Harrowing tales of police brutality in Sri Lanka as country votes

"As the Sri Lankan people go to polls to elect a new President, journalist Nalaka Rupasinghe, reveals the extent of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s use of the police and the Underworld to crush opposition against him."

By Nalaka Rupasinghe

(January 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Gagarin thought he was lucky to be alive. Not because he landed on the moon: that was his namesake. His own terrain was paddy-field where he and his family were harvesting rice. It was a hot day, and when an ice-cream vender came by, Gagarin took a sample, offering to pay next day. But the vendor wanted the cash on the nail, and went to the police. A local constable came to investigate, and told Gagarin to go with him to the station. An argument followed, and blows were exchanged. That night the police tied Gagarin to a tree on a cross and told him, ‘We are going to kill you as Jesus’ He was beaten overnight from time to time. The beating took place just in front of a Buddhist temple.

Then in the following morning he was brought to the village junction and beaten severely in public to give a lesson to the villagers. The policemen in plain clothes with machineguns terrified the village. In fact, they were deployed to protect the villagers from terrorist attacks. Some eyewitnesses complained to the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) regarding the assault/terror. Then the people who complained received death threats from the police and fell silent in the fear of being killed.

Gagarin escaped others did not. Last October a man was forced to drown in the sea by some policemen of Bambalapitiya police in Colombo in front of many onlookers. The shocking television footage taken by a cameraman from his television office showed policemen with big poles beating the victim and preventing him from coming ashore resulting in his death by drowning. The victim was believed to be mentally retarded and used to throw stones towards trains and vehicles passing by, according to the Police spokesman. Killing suspects in police cells has become a day to day experience in the country since the presidential election campaign started last November. There is a famous saying: “One day when man looks at history, he will be surprised, not at the crimes men committed, but at the punishment they were given.”

To understand the truth of this saying you do not have to go that far back but look at police crimes in Sri Lanka. Two young men were recently arrested by the Angulana police (in Colombo District) on a complaint from a young woman that they had touched her hand. It is said that the Officer in Charge (O.I.C.) of the police station had been a regular visitor to the woman’s wooden abode and the men had made some remarks on that. Damith Kumara, an eye witnesses, had seen the men being severely beaten by the police O.I.C. and the other policemen. He told a newspaper: “When they brought in the two youths I was in my cell. I could see more than five police officers kicking, punching and throwing things at them. Later the OIC Newton of the Angulana Police came. They took them to the OIC’s room. I heard them being beaten. The OIC shouted to another police officer to bring him fire and then he was burning and beating them from time to time. In the early hours of the following morning the police team took them in the police jeep to the railway crossing and shot them dead. Both bodies had multiple bullet wounds to the chest and legs. One had a bullet wound to the face and contusions.”
Having found the dead bodies of the young men, the residents of the neighbouring areas were outraged. They threw stones at the police station and launched a mass protest against the police. A world socialist web site reported, ‘The murders are the latest police atrocity in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s fraudulent “war against the underworld”.’

It was reported that the O.I.C. of the Angulana police station was in the habit arresting people on minor offences and taking bribes from their families for their release. One of the eye witnesses of the Angulana police assault was arrested and detained in a police cell for two days without food or water. His crime had been drinking illicit liquor costing Rs.30 (about one and half penny in the U.K., barely enough to make one drunk.)

In 1989, a police team arrested a suspect who was in hiding for the fear of being killed. The police team claimed that they were from the Thambuththegama police and wanted the suspect to be questioned. The team asked his brother, who was a teacher; to surrender his brother to the police, otherwise he too could be in trouble. The teacher surrendered his brother to the police. The following day the villagers recognised the dead body of the suspect in a pile of murdered young men with gun shot wounds, some without heads. On hearing the news, the murdered boy’s mother was devastated and blamed his death on the teacher son. ‘Why did you surrender my son to the police?’ The grieving teacher with his other brother and a friend had gone to the Thambuththegama police to ask why they had killed his brother. The police denied that they had arrested the boy and suggested the men should go to ask the Ambanpola police. The teacher and the other two were travelling in a bus towards Ambanpola. While on the road the bus was stopped by gunmen wearing masks who ordered the driver to take the bus into the jungle. ‘Get down these men from the bus!’ One gunman precisely read the names of the three. After the bus had gone, the teacher and the other two were shot dead on the spot.

When Sirima Bandaranaike was the prime minister of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party government (SLFP) (1970-1977), on the12th November 1976 Peradeniya University suffered a bloodbath owing to a brutal police assault on students who were protesting against the university president. Here is an extract from the Hansard of the debate in parliament on the police assault and the shooting.

Dr. N.M. Perera MP: ‘I am talking with agony, almost every day a man has been killed in police cells. I think it was the member for Kollona (Mr. Wimalanaga) who raised this question yesterday.

Mr. Wimalanaga: ‘Yes and the answer was the man collapsed. Everybody dies after being taken to police stations. The man jumped into the well, fell into the well… all this happens after walking into police stations. The situation is grave….’

