Policing Sri Lanka’s Police Force
by Wimalanath Weeraratne
In November 2015, we heard of heroic actions of a pregnant Woman Police Constable (WPC) in Kandy who saved the life of a six-year-old child about to be thrown onto an oncoming train by his own mother, disregarding her own safety. Despite there being many instances where the police personnel have helped civilians, actions of a handful of unscrupulous police officials are a discredit to the whole Police force.
According to Dr. George Katsiaficas, Professor of Sociology of Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston, something is really rotten in the so-called ‘Democratic Socialist’ Republic of Sri Lanka. Since 1971, tens of thousands of people have been tortured, killed or disappeared by State-led terrorism and anti-government militants. When diving deeper into State-led killings and torture, one can understand, Sri Lanka Police is the main arm used by the political establishment to perpetrate these crimes.
“Daily abuse of civilians by police and military personnel is now routine — and goes unpunished. Sexual torture through sticks and hot pepper powder is widely practised. Families who complain about such torture are themselves subject to interrogation. Old mothers who speak out are pushed in the mud,” laments Dr. Katsiaficas.
On January 7, 29-year-old Sumith Prasanna died after ‘falling’ from the third floor of a building during a clash in Embilipitiya. According to media reports, when the Police arrived at the party in response to a call that using loudspeakers at the party had not been authorized, the officers had requested liquor in order to turn a blind eye to the complaint. The organisers of the party complied and provided them with hot beverages. When the Police had arrived the second time they were told that the party had run out of liquor and a volley of words ensued. The Police arrived again for taking revenge. At the time, the deceased – Sumith Prasanna Jayawardana was having his dinner, it was reported.
According to his wife 29-year-old Munasinghe Arachchige Shashika Nishamani Munasinghe, her husband was thrown from the top floor when both of them pleaded with the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) not to throw him over the building. She further states that she too was subjected to highly abusive language at gunpoint and was pushed away by the Police officers.
Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake read out a statement in parliament that it is yet to be ascertained whether the youth jumped or pushed by the Police to which statement, the Opposition Leader and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parliamentarian Aura Kumara Dissanayake said Sumith Prasanna would not have imagined himself to be Spiderman when contemplating to jump over from a three-storey building.
However, the most hilarious remark came from Police Media Spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekera when he said that the ‘raid’ by the Police was in response to an ‘unlawful assembly’, making sane citizens think twice before holding birthday parties, wedding receptions, or even an alms giving!
Furthermore, grabbing notebooks of media personnel who went there to report the January 13th magisterial inquiry proceedings by a police officer did nothing but exhibiting the desperate naked attempts of the Police to suppress the truth.
This is just one incident but there are numerous more from the killing of two youth by the Angulana Police, torturing of Seya Sadewmi murder suspects and dozens of killings – where hand-cuffed suspects jumped into rivers and were shot back when they attempted to shoot or lob a grenade or two at the Police.
Basil Fernando and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a respected Hong Kong-based association of lawyers, journalists, and activists from over 15 countries, penned a report titled – ‘Narrative of Justice, told through stories of torture victims’ (Hong Kong, 2013) which recounts the daily abuse suffered by ordinary citizens at the hands of the Police. The sheer number of cases meticulously recorded by the AHRC speaks volumes to the fact that police abuse is systematic. None of the 401 victims — a sampling of the 1,500 cases documented by the AHRC between 1998 and 2011 — whose sad story is recovered here was even remotely connected to terrorism or political conflict. Rather, these are human beings modestly eking out a living who randomly become a way for the police to “solve” a criminal investigation by extracting a confession using the most expedient and speedy means — torture.
Gerald Mervin Perera
Gerald Mervin Perera, a father of two and cook at the Colombo Dockyards, resided at 52/2B Iddhagodella, Mihidumawatte, Gonagaha, till he was arrested on June 3, 2002, in the presence of his wife W.P. Padma Wickramaratne, by ten plain clothed police officers from the Wattala Police station, on suspicion of murder. Perera was then taken to the Wattala Police Station where he was reportedly severely tortured under the supervision of Officer in Charge Sena Suraweera, Sub Inspector Kosala Navaratne, Officer in Charge of Crimes, Sub-Inspector Suresh Gunaratne, Sub-Inspector Weerasinghe, Sub-Inspector Renuka, Police Constable Nalin Jayasinghe, Police Constable Perera and another unnamed police officer.
