Arresting brutality

Friday, 21 February 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The horrific incident of a mother dying after watching her son being beaten up by the Police drags up age old questions about Police brutality, torture and custody deaths seen in Sri Lanka, with little or no justice provided. According to reports on the latest incident the Police had broken through the back door of a house in Minuwangoda, ostensibly to question a suspect on another assault. The Police had beaten the suspect up with a pole and his mother seeing it had collapsed and later died in hospital. Following significant publicity, the Police have suspended three Police officers but this does not even scratch the surface of cleaning up Police conduct, especially with regard to their behaviour towards suspects. Impunity provided to Police while carrying out their “duties” smack of grave rights violations and incidents such as the 27 prisoners who died in the Welikada prison riot have even been included in the United Nations Human Rights reports on Sri Lanka. Last July underworld drug kingpin Mohammed Azmir was killed while fleeing the Police – or so the official version goes. While this may gain taciturn approval from the masses, it is yet another indication of lapses in the law enforcement system. While Azmir’s situation is vastly different, it shares the same desire for justice and the independent implementation of law and order. Readers will remember many examples including the Dompe youth who died in Police custody and the public outcry that resulted in a standoff between the Police and residents. They may also remember several other incidents of families with men who were killed in Police custody as well as a fisherman in Wadduwa, who was a 42-year-old father of two. Several officials of the Wadduwa Police Station were transferred but little else was done. Yet, it was never made clear whether the deceased filing a Fundamental Rights petition against the OIC of the Police station was a contributory factor to the death – common sense says yes. Even in previous years the public has stood by as selected underworld figures without political affiliations died in Police custody. All such deaths followed a standard script of trying to escape while being transported by the Police and were accorded tacit approval of the public and the indifference by the media. A total of 57,000 grave crimes were committed in 2010. Barely 25% reached the courts for prosecution and only 4% led to convictions. With a virtually defunct criminal justice system, the public at large has come to view the extra judicial killings as a rough and ready substitute. Society, encouraged by the State, finds it easy to think in absolutes – such as the glorification of violence. Within this framework, there is no need for compromises and trade-offs between deterrence and punishment, required for the rehabilitation of criminals, especially when they can be removed swiftly and cleanly from the equation. Although it is easy to blame the Police for its systemic brutality, the fault is not entirely theirs. An overloaded, sluggish, under-resourced and heavily politicised judicial system that does not care for the poor and victimised has burdened society with the need to find its own justice. So the people do – at a grave cost to everyone else. Since politicians have time and again made it very clear that they are not concerned with cleaning up this mess, surface solutions such as transfers are metered out. There are no transparent investigations because the dead is an “underworld figure” and as such does not deserve to be treated according to the law. It is a grievous and dangerous trend to ignore, but there is little interest in taking notice or finding a solution by strengthening law enforcement and reducing political interference. Given such situations, the Government cannot expect to promote human rights and indeed even state that the circumstances are improving in post-war Sri Lanka.