Breakdown of law, people lose confidence in Police
Twenty-four-year-old Chandrika Kumara, a housewife, in the sleepy hamlet of Bilbewewa in the Anuradhapura District, chose to join four others on Monday night for a ride in the small trailer of a two wheel tractor to attend a funeral.
Little did this mother of a four-year-old child realise it was a journey that would end in her death. Four of her companions, seriously injured, are now lying at the Anuradhapura base hospital.
Tragedy struck them when a speeding van crashed into the tractor. Except for being one more for Police Headquarters statistics of traffic accidents and resultant deaths, the incident would have been forgotten. The number of road deaths, even Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena remarked rather effusively not so long ago, was higher than those who died of dengue.
That was not to be. Almost an entire hamlet turned up outside the Tambuttegama Police Station. They blocked the main Kurunegala-Anuradhapura highway for more than three hours on Thursday and staged a protest. They carried the coffin which had the body of Chandrika. Their grouse — Police had “under reported” the facts of the traffic accident resulting in the driver of the van receiving bail in court. Police were forced to fire tear gas after the crowds, estimated at more than a thousand, tried to enter the police station. They hurled back to the police premises tear gas canisters directed at them. Some even threw stones damaging windows of the police station. Police had to call for reinforcements.
Whilst awaiting their arrival, Mahesh Senaratne, the Superintendent (SP) in charge of Anuradhapura District, reached the scene. He told the Sunday Times, “the van driver involved in the accident was also injured. He was in hospital, but had got himself discharged the same night. It was the following morning that he surrendered to the police. In this case, the Police could have remanded him the same night the accident occurred after producing the suspect before the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) and a magistrate. He could have been under the influence of liquor. This aspect is being gone into. This is why the people felt suspicious and were angry as he was not arrested immediately.
“However in the ‘B’ report filed by the Police, they asked that the driver be remanded as releasing him could lead to unrest. This was particularly so since the driver was from a neighbouring village. The lawyer appearing for the suspect had informed court that his client could pay compensation to the affected persons or their families. The suspect was thus released on bail. But the people thought the Police had not filed the ‘B’ report properly.
I have assured the villagers that an impartial inquiry will be held into the events which led to this incident.” He also said the Police would take strong action against those responsible for the attack on the Police Station. On Friday, 13 persons allegedly involved in the protests were arrested.
Also this week, in Thabbowa in the Puttalam District, more than 200 villagers held a protest on Friday alleging that the Karuwalagaswewa Police had failed to take action against a local politician who was involved in illegal fishing in the irrigation tank there. They claimed that due to this activity, the local fishermen have been affected. Villagers held placards and shouted slogans. Senior police officials were at the scene on Friday evening trying to persuade the villagers to call off the protest.
Puttalam’s Deputy Inspector General I.M. Karunaratne told the Sunday Times, “The issue at the Tabbowa tank was connected with a tussle over fishing rights. It is the fishermen who have freshwater fishing projects in this tank. They later catch the fish from the tank when the harvest is ready. But this week a group of farmers accompanied by two Pradeshiya Sabha members had caught fish depriving the fishermen of their harvest. It was due to this that the fishermen held a protest against the police in Karuwalagaswewa claiming that they were not taking action.
“To correct the situation I ordered that a meeting be held with all parties concerned and a solution reached. Accordingly, the Assistant Government Agent (AGA) came for the meeting. It was decided that only the fishermen will be allowed to ply their trade while the farmer families will be given fish at a concession. In the event of a function to be held by the farmers an extra 25 kilogrammes will be available for sale to them.”
Last Wednesday, a Poya Day, DIG Karunaratne directed Chief Inspector Manoj Ranagala, officer in charge of the Chilaw Police, to conduct raids on illegal sand mining in the area. The move followed repeated complaints from the public that inconsiderate mining was causing environmental damage. A Police team raided one of the areas at Arachchikattuwa where mining was under way and seized a tipper truck.
