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Arresting, assaulting and killing have become fun activities for the police

by Tiran Kumara Bangala Arrachi

(June 06, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The most recent case to be reported is from the Kottawa Police Station is of a young man named Lalaka Peiris. He was arrested on May 23rd by a group of people claiming to be from the Homagama Police Station and by the following day he was found dead by his family.

Initially the police denied his arrest. However, the death took place at the Kottawa Police Station. Lalaka Peiris was a painter and a person quite well known in the area. The police who were looking for people engaged in some crimes arrested Lalaka Peiris probably due to incorrect identification and as is usual, assaulted him with the idea getting information out of him. When he was found the day following his arrest he had been handcuffed to a table.

The verdict of the inquest was murder.

In recent months people have heard of many similar killings at police stations. The killing of the two boys at the Angulana became a scandal in the area and led to a revolt by the villagers. The killings at Iginiagala provoked another protest and similarly the killing of Lalaka Peiris also provoked the people in the village who gathered around the police station in protest.

Failure to take action

The stories of torture that take place at the police stations are now known to everyone. However, they do not provoke any kind of action on the part of the government. The Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, who virtually runs the police stations now, has himself talked about the utterly lawless situation that prevails at the stations; however, this has not led to any kind of positive action to improve things. The reason is that the government itself is suspected of using the police for election related violence and it is also known that under the pretext of terrorism many acts of violence, including extrajudicial killings have taken place in the capital city of Colombo itself.

The habit of killing so-called well known criminals has become quite a habit all around the country in almost all police stations. Under these circumstances the government is not in a position to make any serious inquiries into the practices of the police in Sri Lanka. Any inquiry would provoke so much of a reaction from the police themselves and the extent of the degeneration of the system is so deep that any inquiry could lead to chaos.

The government finds it convenient to leave the matter as it is and the consequence is the increasing number of people getting killed at police stations and even more people being tortured and subjected to all kinds of harassments.

The People's anger

Impunity is a word that does not provoke any sort of reaction in Sri Lanka. The government does not consider the covering up of crimes to be a serious accusation. Following a system of impunity is not considered any kind of a scandal. It is simply the way things are which is how the politicians associated with the government describe it. On the other hand the opposition has not made an issue out of custodial killings or any other violence that prevails at the police stations. The opposition politicians cry out only when they themselves are subjected to harassment and once the matter is settled one way or another their concerns about police violence dies down. In any event the United National Party is not in a position to raise its voice against police brutality because for many decades when they were in power the United National Party encouraged impunity and utilised the police for illegal activities.

Thus, at the moment while there is widespread anger among the people about the manner in which the police are behaving and the media reports often betray the brutality of the police there is hardly political move to take serious action to correct this situation. Under these circumstances it is very likely that the present situation will not only continue but actually get worse. More and more people will be subjected to custodial deaths and other kinds of violence by the police and there is hardly anything that anyone can do about it.

At one time there was interest in using the law under the Convention against Torture Act, Act No. 22 of 1994 in order to deal with acts of torture. Particularly during the period of the ceasefire there were attempts by the government to take some action against police officers who engaged in torture and custodial deaths. In particular the National Police Commission took serious action in order to restore discipline in the police once again. However, with the policy of hushing up the institutions under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution all these efforts have been brought to an end. An independent police commission no longer functions. Even the limited inquiries that were conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka have also stopped. Thus the citizens who are faced with custodial killings and torture have no one to complain to. The breakdown of the complaint mechanism encourages the police to engage in this violence continuously.

Neglect

The major cause for police violence in Sri Lanka is the government's policy to ignore matters of law and order. The government no longer shows adequate leadership to bring the law and order situation back to a normal standard. As a result there is neglect at every level and the neglect of this kind grows like the heaps of garbage in Colombo. The entire country is facing a situation of colossal neglect.

When the government allows this level of neglect there is hardly anything that the courts can do in order to halt the collapse of the policing institution in the country. For the courts to operate there needs to be a climate in which the police accept the authority of the courts. At the moment the government does not accept the authority of the courts and as a result the police do not pay any respect to the courts either. Already in 2004 a commission appointed by the ministry of justice in order to examine the delays associated with the enforcement of law came to the conclusion that the police pay little respect for the court orders. There was a recommendation to bring about legal measures to reinforce the authority of the courts and get the police to heed court orders.

This is the situation that has provoked the journalist to say that, 'arresting, assaulting and killing persons' has become a fun activity for the Sri Lankan police.

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