is necessary to understand what these societal changes are in order to understand the kind of policing that has developed in Sri Lanka – and also the reasons for torture that takes place in police stations.

The assumption that the police officers engaged in torture in the course of a criminal investigation (in order to find more evidence to be placed before the courts) is not the basis on which, in most instances, particular activities done by the Police towards the low-income groups, happen to take place.

In order to gain promotions

A young man of about 20 or so is brought by the Police to a Magistrate’s Court just as the Court begins its work for the day. His case is called and the court clerk begins to read a series of charges. Altogether, there are about 15 charges of theft and robbery. After each charge, the young man pleads guilty. Then, the case was postponed for sentencing for the next day, and for a subsequent day, and the young man was sent back to the prisoners’ cell block within the court. While the court proceedings were going on, suddenly, a huge cry is heard from the prisoners’ cells. It was the young man and he is crying. During the short interval in the court, some prisoners called the lawyers who represented them and informed them that the young man was asking for help. A few young lawyers talked to the young man. The young man tells the following story.

He is from a far-away village, travelling a long distance by bus, and coming towards Colombo. At one spot, as is the usual custom, the bus stops for passengers to have a little rest and perhaps to have a cup of tea. As the young man wanted to relieve himself, he goes to a place behind a big stone and was urinating when a police officer passes by. The police officer is a sergeant in a nearby police station. The police officer inquires about where the boy is from. He mentions the name of his far-away village. The boy is asked to accompany the policeman to the nearby police station, which he does. He was then detained in the police station and kept there for about three weeks. In the beginning, he was tortured to admit to certain crimes that he does not know anything about. Due to the long detention, harassment, and promises made, he finally agrees to plead guilty to some charges. But he does not know anything about them. The Police gathered together all the unresolved cases remaining at the police station. They attribute this young man as the suspect in all these cases. And, then, he is told that if he pleads guilty, the Magistrate, being a very kind man, will take a lenient attitude towards him. Because of his honesty and because he is young, he would be given a mild suspension sentence and be allowed to return home. To assure him that what they were saying was true, he was given Rs. 10 to go back home after the hearing that day. Believing in all this, the young man pled guilty to all the charges, notwithstanding that he was a person from a far-away village, knowing nothing about all these thefts and robberies that took place in a particular area he had never been to before. It was only when he goes back to his cell that the prisoners experienced about these matters told him this: That he will be in jail for a very long time, as he had pled guilty to some 15 crimes. It was at that point that the boy started crying. The lawyers, having all the details, approached the Magistrate. They used the powers available to them, under the CCP, to request a withdrawal of the plea he made. The Magistrate postpones the case and asks the lawyers to take up the issues on the next date.

The lawyers draft a letter to the police officer who was in charge of these proceedings. He is told that he has filed cases against an innocent person and that unless he withdraws these cases against him (the young man), they will proceed to take action against him. It was a letter of demand assigned by a lawyer. The next day, the senior police officer, in charge of making up these cases against the suspect, sends a junior officer to the lawyers concerned. He states that he is willing to withdraw all the cases by the next day. Then, he tells this to the lawyer who was taking the most active part in the case: “Sir, the OIC wants to let you know that you have prevented his imminent promotion.”

This particular story is purely one among many similar cases that surface in the magistrate’s courts quite often. When the Police receive complaints of unresolved petty thefts and/or even robberies, they usually look for a defenceless and poor young person to blame. He/she is charged in all the cases, and given promises of sorts to create confidence that no significant consequences will follow.

Police officer” refers mostly to persons working for the Sri Lanka Police Service. But in the context of custodial torture, it also includes others who at times are called upon to do Police-related duties such as conduct interrogations, similar to the military and other agencies.

Another aspect, relevant to this discourse, generally speaking, concerns persons from low-income earning groups. They are the ones who are tortured. There are rare instances where someone outside that social group may be tortured. They are few in number as compared to the vast majority of the cases where the victim is from a low-income group.

Observations contained herein are made based upon actual case studies, and while one case may be mentioned under each heading, it is only a sample of very many similar cases.

Sharing fees with the lawyers

In almost all Police stations in recent decades, there has developed a collaboration between the policemen and some lawyers around the issue of arrest and detention. The Police arrest persons without a proper preliminary inquiry and thereafter, they submit the report, charging the person with offenses for which bail cannot be easily given.

A regular practice has developed. It is sending suspects for two weeks detention in remand prison – even in simple offenses where bail could be given immediately.
Next, the people look for lawyers. The general opinion that is created in the particular courthouse premises is that only certain lawyers practicing in the said regional bar are able to secure a suspect’s bail.

Very often, the reason for this is that these lawyers have established a close relationship with the Police on the basis of sharing their fees with them. When these lawyers make applications for bail, the Police do not object and bail could be obtained.

However, if one of those lawyers in a favorable relationship with the Police does not appear, the objection is taken against their bail request. Often, the Magistrate allows the request, the persons are detained and could be further detained on several occasions.

Even the Supreme Court has at times commented that the Magistrates should not refuse bail purely on the request of the Police. The Magistrate should examine all the circumstances and where bail could be given, it should be given. The principle established in law is to give bail, and that only in certain circumstances should bail be denied.

This special relationship between some lawyers and some Police officers affects not only issues of bail, but also issues pertaining to the filing of charges and the nature of the charges. When such lawyers do not appear at the initial appeal itself, the Police would file serious charges against them.

This might be for possession of drugs above a certain quantity or other offences concerning which the Magistrate cannot offer bail. When that happens, a person has to wait until the proceedings are taken up in the High Court and the matters are examined, and finally a bail order may be made.

