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Police brutality: Who will protect the people?

[Sunday Times.lk, Sunday, 1 August 2010 09:52 No Comment]

The latest report of an incident of alleged police brutality relates to a charge of rape of a woman army deserter by officers of a police station in Buttala. This comes at a time when the Inter-University Students’ Federation has filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission regarding the recent death of a Ruhuna University student that they say was the result of a police assault. It is only months since a mentally unstable youth was beaten and drowned in the sea by policemen near the Bambalapitiya police station. That hideous incident came within three months of the deaths of two youths in Angulana, believed to have been beaten and killed by the Angulana police.

The frightening regularity of reports of such incidents in recent times must surely lead to some soul-searching as to what the police force is there for in the first place. In an ironic reversal, those who should be looked up to by the public for preventing crime and maintaining law and order, appear to have become offenders to such an extent that the question now seems to be “who is there to protect the people from the police?” It would be a mistake to attribute this seemingly criminal drift to “a few bad eggs.” It would seem that the problem runs much deeper. The police along with the military have a monopoly of the legitimate use of force, and thus have at their disposal a powerful tool of repression. They have access to weapons that, in peace time, should be used only as a last resort in the course of their law-enforcement activities. They shoulder a degree of responsibility that corresponds to the power they wield.

Protest Are police personnel too trigger-happy with their weapons? Media reports appear every so often in which “suspects” are shot and killed by the police during some “incident.” These “suspects” may be people who were trying to run away from the scene of a crime, or people who defied police orders to stop, or those trying to escape from custody. The public may never know whether these victims were actual offenders or innocents, and whether their misdeeds, if any, warranted their coming to such a violent end. And the media may not consider the “incidents” important enough to follow up on, in order to find out. Most such victims are from poorer social strata, whose kith and kin are less able to voice their grievances and demand redress.

People need to know what rules or guidelines the police in this country are expected to observe when it comes to using force, especially lethal weapons. The Prevention of Terrorism Act that gives wide powers to the police and armed forces and emergency regulations still remain despite the end of LTTE terrorism. Is their continued existence likely to help in eliminating police brutality?

It has become almost platitudinous now to say that the integrity of the police force has been undermined through politicization. Sri Lanka’s police have been capable of excellent work when allowed to do their job without political interference. But when high ranking officers are pressured into complying with the whims or agendas of politicians, the signal sent out to others is not conducive to professionalism. As with many other public institutions, the message is that only boot-lickers can ever hope to advance themselves professionally. Is this a deliberate strategy aimed at emasculating this important public institution to the point of subservience? Witness the pathetic situation of the officer at the scene of Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s protest activity outside the UN office recently, when it appeared by all accounts that he was ordered over the phone by the Defence Secretary, at Weerawansa’s behest, to withdraw his officers. “Hondamai sir, hondamai,” (“Very well, sir”) was all he could say, having pleaded in vain that he had come there on the orders of the IGP.

The erosion of independence was also seen in the inconsistent police behaviour in relation to various protests and demos that took place during the run-up to the elections. Following the incident where pro-government thugs attacked a protest rally in support of Sarath Fonseka at Hulftsdorp hill, the Colombo Chief Magistrate reprimanded the police for arresting the wrong persons, in a situation where video footage and photographs should have enabled them to easily arrest the culprits. Later an attempt by Buddhist monks to hold a protest fast outside the Fort Railway Station demanding the release of the arrested General, was prevented when large numbers of policemen surrounded the site and the monks were forcibly removed by policemen in plain clothes. Is there a “rule” to be abstracted from the emerging pattern of police behaviour that says protest actions are to be permitted as long as they are directed against the government’s perceived opponents, but prevented if they are anti-government?

During the election period some officers who attempted to diligently carry out their duties, such as the removal of illegal election propaganda materials, were penalized. Some were sent on compulsory leave and others interdicted. The Executive Director of the election monitoring body PAFFREL wrote to the Elections Commissioner asking him to take action in these cases, pointing out that “As the present disciplinary actions against these officers are being taken during the campaign period of the General Elections, we believe they are in contravention of the law.” He went on to say “If no remedial action is taken by you to restore the confidence of the Police Department that they can act impartially and not face severe penalties, we are apprehensive that the Police Department will be demoralized and fail to act impartially at the forthcoming General Elections.”

SP Jayantha Rohana Jayawardena, one of the officers placed on compulsory leave, has filed a fundamental rights violation petition in the Supreme Court challenging the order. A previous attempt to transfer him from Amparai to Kilinochchi was thwarted by the Elections Commissioner who cancelled the order. A police force demoralized and cowed into subservience may serve the interests of a government with dictatorial leanings. It also makes a mockery of people’s basic democratic freedoms.

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