Because Sri Lanka is a Buddhist dominated society, since the presidency of J.R. Jayewardene (1978-1988), capital punishment has been suspended and the Buddhist badge ‘dharma chakra’ is attached to police uniforms. According to Buddhist principles harming or killing any living creature is a sin and killing a human being is a worst sin. The gallows had been used to hang convicted criminals sentenced to death by the courts. Since capital punishment was in practice suspended, punishment culture has been changed. The ‘J.R. government’ enacted new draconian laws, so-called anti-terrorist laws, giving a green light to extrajudicial killings. President J.R. Jayewardene became an elected dictator. Under the anti terrorists laws, suspects are killed by shooting, beating and hacking. So now justice is in the hands of police criminals. Many suspects are killed by beaten in police stations or shot before or after arrest.

What Dr. N.M. Perera and some other MPs said in 1976 during a debate on the police shooting is still true to today. The history of police violence during the Sirima Bandaranaike regime has been repeated during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. The police have been given enormous powers under anti-terrorism laws to arrest and detain people indefinitely. In most cases, suspects end up being killed. The government claims that the laws are essential to combat terrorism. In addition to the anti-terrorism laws, the current ‘Rajapaksas’ government has given powers to the police and the Special Task Force (STF) to kill criminals without court proceedings. It is obvious those powers have been abused by the police and the STF in numerous ways such as taking bribes from offenders and their families, linking people with or without minor offences to the underworld and killing them.

Human rights lawyers have expressed concern about killing suspects in police cells in Sri Lanka because it is up to the courts to decide whether the suspect or suspects have committed the crime and the scale of punishment to be given. When police kill a suspect before any arrest is made, they fabricate stories to justify the police action. They have been heard explaining: “When the suspect was brought to the village, jungle for further investigation, he suddenly took out a gun to shoot at the police or took a hand grenade to throw at the police. At this point police had to open fire and suspect died on the spot.” A similar story was fabricated after killing two suspects, a young man and his 60 year old father-in-Law in the Southern province. Sometimes they issue a press release to justify the police actions and to label the suspects as coming from the ‘underworld.’

At the mass protest at Golumadama junction against the Angulana police killing, some placards carried the slogan: ‘Stop killing innocents and labelling them underworld [thugs].The irony is police have taken on underworld duties.’ A protester said: “There is no democracy in [Sri Lanka]. How many people have been killed in the recent past? Police kill them and say they were underworld thugs. No one challenges those killings in the courts [of law]. How many media personnel have been killed?’ When nationwide anger exploded, the media also severely criticised police brutality. One national news paper published a photograph of the protest with the caption ‘the accusation against the police, “Young men taken alive to the police stations come back as dead bodies” has been proved again.’ When heavy criticism continued, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of President Rajapaksa, warned the media not to criticize the police, claiming this could lead to the underworld to ‘raise its head’. The question is who is ‘underworld?’

After wining the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) people expected a huge difference to their lives from the ‘Rajapaksa government’ including personal liberties and economic well-being. But the government says its next priority is ‘crushing the underworld’. The opposition says the move is part of a government plan to crush the opposition. People have genuine fear of the programme. Criminals like drug dealers and gangsters are the open target of the programme. Under the programme many people have been killed by the police or the Special Task Force (STF). What is publicly said and the reality are different. Criminals and underworld gangs have been used by powerful politicians. They are safe as long as they are with the government politicians and loyal to the government. Before the provincial council election in the south the opposition leader (United National Party) of the Urban Council of Galle was shot dead in broad daylight, right in front of his young daughters. On the way to the school, he had got out of his car to buy them lunch. But So far no one has been arrested for this crime. The killers of the most outspoken journalist, the editor of the ‘Sunday Leader’ Lasantha Wicramathunga have also not been arrested or identified.

Nipuna Ramanyake is a student of the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT) at Malambe. He had revealed to the ‘Lankatruth’ his ordeal of being abducted and how Colombo Crime Division SSP Vass Gunawardena threatened him with death stating he would use his official powers to present Nipuna as an underworld thug. …. ‘They tried to take a statement saying I was an underworld thug. They wanted to murder me and publish the statement.’ According to Ramanayake, he was abducted at gunpoint by three armed personnel in plain clothes, a few meters away from the SLIIT campus about 30 minutes after earlier verbal threats by the son of the SSP. He says that he was taken to SSP Vass Gunawardena’s residence and assaulted by armed police, Gunawardena’s son and wife for hours.

Nipuna was lucky to escape from death because of the mass protest of the students His father was also an influential man who spoke to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to secure his son’s release. The offenders excluding the SSP have been prosecuted.
According to international human rights law, captured or surrendered suspects must not be tortured or killed. Taking statements by forceful means is illegal. In the U.K. suspects have every right to choose to answer or not to answer the questions during interrogation. To prove those statements have not been taken by force, interrogations are recorded. But the story in Sri Lanka is entirely different. The police’s most frequent technique is to take statements by beating suspects mercilessly and getting statements signed. Many people have died during the interrogations. No government in recent history has taken firm remedial measures to address those evil practices. While the war with the terrorist organisations, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) is over, draconian laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act are still in force in Sri Lanka.