Featured image courtesy Tamil Guardian
On Monday and Tuesday, IGP Pujith Jayasundera’s mobile number, given out to the public just months before, rang unanswered.
The reason – the shooting of two youths, 23 year old Natarajan Kajan and 24 year old Pounraj Sulakshan, who were traveling by motorbike when they were asked to stop at the Kulappidi Junction roadblock in Kankesanthurai by police.
When they didn’t, gunshots rang out. The police spokesman acknowledged to the media that the post mortem report found bullets lodged in one of the rider’s body – even as the police tried to claim it had been an accident.
President of the Jaffna University Arts Faculty Students’ Union, K.Rajeevan spoke to sister paper Maatram about how the police had initially attempted to cover up the incident. Rajeevan said he was not in Jaffna at the time of the accident, but had gone to the hospital later on as events unfolded.
While the police had initially asked for two students to come with them to the hospital to identify Gajan and Sulakshan, they never showed them their bodies, Rajeevan said. Up until the afternoon, the police claimed it had been an accident.
It was only in the evening that the police told Kajan and Sulakshan’s parents that they had made a grave mistake, acknowledging that there had been shooting involved. The police had offered to pay for funeral expenses, Rajeevan said.
Speaking further, Rajeevan said that the police had also pressurized the family to hold the funerals quickly.
Five police officers were immediately remanded when these facts came to light, thanks to the coroner.
Early reports indicated the students had sped without stopping for police, who had opened fire. The rider of the motorcycle, Sulakshan was shot several times, losing control of the motorcycle, which slammed into a parapet wall causing serious injuries to Kajan, who succumbed to his injuries shortly after.
In the wake of the deaths, there was widespread outrage. Over 2000 students of Jaffna University blocked the A9 road, before submitting a list of demands. Click below to read in full:
— Guruparan K (@rkguruparan) October 24, 2016
In the tense atmosphere, Rajeevan said the student union had nevertheless called for calm and not to escalate the situation further, but rather to peacefully advocate for justice.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. Our focus is for us to find justice quickly. The university will remain closed until a firm commitment is made to have an independent investigation,” Rajeevan said.
“Up until now, after sending the petition, no Government representative has come to meet us. We don’t believe we will get justice from this quarter,” he added.
“If the police do this, who do we get justice from?” Rajeevan asked.
The President himself meanwhile called for compensation to be paid, and for an impartial inquiry to be held.
I learned with grief the news of the deaths of two Jaffna University students. Ordered compensation and an immediate independent inquiry.
— Maithripala Sirisena (@MaithripalaS) October 22, 2016
This response in itself caused incredulity on social media, given the implications:
What does it say about a country when its executive president has to instruct the police to do an impartial investigation of a crime?
— Namini Wijedasa (@Nimilamalee) October 22, 2016
— Munza Mushtaq (@munza14) October 22, 2016
"Independent inquiry", the most overused and misused phrase in Sri Lanka, always prefixing "inquiry" with "independent".. 🙂 @MaithripalaS
— Pradeeban (@pradeeban) October 22, 2016
Kajan and Sulakshan were students at Jaffna University in the Arts Faculty – a quiet, shady building with an open quadrangle. Sulakshan was an aspiring actor, participating in a comedy sketch called “Ulcer” for the 48 Hour Film project competition.
The day after the funerals of the two students, Jaffna town was empty as the citizens declared a hartal.
— shalin (@uthayashalin) October 25, 2016
And yet, former Minister Mervyn Silva said that people had been “too quick to rush to judgment” of the police officers.
“I too would stop at a road block, if asked,” he said to the media.
The unspoken question was, if the former Minister chose not to stop, for whatever reason, would the policemen then open fire?
This is a moot question to the National Police Commission. Secretary N Ariyadasa Cooray said it was “general knowledge” that police had no authority to fire on a vehicle that did not stop.
Cooray added that it was up to IGP Pujith Jayasundera to file action in courts under the Police Ordinance, if there was criminal action to be taken. The Commission, as a supervisory body, could only see if there had been ‘lapses’ which they could intervene to correct. Accordingly, the Additional Director of the Public Complaints Division, Ananda Wijesuriya, was in Jaffna and would spend 3 or 4 days there before filing a report, which would then be discussed within the Commission.
Speaking to the media at an event in Anuradapura, meanwhile, IGP Jayasundera said that Cooray’s statements reflected his personal opinion. The police did have the authority to use minimum or required force, in the event a vehicle disregarded the order to stop. However, he acknowledged shortcomings in the police’s actions, adding it was “questionable” whether they had the right to fire as this was not a life threatening event, and the two students were not crime suspects.
In Parliament, Law and Order Minister Salgala Ratnayaka read out the version of events by the police, which was that the police had shot the students “while trying to fire in the air”.