According to the report, the police officers had tied Perera’s hands behind his back, blindfolded him and hung him from a beam, before brutally torturing him for about an hour and a half. During this time, Perera was reportedly interrogated concerning a murder case he stated he knew nothing about.
Perera had suffered from pain and was taken to Yakkala Wickramarachchi Ayurvedic Hospital. The doctor who examined him had referred Perera to Nawaloka Hospital due to his being in a serious medical condition. While in the Nawaloka Hospital, Perera reportedly gave a statement to an officer from the Grandpass Police Station in Colombo, concerning the torture he had been subjected.
According to the information received, Perera’s condition worsened on June 15, 2002, and he was then placed on a life support system, with his family having been informed that he may not survive. It was reportedly feared that the authorities may halt Perera’s use of the life support system, as the running costs were very high.
On April 4, 2003, Gerald Perera reportedly was awarded a settlement of Rs. 800,000 as well as full medical costs as a result of the torture, although Perera’s medical costs exceeded Rs. 800,000. In his decision, Justice Mark Fernando found that the police officers who tortured Perera had breached Articles 11, 13(1) and 13 (2) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which outlaw illegal arrest and detention and torture. Wattala Police Station OIC Sena Suraweera was found guilty even though he had no direct part in the torture, because the torture occurred with his knowledge and acquiescence.
Killed for seeking justice
Perera, was shot on November 21, 2004 at around 11:15 a.m. by unknown perpetrators allegedly linked to former officers of the Wattala Police Station. On that fateful day, Perera had changed buses at Ja-Ela to travel to Colombo. After his boarding the bus at Welisara, a person who exited an automobile (licence plate no. 65-6839) had also entered the same bus. This person had walked to the back row of the bus where Perera was sitting and shot Perera. The shooter had then exited the bus, returned to the same automobile as he had arrived in and exited the scene. Perera was taken directly to the Ragama Main Hospital in the bus, and after some treatment Perera was taken to the Colombo National Hospital for emergency care. According to Perera’s family members, he was in critical condition, and they have lodged a complaint at the Ragama hospital police post, and the Ragama Police Station.
Few weeks prior to the murder, Perera had been under pressure to withdraw the case against the aforementioned officers in the Negombo High Court, under the Convention Against Torture Act of Sri Lanka, Act No. 22 of 1994. Sources from the victim’s family have stated that a group of police officers recently visited Perera’s home and pressured him to withdraw the case. Acquaintances of Perera have also been confronted by SI Suresh and SI Herath asking them to influence Perera to withdraw the complaint. Furthermore, a provincial council member of Mabole, known by Perera’s family as Niroshan, had also visited the victims home and asked Perera to withdraw his complaint.
It is alleged, that the failure of attempts made by government and police officials and the alleged torturers, to press Perera for withdrawing the case had led to Perera’s killing.
According to the AHRC, “This is the first time that a torture victim pursuing a complaint before the courts in Sri Lanka has been shot dead at the instigation of the perpetrators.”
WPC Swarnarhka – Killed by fellow policemen
V. K. Swarnarhka was a healthy 30-year-old police officer at the Vavuniya Police Station. She left home March 8, 1993 to report to work. By noon the next day, her family was called to come and collect her body, and a message that she had committed suicide. The family was not called to be present at the post-mortem inquiry or even to identify the body. All that was done by the police themselves by the time the body was handed over to the family.
The investigating doctor identified the cause of death as a cardio-respiratory failure following the ingestion of insecticide. He did not send any samples for toxicological analysis. The family was suspicious and went to the nearby Magistrate’s Court to call for the exhumation of the body. The court debated the issue for one year before a new magistrate arrived and made an order for exhumation. A second doctor issued a report declaring a lack of evidence of insecticide and ordering parts of the body be sent for toxicological analysis. He deferred his final findings till he discussed them with the doctor who made the first inquiry. The Government Analyst’s Department had reported negatively on the presence of any poisonous element. The doctor, however, after talking to the doctor who had done the first inquiry, had opined that the first report was correct. All three medical reports were sent to the Medical College for expert opinion. A professor of forensic science had given his view that the first doctor should have sent the body parts for toxicological analysis and that there was no evidence of death by taking insecticide. On the available evidence it was not possible to determine whether the death was due to suicide, homicide, or just natural reasons.