Barely had the Police managed to take it to their station when a group led by a UPFA Pradeshiya Sabha member, having very close connections to a minister, came with a mob and took away the tipper truck with the load of sand. Later, they were unloading it in a sand mining area when a larger Police team swooped down on them, arrested the driver and seized the tipper truck once again. Police said the driver did not have a permit to transport sand in the truck. The Pradeshiya Sabha member went missing and later surrendered to the Police. Mawathagamage Roshan Perera, the PS member, was remanded till Tuesday by Chilaw Magistrate Jagath A. Kahandagama.
One night in September last year, a youth was taken into custody by the Dompe Police. He alleged that he was tortured. The same night another youth was brought into the same Police Station. He died hours thereafter allegedly due to torture. Crowds who stormed the police station took away the youth’s body to hospital. Army contingents had to move in to control the situation. The Criminal Investigation Department arrested five police officers in this regard. In May last year, Roshen Chanaka, a 21-year-old employee from the Katunayake Export Processing Zone succumbed to gunshot injuries sustained when Police opened fire at protestors. He died two days later. More than 200 workers were injured when police attacked a worker protest using water cannon, tear gas, batons and live rounds.
They were protesting against a government proposal to introduce a pension scheme for the private sector. This was strongly opposed by other workers as well and the government eventually called off the proposed scheme. In September, last year, a row developed between the Police and residents in Karandeniya after the death of a 40-year-old doctor. He was shot dead by two men who came on a motorbike. The victim was attached to the Borakanda Government Hospital and was shot when he was practising in his private medical centre. Residents of the area said the doctor was renowned and respected by the residents for his remarkable service as most of the time he had not charged anything from his patients. They burnt buildings and houses in protest.
All the rowdy events outside police stations come at a time when public agitations over other issues are mounting. One such case is the controversy over the Z-score system of marks that make students eligible for entry into universities. Hundreds of parents and students are turning to everyone outside the government. That includes opposition parliamentarians, lawyers, civil society groups, astrologers and even poojas in temples or kovils to seek relief from what they say is grave injustice. Then the strike by the 4,000 strong Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), which began on July 4, has paralysed most of the country’s universities.
Last Monday, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with editors of national newspapers, the issue was raised. Rajapaksa reached out to the phone and asked for Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake. Within minutes a telephone operator at ‘Temple Trees’ connected him. The Minister was asked to come over immediately. “The media are raising some questions,” Rajapaksa told Dissanayake after he arrived.
“Which issue – the ‘ score or FUTA,” the minister asked. He was told it was both. On the Z score, Dissanayake said a report to the cabinet would be ready later that day. However, the report has been further delayed. Evidently excited, Dissanayake was to address Rajapaksa as “Janadipathini” (Madam President). Rajapaksa exhorted “Eya kaaley giya or that period is now over. He was alluding to the term of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Dissanayake was a key member of her cabinet until he crossed over to the United National Party (UNP). However, he later returned to the fold ahead of the presidential elections in 2010. Rajapaksa was also to make some light-hearted comments when a journalist raised a question on references in the Sunday Times political commentary last week to what the President had told the cabinet the previous week. Eyaa mang kivvey okkoma kiyala Ne ney or the source had not told them everything, he said jokingly.
As for the on-going strike by the FUTA, Dissanayake said they were asking for what he said was six per cent of the national budget be spent on education, and added that their demand for salary increases was not warranted. “Even the judges in courts do not receive that much money,” added Rajapaksa. It is not clear whether ministers could examine the report on the Z score on Wednesday when the cabinet meets. Besides Dissanayake’s, there will also be a report by Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena. Rajapaksa told national newspaper editors that he wants to ascertain from the ministerial reports to what extent the Z score system of marks has affected the students.
Making matters worse was the discovery that for a second time within a year, contaminated fuel was being distributed by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. This time, hundreds of vehicles choked, stuttered and stopped in the streets as a result of diesel being contaminated. Earlier, it was petrol contaminated with water that caused havoc to petrol-driven vehicles.
It was in June last year that a stock of petrol that was contaminated was discovered. More than 800 vehicles suffered petrol pump and carburettor damage. When the issue received wide publicity, the government appointed a high-level committee to probe the matter. Its contents were never made public.
