This week a woman who was being questioned by the Police CID in connection to a financial fraud investigation died by suicide after purportedly having jumped off the fifth floor of the building in which she was being interrogated.
On the face of it, this would be a story that one would not notice being lost amidst the ever-more tumultuous news cycle. Yet, it is the continuation of a trend in Sri Lanka of suspects consistently dying while under Police custody.
In 2009, the Parliament was informed by Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena that during eight months 32 people had died in Police custody, according to an archived article on BBC Sinhala Service. The article goes on to say that 26 people had died in Police custody in 2008. In many instances the deaths were reported as having occurred when suspects were being taken to uncover hidden caches of weapons.
The stock-in-trade Police answer at the time was they were shot while attempting to escape. This excuse was so transparent that at the time it became a running joke in some social circles. Meanwhile, this year alone there have already been several incidents of Police brutality reported and documented.
And at some point, the question must be asked, how long are we going to allow this to happen? And if we do continue in this vein, how much worse might it get?
Already the feeling of impunity amongst Police personnel is likely at an all-time high. A cursory Google search will reveal the latest egregious indiscretion by Police in Sri Lanka; just this past week a video allegedly showing a Police OIC telling a highway traffic officer over the phone to let a clearly inebriated individual on to the highway.
All this sadly is a sign of the growing lack of accountability amongst Police in the country.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) says 90% of its torture complaints are against the Police, with hundreds of cases being reported each year. In 2015, it was 420 cases, in 2016 450 cases, and in 2017 there were 380 cases.
But identifying problem is one thing, doing something takes genuine political will. Police brutality is a genuine systemic problem in Sri Lanka. Police are routinely protected with transfers and other slap-on-the-wrist punishments – indeed, it is being reported that the OIC responsible for allowing the drunk driver on the highway is to be interdicted, when a sterner punishment is undoubtedly the correct course of action.
For decades, the State of Emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act provided them with often blanket legal and political protection. The institutionalised impunity was never rolled back despite the conflict ending more than a decade ago.
Minorities, the poor and the disabled are among the most vulnerable due to this continued impunity and lack of sensitisation. The only way this matter can be addressed in the long-term is with moves to instigate concerted reform of the Police – something that must put sensitivity training at the top of the list in terms of priorities.