Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: police officers

Riots, Witches and Yakas

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 21 2011

For the past couple of weeks, there has been much excitement in our Sri Lankan neighbourhood (near Badulla). Villagers are convinced that there is a serial killer on the rampage. The elderly ladies, Tewanee and Meenaachi, who work for us have been telling us that they know for a fact that women have been raped and killed in this vicinity, their breasts bitten off, their hearts torn out. Tewanee’s dogs were killed by having their throats slashed.

The fear is real. We have been told two men have been watching our house, one man dressed all in white, another dressed all in black. There have been reports of two strange men hiding in a drain near our house. A male worker who sometimes does jobs for us told us to be careful. He said the yakas jump from trees. Some might be suspicious about that worker himself. The husband of one of our workers has been expressing fears about our safety but did not worry about going away to work on lorry without telling his wife that he was going. Police have been calling at his house looking for him. His neighbour has three young daughters and his wife is always away working in the Middle East. The man is rarely at home and leaves the daughters to fend for themselves. The girls, aged from five to thirteen, are very scared by the stories of yakas.

Villagers are roaming the roads around our house with sticks and knives and setting fire to the jungle to flush the miscreants out. Strangers come under suspicion. We phoned the police one night when there were shouting mobs roaming the roads. The local police fobbed us off but we later heard that they did come to investigate. One villager said a policeman pleaded, “Please don’t hit me son. I’m a policeman. Hit the Yaka if you catch him. Kill him with your stick if you like but don’t hit me. I’m a police officer!” It does not seem that villagers suspect their own – the emphasis is on fear of strangers – but there is potential for the settling of old scores as in the Salem witch hunts and Guantanamo. The belief that the police are releasing culprits adds to the vigilante frenzy.

It is quite touching that Tewanee has invited us to stay at her home out of fear for our safety. Our neighbours are related to the people living below them. There is no love lost but they insisted that they all stay with them for safety.

We heard of an attack at two-mile post another at seven mile post. We heard that a man had been chased by a mob with sticks and knives and he had hidden in the jungle near the Tea Research Institute. We asked a doctor friend who works in Badulla near the general hospital if there was any truth in these rumours. He said there had been attacks but he had not heard of any deaths. Sightings got closer to our home. We phoned the local police chief. At that very moment he was in a meeting with the manager of the tea estate next to the one on which we live. The OIC (Officer in Charge) told us there was nothing to worry about, These were just wild rumours. He said there was no truth either in stories that children were being abducted from the lines (the estate accommodation for tea pluckers and labourers).

The manager on another tea estate, someone with whom we often socialise, also pooh-poohed the idea of attacks on women. However, later in the conversation, he admitted that he had taken a woman to hospital after she had been attacked on an estate road and badly scratched She had been with another woman who ran away.

The attacks are being blamed on bhuthaya, grease yakas or grease devils. Historically, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear or went naked and covered his body in grease to make himself difficult to grab if chased. Lately, the “grease devil” has become a night-time prowler who frightens and attacks women. Some of the reported attacks around here have been in daylight.

The name ‘Grease Devils’ was used in connection with the killings of seven elderly women in Kahawatte, near Ratnapura. On July 5, 2011, about 2,000 people protested about the ineffectiveness of the police. According to human rights campaigner Basil Fernando: “The most attractive aspect of policing in Sri Lanka today is no longer investigation into crime and serving the people. It now appears to be the improvement of one’s own position, and to make money. There are many avenues open to senior police officers to do just this which makes worrying about criminal investigations an inconvenience…the authorities are more concerned about damage-control rather than trying to arrest the culprits. After the scandal goes away it will be business as usual, meaning that criminal investigation will remain no one’s business, as before.”

A man was arrested on Friday July 7 in an operation conducted by a special police unit assisted by the CID and the Ratnapura police. He broke the necks of these women before he raped them and dumped the bodies in jungles around Kahawatte. The suspect is a 35-year-old  army deserter known as Dhananjaya. The killing spree began in 2008. It is said that the suspect is mentally impaired, having had a bullet graze his skull whilst serving at the front during the war. He deserted from the army while stationed at Vedithilathiv and moved to Kahawatte. He started by stealing women’s underwear and later peeped at women asleep in their beds or taking showers. This escalated to forcibly embracing women. “When I look at young women I am not attracted to them. But when I look at middle-aged women, I am sexually aroused,” Dhananjaya had told the police during interrogation.

There have long been rumours about feral bands of army deserters living in jungles and swooping on remote villages to plunder and rape.

Initially, there was not much in the newspapers despite accusations by the authorities against “the media” about distortion and panic-mongering. All the news was by word of mouth. There were rumours of incidents all over the country. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who lives in the Kalutara area on the west coast, told us that on three separate occasions she has been scared by three different men staring in through her windows. One of them was naked.

A 16 year-old boy who posed as a ‘Grease Yaka’ and attempted to rob a house in the Badulla area was arrested. The youth along with another friend had rehearsed for the robbery and captured his own photograph on his mobile phone before he was detained by the villagers and handed over to the Police.