The process of disentangling oneself from such charges is extremely difficult. This itself encourages the family when they know that one of their family members has been arrested, very often for no reason. They use the approach to intervene quite early with lawyers so as to ensure that the suspects are not charged with non-bailable offences.

Furthermore, even when people are charged with serious offences initially, the Police may later alter such reports.

Often, the excuse is this: After the inquiry, they found that their initial findings are not accurate, and reduced the charges to enable the Magistrate to grant bail. Again, these kinds of charges occur purely on the basis of the existing relationship: The connection between the Police and the lawyers concerned, with the sharing of monies earned from such clients.

This practice affects those lawyers who do not engage in such practices. The word is spread that the lawyers who object for various reasons to reports filed by the Police get into trouble. On legitimate grounds, when lawyers appear for their clients, carrying out their obligations in a faithful manner, they are treated as hostile persons by the Police. The way such lawyers are treated creates a kind of chatter around the courthouses.

Various messengers engaged in touting, spread the message of risks the clients face from using the services of lawyers who try to honestly defend their clients. This creates an environment within the Magistrate’s Courts. Fair play, on the basis of carrying out professional duties, gets discouraged. Many lawyers who would like to play their role in a more honest and efficient manner get disheartened. They pursue their activities in a manner which they would otherwise not do.

At times, in some Magistrate’s Courts, Magistrates themselves contribute to this atmosphere. They put various restrictions on lawyers who would not adjust easily. These practices include those such as pleading guilty for offenses, purely for the sake of complying with the kind of expectation that gets built up in such restrictive environments.

All these practices have an overall impact of discouraging a fair fight for the protection of the rights of all the suspects, particularly suspects from low-income groups. These groups are expected to be more submissive towards Police pressure, even when they have not committed any crime.

Torture for obtaining a ransom

Two sons of a relatively well-off family from a remote area are arrested by the Police. It is alleged that they have stolen two buffalos. Both of them are assaulted by the Police in civilian clothing at the Police station. Having heard about this treatment, the family intervenes on behalf of the two boys.

The Officer-In-Charge (OIC) of the Police station makes a demand on the family to this effect. Since the father of the two boys has enough money, they should ask him to give Rs. 1 million to the OIC, and that on that condition, the boys will be released and no charges will be filed against them.

That is a very recent incident that took place within the last two months.

A few years back, 11 young persons were abducted by unknown persons. They were all from relatively affluent families. After abduction, a request for ransom was made. However, in each of the cases, due to various obstacles, the attempts to collect the ransoms failed. Later, due to a number of pressures, an inquiry was initiated.

It was discovered that the boys were held inside a Navy camp, and that certain high ranking officers were involved in the crime. As the ransom demands were not met on time, the boys were killed. The parents made complaints about their disappearance despite clear evidence of abduction and detention. The case has been dragging on for several years now.

Both these reported incidents point to a quite frequent practice of the use of law enforcement powers to obtain ransom. There have also been complaints from persons of Tamil origin. They complained of being exposed to such ransom attempts under the threat that, if they fail to comply, they will be charged under the terrorism laws. Some of these persons returned from abroad. It seems to have been assumed that they or their loved ones would have money to pay a ransom.

Nearly all of these complaints have been examined by international forensic experts. So far, not a single law enforcement officer has been successfully prosecuted for such offences.

For unjust enrichment

A young man, around the age of 20, was charged with eight to 10 car robberies. After investigation, the suspect has been identified and kept in the custody of a certain Police station.

In the beginning, he is beaten by the Police in civilian clothes. He reveals some details about a few stolen cars. With that admission, the treatment of the subject softens. The OIC of the Police station makes inquiries on the basis of information given by the suspect. As a result, the OIC was able to trace some of the cars and their original owners.

Then, the OIC started negotiations with the car owners on the terms based on which they would return the vehicles. The owners agreed to pay some substantial amounts to the OIC and so the cars were returned to them. Gradually, as more information was obtained from the suspect, all the cars were recovered.

The OIC followed a method of obtaining money for returning the cars to the original owners. Although a B-report was filed against the suspect, initially, no charges were subsequently filed against him. The OIC was able to convince the car owners that if the suspect was charged, the cars, as stolen goods, would have to be kept on the court premises until the end of the case. In the end, the car owners got their cars, the OIC collected money for himself and the suspect was freed.

The use of a criminal complaint, for finding ways for unjust enrichment of some law enforcement officers, is a frequent practice. This is particularly seen in cases where the value of the goods involved is relatively large.

A man was arrested on suspicion of some offence and produced before a Magistrate’s Court. In the case of the inquiry, the Police discovered that he was the owner of some jewellery and some gold items which he had inherited from his family. After getting an order for his detention, the Police kept on filing further applications for detention, for several months.

During this time, they were able to acquire for themselves the value of the jewellery and the gold items which were in his possession. In doing that, the Police also had the co-operation of the lawyer who appeared for the suspect.

A Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) lost some gold items. They were stolen from his house by a burglar. Despite all inquiries, it was not possible to find the burglar or the gold items. Some months later, the same burglar was caught in a different Province while engaged in a robbery.
Once the Inspector at the Headquarters (HQI) of that particular District found that this burglar had many things in his possession, he took over the case. By using torture, he was able to get the location of the different places from which things were stolen. This included reference to the burglary at the DIG’s house.

The HQI kept all the gold for himself and did not file any charges against the thief. However, the story of what had taken place leaked out. The DIG came to know that the HQI had kept his gold items together with the other loot. The HQI was later suspended from his post.

The use of complaints made at Police stations, as a means of enriching themselves, is widespread and frequently practiced.

(An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission)



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