Ministerial committees have become big jokes in the country; nor was action taken to deal with any official in the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). Its one-time chairman Harry Jayawardene resigned moments before he was sacked when a three-member ministerial team probing some CPC deals complained about him to the President. But it stopped there. Jayawardene is financier of the ruling UPFA and its senior members. Public anger over the issue rose because most of the vehicles affected were brand new ones. In January this year a large stock of kerosene was found to be contaminated. Details of the latest scandal appear elsewhere in this newspaper today. One of the victims from the use of contaminated diesel was Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe whose official vehicle stalled near Eheliyagoda and his private jeep at Kadugannawa.
There were also issues for which the government was not at fault. Main among them is the prevailing drought both in the north and the south. UPFA politicians are asking the opposition not to make political capital out of the prevailing drought. A report elsewhere in today’s the Sunday Times reveals that some 16,000 acres of paddy land alone have been affected. Vegetable cultivators also complained that their harvest would be affected due to the drought. Some have lost their entire crop. Larger sections of the affected farming community await government relief.
That these events came ahead of the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial elections was not good news for the government. A cause for more concern is a rising pattern in public protests outside police stations when some incident occurs. That such protests are frequent and are assuming an aggressive character seems a new phenomenon. The exact answers to this trend, whether they are the by-products of live television coverage into living rooms and bedrooms of Sri Lankans of public protests in other parts of the world, more pointedly the Arab Spring or mounting politicisation including corruption and favouritism, will not be known unless the government commissions a study ideally by an impartial commission made up of professionals.
The idea is to give the Police force, whose public image has suffered to a point almost beyond repair, a fresh outlook. It could only be done after the causes and the measures needed for them are identified. The Police Department has been identified as the number one corrupt public institution in the country.
Of course, like in any issue, there are divergent views. The Sunday Times spoke with serving senior Police officers, some of them who have had a service record of 20 to 25 years or more. A few have risen from the ranks acquiring first-hand knowledge of the transition the Police Department had gone through with successive governments. Yet, none was willing to speak on the record since the Ministry of Defence has decreed that only the Police spokesperson could speak to the media. However, one of them who did not wish to be identified said, “We should stop mobs making a mockery of the Police. Otherwise we cannot maintain law and order. What is the logic in blaming the Police if they act within the law and in the public interest?”
However, he was quick to add that “sadly there is a perceived view of Police duplicity. This is nothing new. It has been there for several years. For example, when UNP’s Presidential hopeful Gamini Dissanayake was killed in 1994, a high ranking Police official, evidently on the advice of a leading politician in power at that time, told a TV station that it was a plot within the UNP. It did not take long to identify that it was the Tiger terrorists who had killed the politician.” Added another, “Don’t forget about the emergence of the ‘Attanagalla Doctrine’ during the country’s first presidential elections in 1982. Voters were barred from going to polling booths. Polling agents were chased away. Gonawala Sunil, a convicted rapist, was given a Presidential pardon.”
Tassie Senevirate, who joined the police as a Sub Inspector and rose to being a Senior Superintendent of Police and in his retirement, now a commentator on policing, told the Sunday Times, “Incidents similar to what happened in Tambuttegama have taken place on previous occasions. This particular incident was only a fatal accident. The Police cannot be blamed alone. Similar to the Police, the public also should cooperate in maintaining law and order and combating crime. Sometimes Police are ordered to play down some cases due to influence exerted on them or on orders they receive. Therefore, this could affect one party and lead to agitation campaigns.”
Merril Gunaratne, a retired Senior DIG and one time Director General of Intelligence and Security, noted that where police are brought to the state of mockery by mobs without reason, law enforcement officers lose their standing in the public eye. “Duplicity in the service heightened from 1977. It was only a trickle until then. But it became a torrent thereafter,” he said.
However, T.A. Anandarajah, a former Inspector General of Police (IGP), blamed it on inexperienced officers. “It is sometimes due to the lack of experience of officers that situations like the one at Tambuttegama arose,” he told the Sunday Times.
He said the present Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon had been taking “disciplinary action against officers who have not been performing their duties.”
Indra de Silva, also a former IGP held a different view. He said for three long decades the Police were moved away from their main responsibility of maintaining law and order. “The Police Department became a paramilitary force. After the war is over, their mentality has not changed. It will take time for them to change their attitudes and realise they are to help maintain a civil administration,” he told the Sunday Times. He said the main reason for the public unrest in the country was “social indiscipline and the failure to respect moral values.”
