Refugees from foreign countries and within their own country are not anything new to people of the world, people of Sri Lanka, as well as law enforcement officers. Politically victimised citizens of foreign countries have legally or illegally come into our country and sought refuge which the governments in power at the time has dealt [...]

Sunday Times 2

Rohingya refugees: Action delayed – action denied


Refugees from foreign countries and within their own country are not anything new to people of the world, people of Sri Lanka, as well as law enforcement officers.

A mob had threatened the Rohingya refugees while they were staying at a UNHRC safe house.

Politically victimised citizens of foreign countries have legally or illegally come into our country and sought refuge which the governments in power at the time has dealt with with compassion and accommodated them within the national and international laws and treaties.

We Sri Lankans, have a personal experience of refugees within our country when communal and ethnic conflicts arose. I recollect in the late 1950s, due to the ethnic and communal conflict between the majority and minority Sri Lankans, many of the members of the minority community who were living in Colombo had to be accommodated in temples, kovils and churches, as refugees and displaced persons, until some arrangements were made to bring normalcy. I recollect the late Governor Sir Oliver Goonetilleke commandeered ships which had arrived in the Colombo Port and sent large numbers of people of the minority community to Jaffna and Trincomalee from the Port of Colombo. Similarly, members of the majority community living in Jafffna, in the North and East, were given facilities to be brought to Colombo in the same manner.

In Kankesanturai where my parents lived, they had to give refuge to a Sinhalese family. The husband Mendis was a driver plying Austin A40 cars in Jaffna and his wife Mendis nona supplied meals to railway engine drivers and guards, and a few others. They were living in a house belonging to my parents. During the communal trouble some of the agitated residents of KKS pelted stones at their house and made threats. Due to the threats and fear, my parents took the entire family to our ancestral home, which did not go well with some of the residents in the area as my parents were giving refuge to the Sinhalese who were supposed to be murdering the Tamils in Colombo. However without any harm to anyone of them, they were shipped back from KKS to Colombo.

About 30 Rohingya refugees were said to have been picked up by the Sri Lanka Navy mid sea when they were stranded on a boat, whose engine had packed up. They are said to have been travelling to Australia, but ended up mid sea, to be rescued by the Sri Lanka Navy. Among the 30 refugees there had been about 15 children and seven women. They were all produced in Sri Lankan courts and the UN Refugee Agency in Sri Lanka, (UNHRC) had taken over the refugees and they were detained at the detention camp at Mirihana, which is managed by the Mirihana Police. Subsequently, the UNHRC found a “safe house” and arrangements were being made by them to have these refugees sent to countries which were prepared to take them as refugees into their countries.

Whilst they were being detained at the Mirihana Police detention camp, it had been reported that one of the female refugees had contracted dengue and she was admitted to the Colombo South Teaching Hospital in Kalubowila for treatment. A police constable who was on duty on and off had been detailed to protect this refugee who was in the hospital. It is alleged that the police constable had lured her to a hotel in Maharagama where he had raped her. When this incident came to light, the senior police officers conducted investigations and took the police constable into custody, he had claimed that the female refugee had accompanied him to the hotel of her own will and it was a consensual sexual act. However, the victim claimed that she was forced to go with the police constable to the hotel in Maharagama where he had raped her. The police constable had been remanded and subsequently bailed out by courts. He is said to be under interdiction.

The Colombo Office of the UNHRC, after the incident, had selected a “safe house” and been caring for the refugees until they were able to send them to any country which was willing to take them. Whilst they were housed at the safe house, some extremists decided to verbally and physically abuse the refugees and on September 26, 2017 they had assembled in numbers and threatened the refugees and caused them fear. It was very clear that the mob, some of whom were reportedly wearing yellow robes, and some civilians, assembled with the common objective of causing annoyance, and fear and threatening the refugees. It was also reported that a police constable under interdiction was a member of the unlawful assembly who gathered to harass and threaten the refugees. It would be prudent for the Police Department to identify this police officer who is under interdiction and find out his background before he joined the police and his activities now whilst under interdiction.

The police had arrived at the scene and from the reports and complaints made against them by prominent personalities, it appears that they were merely standing by whilst the mob was carrying out their threats and abuse. In the photographs appearing in the newspapers it was clear that there were senior police officers, (one of them a gazetted officer – ASP and above) being accompanied by another police inspector, simply standing there and observing the mob engaging in their illegal activities. There was a violation of the law in their presence. However, the police officers did not take any action either to prevent or arrest those who broke the law. The photographs appearing in the newspapers clearly show a person in yellow robes threatening the Rohingya women and children, watched by the two senior police officers.

The police department in order to educate each and every police officer had published a small manual called the “Ceylon Police Constables’ Manual”. This manual is issued to every police constable at the time he enters the Police Department for training. This constables’ manual is as old as the service itself. I was able to lay my hands on one of these manuals which has been edited for the fourth time in 1953. Under the heading “Unlawful Assembly” it is stated that an unlawful assembly is an assembly of five or more persons whose common object is to commit an offence.

In this incident it was obvious that the group which had assembled had arrived at the safe house with the common intention of threatening or abusing the refugees and to instill fear in them. Legally, they were committing offences of unlawful assembly, threat and abuse against the refugees in the presence of the police officers.

The Departmental Order (DO) is considered the “bible” of the Police Department. DO no 7 deals with “Discipline and Disciplinary Control”. In A7 appendix “B” sub-section 4A, under the sub-heading “Neglect of Duty”, it clearly indicates that if any police officer “Neglects or omits promptly and diligently to attend to or carry out anything which is his duty as a police officer, he commits an offence under this disciplinary code”.

In the Police Ordinance in respect of the duties of a police officer it is stated that “it shall be the duty of every police officer to use his best endeavours and ability to prevent all crimes, offences and public nuisances and to preserve the peace”. In this instance every police officer both senior and junior, who was present at the spot when the members of the unlawful assembly committed offences of abuse, threat and public nuisance, were not apprehended by the police officers.By not taking any action against those who were members of the unlawful assembly, the Police Department as well as our country came in for severe criticism. Some Cabinet ministers had openly criticized the police for their failure to prevent the members of the unlawful assembly from carrying out their activities and apprehending them.

Police officers come in for severe criticism for their commission or omission in their personal as well as official acts. Most of the complaints against police officers are leveled in respect of inaction, partiality or favouring offenders and not the victims or the complainants. Some such complaints may not be genuine, but the majority have some truth in what the complainants allege against police officers. This case is a clear case of inaction and neglect of duty.

The Criminal Procedure Code clearly says any police officer may without an order from a magistrate and without a warrant arrest “any person who in his presence commits a breach of the peace”. The assembly which congregated to abuse, threaten and harass the Rohingya refugees who were in the care of the Commissioner of the UNHRC, were without any doubt committing a “breach of peace”. They should have been apprehended and taken before a court of law for committing this offence.

This action by the police officers present at the scene would have saved the reputation of the police as well as our country. The police must act according to the law when a breach of law is being committed in their presence – they must do so without fear or favour.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.
Action delayed is action denied”

(The writer is a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police.)

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