A video of an autistic boy being beaten in Dharga Town by the police went viral on Thursday, forcing the police to start an investigation in response to demands of justice from the public. At a time when police brutality has become a global topic it is important to understand the systemic issues in Sri Lanka as well and work to resolve them.
Incidents of police brutality take place pretty frequently in Sri Lanka. In 2009 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.
In September 2010 a Fundamental Rights petition was filed by a resident of Embilipitiya town in Sabaragamuwa Province that her husband had been arrested and ‘killed’ by the police who thereafter ‘fabricated a version to justify the killing’. After nearly a decade later the Supreme Court in 2019 ruled this was a case of custodial death, ordering seven police personnel and the state to pay a total compensation of Rs. 2 million to the victim’s family.
Supreme Court Justice S. Thurairaja ruled, with the other two judges on the bench – L.T.B. Dehideniya and Murdu N.B. Fernando – that it is the State’s responsibility to protect every citizen of Sri Lanka and as such the State has failed its responsibility and has violated the Fundamental Rights of the deceased.
In October 2015 a 17-year-old boy was allegedly beaten by the Kotadeniyawa police after he was arrested under suspicion of being involved in the tragic murder of five-year-old Seya Sadevmi and held for three days at the Kotadeniyawa police station, during which time, according to media reports, he was badly beaten and photographed in the nude.
In 2014 a youth in Dompe was killed in police custody and the public outcry resulted in a standoff between the police and residents.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) says 90% of their torture complaints are against the police with hundreds of cases being reported each year. In 2015 it was 420 cases, 2016 to 450 cases and in 2017 there were 380 cases.
All these instances and many others point to police brutality being a systemic problem in Sri Lanka. Police are routinely protected with transfers and other slap-on-the-wrist punishments. 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. In 2010 a 26-year-old Tamil man with mental health issues died after he was violently assaulted by three policemen near the Bambalapitiya beach. The effort to get justice for Tariq should ideally be coupled with changing this deeply problematic and damaging system of policing done in the name of law enforcement.