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Over 100 suspects have been killed in police custody in the past year according t0 AHRC

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 5 July 2009 08:41 No Comment]

police_op-ed-pic Earlier this year the nation was gripped by the horrifying case of Varsha Regi, a six-year old girl kidnapped for ransom and then murdered in Trincomalee.

In the aftermath of the enormous public outcry that followed the case the police moved remarkably swiftly. Just days after the murder two suspects were arrested, however before any formal trial could begin — both suspects were dead. Both died in police custody — one suspect was shot while trying to escape, while the other was reported to have taken cyanide while being escorted to the scene of the crime.

With the main suspects dead the case was essentially closed and slipped out of the public eye.

Where justice in Sri Lanka is concerned this is a familiar pattern. The same series of events — a high profile crime, followed swiftly by the arrest of suspects who are promptly shot/commit suicide while in police custody, is repeated again and again.

Shot while trying to escape

In the high profile Delgoda massacre case a family of five was hacked to death in their home over an apparent land dispute. Weeks later two men suspected of involvement in the killings were arrested by the police and then shot ‘while trying to attack the police and escape from police custody’ — again the case was effectively closed at this point.

These are not isolated incidents, hardly a week goes by without reports of child molesters being shot while trying to escape from police custody, or suspected murderers killed while ‘attacking police officers’ with arms they’ve somehow managed to gather while in police custody.

According to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), over 100 suspects have been killed in police custody over the past year.

In almost every case the police’ version of events is difficult to credit. Typically — bizarre escape attempts and arbitrary attacks by suspects compel the police to resort to lethal force. In other cases suspects are said to have committed suicide. Of course the unspoken reality is that many if not all of these deaths are summary executions.

According to Basil Fernando of the AHRC, “this is a policy sanctioned by the highest levels of the police and government — the former IGP openly admitted that it was necessary for the police to eliminate undesirable elements as the justice system is simply too inefficient.”

Operating outside the law

While many might applaud the killing of murderers, child molesters and other violent criminals, particularly as the country’s formal justice system would in most cases allow them to walk free — the idea that the country’s police are operating completely outside of the law is deeply disturbing.

Extra judicial killings by the police force in a country where the rate of genuine convictions through the courts remains abysmally low are an unambiguous indication of a complete break down of law and order.

The island’s criminal justice system has effectively ceased to function — the overall conviction rate stands at 4% which indicates that in the remaining 96% of cases suspects escape unpunished.

To compensate for the shortcomings of the legal system therefore the police are alleged to be actively pursuing a policy of extra judicial killings — “In order to eliminate undesirable elements and give an impression that something is being done,” claimed Fernando.

Illusion of justice

While many are prepared to applaud the actions of the police when it is reported that suspected murderers, drug dealers etc., have been shot dead, these killings ultimately provide only the shallowest illusion of justice.

Suspects are killed without any trial or hearing and there are no guarantees regarding the guilt of those who die.

In most cases where suspects are reported to have been killed in unusual circumstances magistrates upon receiving a police report declare the police action justifiable homicide, and the case is closed.

According to AHRC this is “a violation of the law. Magistrate’s must investigate any killings that take place in police custody and submit a report to the Attorney General’s office – but this never happens.”

The police version of events is invariably the only one presented and once the magistrate pronounces a verdict of justifiable homicide the case is closed. Only in a few exceptional cases where the families of suspects are suitably wealthy or well connected are appeals made to the courts.

Usual story

Another feature shared by the majority of these killings is that shootings usually take place when the police are leading the suspect to a location outside of the police station — either to gather evidence, or inspect a murder scene.

In the Delgoda case the police reported that the suspects who were already in custody, were being led to the crime scene when they somehow managed to recover hand grenades and threaten the police — at which point they were shot.

By reporting that a suspect’s death took place outside the police station, police are able to explain a lack of witnesses and also justify their actions as necessary to prevent an attempted escape or assault

Ultimately, more than simply a question of human rights, the death of so many un-convicted suspects in police custody is profoundly unjust and extraordinary in a country where there is no political will to officially implement the death penalty.

Extra judicial killings

In Bangladesh and India where extra judicial killings by the police are also commonly reported, courts including the supreme courts of both countries have moved to take action and caution the police, but in Sri Lanka these questionable killings are inevitably left uninvestigated, which implies that they are at least tacitly approved of by the establishment. In the absence of any discernible law the police therefore have quite literally been made judge, jury and executioner.

And no one who has any experience of the country’s notoriously corrupt police force can possibly be comfortable with the nation’s agents of law and order enjoying such broad powers.

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