Photo courtesy of The Daily Star

Last week brought the news of the deaths of two underworld figures – Melon Mabula alias Uru Jawa and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera, alias Kosgoda Tharaka. Both died in police custody, a day apart. The news drew swift criticism from the public. The Executive Committee of the Bar Association (BASL) released a statement condemning the killings, identifying these deaths as “bearing all the hallmarks of extra-judicial killings”.

Sri Lankans are no strangers to excesses by the police. Every year, the Supreme Court hears a number of cases relating to infringements of the fundamental right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (guaranteed under Article 11 of the Constitution). The variety in the circumstances, the methods used and the victims of such treatment are only as wide as one’s imagination. Every year, the Supreme Court will find officers responsible for fundamental rights violations and will order compensation. Every year, it will comment on how widespread and commonplace torture appears to be and how action must be taken arrest this trend.

Extra-judicial killings (or the more acceptable “deaths in police custody”) are also familiar to Sri Lankans. The circumstances in which they take place strain credulity. There was Mohamed Mamazmi, who was killed in July 2013 while being transported in a jeep, allegedly after attempting to strangle the driver. In 2011 Asanka Botheju, a former Sri Lanka Navy officer, allegedly drowned while attempting to escape from a boat on the way to show police officers a weapons cache despite being known to be an expert swimmer. And then there was Kahadawala Arachchige Tharuka Niluka, taken into custody in connection with the abduction and subsequent killing of a police officer in May 2014. While leading the police officers to show them a hidden weapon, he allegedly hurled a grenade that was in the vicinity, forcing the officers to shoot and kill him.

This clear pattern stretches back to the 1990s. The best case scenario is that the Sri Lankan police is among the least competent forces in the world. Controlling an unarmed suspect during a search operation is surely one of the most basic competencies the police ought to have for the safety of both the officers and the suspect. The worst case scenario is that there is something far more sinister and systematic at play.

What is morbidly comical about these tragic events is that the police appear not to have changed its playbook over more than 20 years. On many occasions, the version adopted is that the suspect was leading police officers to locate some hidden weapons and suddenly attacked the officers. Grenades feature quite often, although they never seem to explode. This demonstrates that it is perhaps all a charade – the police know that by giving this answer, everyone will understand what happened. And because they know that no consequences will ensue, they continue with impunity.

Tharaka Wijesekera’s killing was particularly egregious. His lawyer realized the previous day that he had been transferred to a different police unit and suspected that he may be killed in custody. He informed the BASL, the IGP, the Director CID and the Human Rights Commission. The President of the BASL also informed the IGP about these concerns and yet he was killed in the early hours of May 13, 2021, allegedly when – that’s right – he tried to attack the police while recovering some weapons.

Wijesekera may have done very evil things but I can’t help thinking about his last moments on earth. Perhaps he had heard about Uru Jawa’s death the previous day. He would certainly have known about Makandure Madush’s killing in October 2020. This was a hardened man with links to the underworld; certainly, he was unlikely to have been a naïve man. So when he was taken on a “special operation”, he may have suspected that this was how he would meet his end. What a sinking, cruel prospect, even for such a hardened man.

Listening to the police spokesman’s account of the incident, it is telling that the second half of the statement is dedicated to the many serious crimes that Wijesekera had committed “according to police reports”. This is the process of justifying and rationalizing the killing. It invites the public to abandon any sympathy for the slain victim. It suggests that some form of karmic justice has been meted out – a violent man has met a violent end; a killer, killed. Unfortunately, karmic justice is not the standard in this country. Suspects are innocent until proven guilty and such guilt is determined by a court of law, not a police record. A long line of judicial authority has established that even the most hardened criminal is entitled to the full protection of the law; in fact, affording such a person these rights is the true test of the integrity of any system. Sri Lanka has fallen far short of that.

This conduct goes unabated because there are never any consequences for it. Police officers are rarely held accountable. To make matters worse, when the new Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara took office, he is reported to have said, “I don’t think exterminating those who continue to commit organized and serious crimes a sin.” The police is under the purview of this ministry; what message might such a statement have sent to its officers?

The structures that created space for holding officers accountable were also done away with by the 20th Amendment. Under the 19th Amendment, the National Police Commission was appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council and exercised the power of appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of all police officers other than the Inspector General of Police. The 20th Amendment removed these powers from the National Police Commission and vested them with the Public Service Commission. Both commissions are appointed at the sole discretion of the President; the Parliamentary Council may only make observations on the appointments. Thus, the space for an independent commission to exercise disciplinary control over errant police officers no longer exists.

Furthermore, investigations into incidents of custodial deaths are conducted by special teams from within the police force itself. This raises serious concerns about the impartiality and independence of the process, as the investigators will be looking into the conduct of fellow officers, no doubt coloured by notions of institutional and rank-and-file loyalty.

Perhaps it is time for police to consider creating an Internal Affairs (IA) Unit – other jurisdictions have had success with this. The unit would have to be staffed by special officers, perhaps graduates recruited at a higher rank and given adequate training. Their incentives and promotions would have to be tied to the successful completion of investigations into police misconduct. Empirical evidence suggests that there is more than enough misconduct to warrant a fairly large unit and the very creation of an IA unit may serve as a deterrent for future misconduct.

What is certain is that none of this will happen until there is political will to clean up the police force. And there will be no political will unless we make our voices heard. This is a test for the public. If we are truly committed to equal treatment before the law, then our outrage over injustice must also be blind to the victims of injustice. We must protest as loudly about the killing of Tharaka Wijesekera, as about the slaying of Lasantha Wickrematunge; we must display the same outrage at the detention of the less privileged and connected young poet Ahnaf Jazeem as we have at that of Hejaaz Hizbullah. Only then will we demonstrate that justice and due process must be for all.