This debate on medical reports has gone on for nine years now. It is obvious that this healthy young woman’s death was never suspected to be due to natural reasons. If suicide is excluded, the other possibility is homicide. There are many reasons that have made the family believe that this is a case of homicide. The last thing known about the deceased person’s whereabouts was a telephone call from the local police station by the ASP asking Swarnarehka to come to his office immediately with a divided skirt worn by athletes. She had obeyed the orders and reported accordingly. Within two hours she was dead. Within the next two hours, the postmortem, embalming and everything was done, without any information to, or participation by, the family. The police had not answered the questions of the family about the details of the death and had been very hostile to the family. The family had heard conflicting versions about the death from different officers. The family believes that higher-ranking police officers have made secret inquiries about the death and have hushed up the findings.
This is a case where the only persons who know about the death are the police officers of this particular station. The family believes there were over 40 officers, including women, at the station. Only through rigorous interrogation of the police officers can what really took place be found out. The suicide story, which has been discounted, casts suspicion that there has been police complicity.
The case should have been referred for inquiry to the CID. However, for over nine years now, no inquiry had been undertaken. The family has written to everyone, including the Attorney General and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). However, there has been no attempt to assure the family that justice will be done.
H. Fonseka – Twice
Boxer’ Jayasinghe of the Panadura Police Station goes on record as having arrested one H. Fonseka and thrown him twice into the Panadura River on June 4, 2002. Fonseka managed to escape the first time he was thrown in, but was caught and again thrown into the river by ‘Boxer’ Jayasinghe. Some people had intervened and saved him. He was unconscious when he was saved, and would surely have drowned but for their assistance. The medical report of June 6th from the Panadura Base Hospital had mentioned several injuries due to the attempted drowning. A complaint of attempted murder has been made in this case, but no action has been taken.
It has also been brought to the attention of the HRCSL.
This is not the first reported instance of brutality by ‘Boxer’ Jayasinghe. S. A. Piyadasa is a retired civil servant, married with three children, was also brutally assaulted and tortured by ‘Boxer’ Jayasinghe along with Piyadasa’s son Milantha, and son-in-law Aruna Kumara on July 30, 2002.
Police and police officials should undergo an attitudinal change and a paradigm shift. Authorities must urgently implement institutional reforms and conduct capacity building. At a time where teachers are told to put canes aside and schools are told not to implement corporal punishment, it is regrettable that 21st century Sri Lanka Police still practises anal torture with sticks and hot pepper powder. One of the most horrendous features is that the victims are in most instances innocent and not the real culprits. The arrest of Seya Sadewmi murder suspects is the recent-most such incident.
Another salient feature is that the Police clearly does not use torture against perpetrators of mega deals, corruption or large scale financial frauds. The reason is that small fish are caught whilst the big fish swim away. Although a poor man who breaks into a store is brutally tortured big fish such as former Minister Basil Rajapaksa or business magnate Lalith Kothalawala who are charged to have misappropriated billons of rupees or any other corporate top dogs and corrupt politicians go away scot free.
Modernizing an archaic police
Prior to the budget AHRC sent a letter to Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake requesting for urgent budgetary allocations for much-needed institutional reforms of the Police. According to the letter, Britain’s colonial police and policing was based on the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a hierarchically organized, centrally-commanded paramilitary force intended to discipline and punish a restive native population that did not always take kindly to conquest, the civilizing mission or the ‘obvious’ benefits of modernity.
“As you may be well aware, the model of policing established by the British in colonial times was one based on the Irish constabulary style. This was basically a militaristic style of policing to protect the interest of the colonizers, rather than the style of civilian policing, introduced in Britain in the style of the London Metropolitan police, which was based on the concept of policing by consent. Similar reforms occurred in France over a long period of time. These models have been replicated in all developed countries. From the point of view of such transformations, the policing that exists in Sri Lanka is one that is primitive and unsophisticated. Without a fundamental reform of the policing system, it is not possible to achieve good governance as understood in the modern political context.”
The letter highlights that in many countries, institutional reforms led to a more humane police forces. Accordingly, it can be understood that Sri Lankan police is still underdeveloped, archaic and yet to evolve to modern times. The yahapalana government cannot realize its goals fully and truly without reforming and modernizing the police. In order to implement reforms the police needs the active participation of civil society organizations, other government agencies and the public at large.
The question before us is whether the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) is truly serious about this. Question arises as to whether Minister Sagala Ratnayake is at all serious about policing the Police. We are yet to see any concrete action taken by President Maithripala Sirisena towards that. Only by political will and genuine intervention can we change this culture of violence where the police, set up to in fact safeguard the rights of the people, will be the true guardian of the people.