The undertone here was that the police were trying to close in on members of a gang known as “Aava”. Shortly after Sulakshan and Kajan were killed, two intelligence officers were attacked by swords and hospitalized. While initially reports suggested the officers had been attacked as they tried to prevent a robbery, the Aava gang later put up posters taking responsibility, claiming that the attack was “retaliation” to the student’s deaths. Ratnayaka indicated that the police were trying to crack down on this Aava gang when Kajan and Sulakshan were killed.
To many, the police’s actions were not just questionable, but to be condemned. “The police acted irresponsibly, and we hope this incident can be logically decided by the courts,” Minister of National Coexistence Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan said. Ganesan pointed out that the police were equipped with 1000 cc motorbikes, which could easily have outstripped the motorbike the two students were using. He also disputed the police’s statement that they had been shotting in the air. “If they wanted to shoot in the air, they could have shot 90 degrees above. Not at the students, riding a bike in the street,” he pointed out. He added that the police could have aimed below the knee – yet the post mortem indicated that the rider had been shot in the head. The fact the police initially denied the shooting and failed to report it also indicated that there was foul play, and even the IGP himself had spoken out strongly against this, Ganesan pointed out.
TNA MP M A Sumanthiran pointed out that it was the driver of the motorcycle who was shot, not the pillion rider, indicating that the shots had been fired from in front. This could have occurred if, when Kajan and Sulakshan didn’t stop the vehicle, the police in front of the roadblock had opened fire. Sumanthiran commended the Government for their prompt action in taking the police into custody and sending a special team to investigate, but said this alone was not enough. And while he agreed the police could use minimum force, he added that “by no stretch of the imagination could minimum force be interpreted as shooting the rider dead. That is maximum force.”
Sumanthiran said to his knowledge, two T56 rifles had been used by police and questioned why police were armed with such lethal weapons at a road checkpoint, and most importantly, whether they had the authority to open fire.
“The student community is outraged. Not just in Jaffna but all over the country. Even the Southern universities have joined and expressed their concern,” he added. Speaking further he said that it was a shame that this incident had occurred at a delicate time when the country was trying to build trust within the community. “For law enforcement to behave like this and take lives… is a serious setback,” Sumanthiran said.
This sentiment was echoed by members of civil society. “What sickens me most is that right from the outset, the Police have been trying their best to cover-up or justify their heinous and negligent actions,” activist Marisa de Silva said.
“To me what seems blatantly clear is that the Police are accustomed to acting with absolute impunity, particularly in the North and East, where they are also part of the counter-terror apparatus which uses its power to intimidate and terrorize civilians. Although experience and instinct tells me the worst that’ll happen is a ‘rap on the knuckles’, and that too in the form of a ‘transfer’, my hope is that at least now, the IGP and relevant authorities mete out strong action to the officers involved, and adequately compensate the two families for their immense loss. How though do you measure the value of two innocent lives?” she added.
“The police is where people turn to when they’re in trouble. We trust the police with our safety and see it as source of protection. This is why it’s so important that the police earn young people’s trust. However, many incidents that have taken place over the years have made young people extremely skeptic of the police as an institution,” member of the youth group Hashtag Generation Senel Wanniarachchi said. “There are various narratives being shared on the sequence of events that led to the shooting. However, until there is an independent inquiry into what happened, we cannot know what happened. Particularly in the ‘post-war’ context, incidents like this could lead to further erosion of people’s confidence in the state. There’s no point if the higher level decision-makers of the state hold relatively progressive views on reconciliation if these don’t trickle down the individual policemen and grama sevaka officers who represent the state at the lowest levels of society,” he added.
— Hashtag Generation (@generation_sl) October 25, 2016
Meanwhile, the outrage began to spill over into violence. In Kilinochchi, there were stand-offs between the public and the police.
In Jaffna, three youths were reportedly hospitalized after an attack by unknown assailants.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran pleaded for calm in an increasingly volatile environment.
It is undoubtedly important that calm be restored, and that no further violence breaks out. However the widespread protests, which spread from the North to the South, are worth reflecting on. They are not just statements of solidarity, but also reflect a truth few are willing to speak openly of.
Police brutality is by no means restricted to the North – in Weliweriya, for instance, villagers protesting on water shortages were shot at by the Army, in 2013. It took three years for a Magistrate to declare the shooting a crime. In Pasyala in 2014, Subhash Indika Jayasinghe was shot dead by police officers, also during a traffic stop. The AHRC called for an independent investigation into the incident. In Divulapitiya, nineteen-year-old S.M. Kelum Subasinghe was shot on his way home from a wedding reception, although in that incident, he had reportedly tried to stab the police constable who had asked him to stop his vehicle.
The National Police Commission has reportedly received 752 complaints against the police in just three months – from October 21, 2015 to January 2016. Most of these complaints show partiality, abuse of power, and police inaction – yet the Commission’s hands are tied, as they have the mandate only to act on police internal matters, not with regards to human rights violations.
The reason the protests are widespread is because police brutality is a phenomenon that is felt all across Sri Lanka, both during traffic stops and during questioning. In that sense, Kajan and Sulakshan have become tragic symbols to a wider problem that is yet to be addressed.