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Fixing the police

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Sixty-five policemen have been transferred from the Katugastota police station after an internal investigation found they had links to drug and underworld figures in the area. The transfers were triggered when the Katugastota police lost evidence in a drug case and misplaced the critical ‘B Report’ that is required by court to persecute an offender. 

A police constable was interdicted after the inquiry and the transfers were ordered to 65 others. It is staggering that an entire police contingent had to be penalised in this manner and underscores the deep link between drugs and police. Clearly there is a desperate need for far stronger measures than just transfers to deal with this menace and end the culture of impunity promoted within the police itself.   

The one silver lining in this environment was the presence of an investigation unit that appeared to actually be getting close to the offenders. Yet random transfers, regardless of whatever justification can be given by the Police, were both ill-timed and in complete disregard of justice. There can be no question over the fact that such a transfer would not only destroy public confidence in the investigation but would also fail to address the underlying issue of influence.

Random transfers are a travesty of justice. Police have to remember that their loyalty should be to the people. Appropriate punishments are not just for the benefit of the people but also to the rank and file of the police itself. The force already struggles with political interference, lack of resources, opaque promotion systems and inadequate salaries. Not only are these issues overlooked, even honest personnel are being tainted with the same brush as the public sees mostly ineffective and corrupt officials.

Transfers are used as the panacea for a range of wrongdoing in Sri Lanka’s police force. In the case of custody deaths there are transfers, if police are accused of torture then they are also served with transfers. There are few, if any, persecutions and offending members are allowed to continue serving. 

The number of complaints of torture has been declining in the last three years, from 600 complaints in 2013 to 420 complaints in 2015 and 208 so far this year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. But even the current numbers show that little structural change has been made within the police to protect suspects against torture and custody deaths.  

The HRCSL says the prevailing culture of impunity where those accused of torture is concerned is also a contributing factor to the routine use of torture as a means of interrogation and investigation. Police routinely use transfers to cover up the most heinous of acts. Police have also consistently been at the top of public officials nabbed for taking bribes. 

Last week the police were also a cog in the much publicised protests against 31 Rohingya refugees. Police who arrived at the safe house were accused of standing by and doing nothing while the protestors threatened and harassed the refugees even though they were given prior notice that it was a safe house by the United Nations. This resulted in additional confusion and public consternation that could have been avoided. 

All these instances can also be viewed as opportunities for the police to improve themselves but it remains to be seen whether they will at least embrace incremental change.     

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