Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka
Dirty Harry in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans found it hard to celebrate the 143rd anniversary of the police force established by Ceylon’s British rulers (established on 3 September 1866). One incident (among many) has highlighted the danger of people’s frustration at police impunity turning into mob outrage and vigilante “justice”.
It happened at a police post at Angulana, a working class area not far from the coastal Colombo suburb and tourist haunt of Mount Lavinia. The Officer in Charge (OIC) at Angulana was one TJ Newton.
On 13 August two young men from Angulana were found murdered. One body was found near a bridge one kilometre from the police station, the other on the seashore. The medical officer who conducted the post-mortem reported that both bodies had multiple bullet wounds in the chest and legs. The two dead men had been arrested on 12 August after a complaint that they had been harassing a woman (“Eve-teasing” as the local press quaintly term it) in a tsunami camp nearby.
A witness, a man who had been in the police station cells, said: “When they brought them in, I could see more than five police officers kicking, punching and throwing things at them. Later OIC Newton came. They took them to the OIC’s room. I heard them being beaten by the belt and the OIC shouted to another police officer to bring him fire, then he was burning and beating them from time to time.”
The following Sunday, about 5,000 people took part in a funeral procession to protest against this brutal killing. An effigy of OIC Newton was burned. Local people described the Angulana post as more like a brothel-cum-tavern than a police station. Nine police officers from Angulana police station were arrested and a court heard that they had been drunk on the night of the murders. Eyewitnesses testified that armed police officers blindfolded the young men and took them away in a jeep on the night of 12 August. The two victims, handcuffed and with blue polythene bags over their heads, were bundled into the jeep by the police, one of whom was armed with a T-56. One of the accused policemen admitted to his uncle (another policeman) that he had shot and killed the two victims.
The woman who had originally been harassed and lodged a complaint told the court she had been staying with her grandmother. The household had gone to sleep around 9.40pm and at about 10.15pm they had heard the sound of breaking glass. She told the court: “There was a young man outside in a black T-shirt and he wanted a cigarette.” He went away but returned with another young man. She claimed that one of them had later entered the house and held her hand. She woke up the others in the house and told them what had happened. At 11.30 pm they reported the incident to two officers at Angulana police station. She later told the court that she had identified the youths who harassed her as the victims of the double murder.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing, national newspapers claimed the woman who made the complaint was OIC Newton’s mistress. The house she had been staying in was burnt down by an angry mob. However, she told the court she had never seen OIC Newton before the night of 12 August and said it was obvious that Newton had been drinking that evening.
In the post-GW Bush era US and UK politicians have acknowledged that talk of a “war on terrorism” has not been helpful. In Sri Lanka, buoyed by its success in the war against the LTTE, the government has announced a “war on crime”. Philippe Person recently examined in Le Monde diplomatique (“Clint: still good, bad and ugly”, English edition, August 2009) the symbolic resonance of Clint Eastwood. Clint was LTTE leader Prabakharan’s hero and seems to have many fans in the Sri Lanka police, at least in his Dirty Harry persona.
The past few weeks have seen key underworld figures (mostly Muslim, rather than Tamil or Sinhalese) being “taken out’”. Ordinary Sri Lankans have became accustomed to summary executions by shadowy death squads — echoes of the British government’s “shoot-to-kill policy” in Northern Ireland — as a way of defeating the Marxist JVP rebels who threatened to overthrow the government in the 1980s.
Even Sri Lankans who supported the government’s hard line against the LTTE are uncomfortable with current police behaviour: the phrase “culture of impunity” is frequently heard. No one wants to live in a country where the police can kill anyone they want, including private-grudge enemies, and get away with it. And there is a danger of police impunity being mirrored by vigilante justice by sections of the public.
The Angulana incident garnered a lot of publicity, and some have taken comfort from the fact that police were arrested and brought before a court. Yet hundreds of other incidents around the country may go unreported. The lawyer and human rights campaigner Basil Fernando had high hopes in 2003 of the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which included the setting up of a National Police Commission (NPC). He described the NPC as “one of the most extraordinary mechanisms created in Sri Lanka to check human rights violations.” Unfortunately the NPC has been allowed to wither and die, with its powers delegated to officials of various ministries, including defence.
President Rajapaksa, apparently disturbed that OIC Newton, and officers involved in other incidents, boasted of ties with politicians (including, some say, the president himself), summoned senior police to ask “how is all this police brutality eventually put into my account by the opposition?” Significantly, Rajapaksa did not meet the NPC, which had been designed to take the politics out of policing.” There is nostalgia for the original NPC, which was seen as having a clear vision about reform and how to implement it. Today oversight of the police is diffused piecemeal among government bureaucrats: so when people are victimised, they have no independent source of redress.