De Silva added, “In the recent past we have seen that whenever there is an incident, the Police intervention leads to a worse incident. This is because of the inexperience in handling issues. We cannot blame the entire Police Department for this, because some individuals fail to act properly.
The majority of the people in this country are law abiding citizens, but the sad part of it is that they are not coming forward to prevent clashes between the public and the Police. When I attended a seminar in London while in service, crime statistics in Britain were presented. The number of crimes was few. This is because the officials are efficient and are able to control crime. But in Sri Lanka the situation is different. There are other persons who give directions to the Police.”
Jeyakumar Thangavelu, joined the Police Department as a Sub Inspector in 1968 and served before retiring as DIG (Legal Range). He served two stints lasting 18 years in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Today he is a practising criminal lawyer. He told the Sunday Times. “People have lost confidence in the Police. Even when they do a genuine job, there is suspicion. It is mainly due to political interference. There are senior officers who are helpless. An Independent Police Commission and a Right to Information Act are imperative if we are to arrest this situation.”
He said it was his view that there was an increase in incidence of crime. “Some are frightened to complain to the Police. An example I am aware of is an instance where a party lost millions of rupees worth of gold jewellery. They were frightened to face questions on how they inherited such items,” he said.
“I know there are several conscientious officers in the Police who are concerned about the current trend,” he added.
Thangavelu’s views are endorsed by Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe. He told his party supporters at a meeting in Siri Kotha that the rise in crime was “unprecedented”. He said rape, robberies and killings were being reported from different parts of the country.
Added President’s Counsel, Tiranta Walaliyadda, who is also a criminal lawyer, “The rule of law should be operative in the country. The people who make the rules should be governed by the same rules. If this does not happen there could be a breakdown of law. Why did they attack the Police or set fire to Police vehicles? Is this because the rule of law is not operative in this country; people should think about this seriously. The reason also could well be that law enforcement authorities are partial in their investigations in certain cases.
Saliya Peiris, attorney-at-law asserted, “You can’t allow the mobs to decide what has to be done. ‘Mob justice’ is a bad precedent that could have negative repercussions.
“People are taking the law into their own hands because they have lost confidence in the Police who are an important arm of the criminal justice system. Without proper investigations by the Police, the judiciary cannot take proper decisions,” he added.
The latest incident of ‘mob justice’ was the attack on the Mannar courthouse last month. CID detectives, the Sunday Times learnt, had concluded two different investigations into the incidents. One is said to relate to the conduct of the Magistrate Anthonypillai Judeson. The probe had related to a string of allegations where detectives had pored over his telephone records as well as his past links to certain persons.
The other probe has centred on Commerce and Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen. In a statement he made to the CID, Minister Bathiudeen had denied that he telephoned Magistrate Judeson or that he abused him and requested that an order he made be changed. However, a brother of Bathiudeen had said in a statement to the detectives that he had telephoned the Magistrate using the Minister’s official telephone.
He has claimed that he was in the habit of speaking to the Magistrate every now and then. He had phoned him on that occasion to inquire about a land matter but had not threatened him or made any request to change an order. Already, Minister Bathiudeen has been ordered by the Court of Appeal to present himself on September 5. He has been asked to show cause why a Rule should not be issued on him for contempt of court. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has decided that it too would intervene in the case when it is heard on the date mentioned. It filed an application in the Court of Appeal on Friday.
Despite the divergent views on whether lawlessness has increased and there is a breakdown in law and order, it has become imperative that the government has a closer look at the rapidly developing and deteriorating scenario. It has both domestic and international implications which the government cannot afford to ignore.
It was only on Friday that Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga sent an updated Sri Lanka report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Though a report was to be handed over before the deadline of July 23, the Sri Lanka Permanent Mission in Geneva had contested the modalities used by UN staff in fixing the deadline. Thereafter, the UNHRC informed that a new deadline of August 9 had been fixed.
The updated report now incorporates the Government’s Action Plan for the implementation of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Law and order issues, no doubt, come within the ambit of matters that will come up when Sri Lanka’s case is taken up under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on November 1. That requires proactive government efforts both domestically and internationally.
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