Ushanar Marzuka, 31, a mother of two living in a remote area in Valaichchenai in the east, was accosted by two men clad in T-shirts and shorts with faces painted black. One of them cut her with a sharp object he carried in his hand. More than 100 villagers, some of them armed with clubs started searching for the two men. They caught a man and beat him up. He had said he was visiting one of his relatives.

A masked man who was terrorising people in the Sigiriya-Dambulla area was arrested by police on August 13. Police said the 34-year-old suspect was hiding inside a wooded area on the Sigiriya border when he was apprehended around 7.30pm. The police were led to the suspect’s hide out on a tip-off provided by local villagers. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a bag loaded with women’s under wear.

There have been deaths. Police said that two unfortunate men killed at Thotalagala estate in Haputale, not far from us, were two travelling rug salesmen, though villagers identified them as ‘Grease Devils.’ The police identified the victims as Somasundaram Mahendran (29) and Sylvester Dias Jonny Peter (35). Fifty Special Task Force personnel had been deployed at the Thotalagala Tea Estate. Earlier in the day in the villagers had assaulted two men apparently in the presence of police. This led to a clash between the police and villagers, in which the OIC and a constable were injured. Because of this police had delayed about five hours reaching the scene at Thotalagala estate.

In Daulagala, near Kandy a 23 year old youth who was among a group of villagers giving chase to a suspicious person got entangled in a live electrical wire set to a trap wild boar and was electrocuted.


A mob attacked the navy camp in Kinniya, Trincomalee after assuming that a suspect had taken refuge inside the premises. The mob believed the suspect was a man with grease on his body. Over 500 people gathered around the navy camp, pelted it with stones and also set fire to a jeep which arrived at the scene with police reinforcements. The Sri Lankan police said that at least three people including a police officer were injured in the attack and 25 people were later arrested.

End this Child Abuse Now

Colman's Column3Vehicle emissions.

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday February 26 2014

I have enjoyed a generally friendly relationship with the Sri Lankan police. I shared the platform with one local OIC at a school prize-giving ceremony and entertained another in my home. I used to get on well with the local Inspector in charge of traffic but they transferred him. Cynics might say the Sri Lankan police treat me with respect  because I have a pink skin and am relatively affluent. I do not really blame those police officers who recently confiscated our licence on two occasions within a couple of weeks. The first time was because were parked on a pavement. Three-wheelers took up every available space in town – but more about that in another article. The second time was because our motor insurance certificate was not in the car. It was at home because I had renewed it that very day. I renew it on time every year. I renew my tax disc on time every year after taking the annual emission test. I am pathologically law-abiding.

The third time they stopped us, they did not impose a spot fine or impound the licence. On all three occasions, there was no prior cause for stopping us. We were not driving erratically or fast. The car was in good condition and had no characteristics that would attract attention. The vehicle was not belching out black fumes. While the police officers were detaining us, many vehicles passed that were emitting horrendous fumes. The officers did not appear to notice this.

I commend the Government for introducing a vehicle emission testing system in 2008. It started in the Western Province and is now a fully-fledged system covering the whole country.

Why is it not working?

Back in 2011, I was late for a meeting in Colombo at the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) because a police officer stopped the hired van in which I was travelling. The officer was quite correct to do this because the driver was talking on his mobile phone while driving. Again this could be the subject for another article – why is talking while driving so prevalent? I left the vehicle to walk hurriedly to my appointment. While walking, I noticed a number of officers whose uniform bore the legend “Environmental Police”.

Apparently, the government established Environmental Police Units in 2011 to cover every police division of the island. They are staffed 24 hours a day to handle public complaints related to environmental issues and “provide a valuable service to speedily resolve such matters”. Officers are trained on various aspects connected to the environment, including the National Environmental Act, the Mines and Mineral Act, biodiversity, noise and air pollution, waste management, the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, and the Urban Development Authority Act.

If this is so, why are there so many vehicles emitting noxious fumes?

When we first arrived in Sri Lanka from Ireland, where air pollution in the sparsely populated rural area in which we lived was mainly methane from eructating cows and sheep, we were struck by how bad the emissions were on Sri Lankan roads. After a couple of years, there was a marked and mysterious improvement but now it is very bad again. It actually seems to have worsened since emission testing was introduced.

When I arrived, coughing and breathless, at my meeting at EFL, I shared my observation that emissions were worse. The EFL people doubted that what I said was true. They said the statistics showed that emissions had reduced. I remained dogged in my scepticism as my senses gave the lie to their assertion. I noted that one of the companies conducting emission testing sponsored the EFL calendar.

Just before our vehicle was due to take its first emission test, I was concerned when a routine check showed an oil leak. The manager of the garage doing the check told me not to worry as I could just give the tester Rs 300 and all would be well. The Island reported on October 14 2011 that “sources “ said centres run by one particular company often violated rules and passed vehicles in bad condition. The DMT (Department of Motor Transport) closed over 300 centres for not meeting standards, for issuing false certificates, or for soliciting bribes.

There are 1.9 million vehicles in Sri Lanka. A WHO report shows pollution levels to be three times the accepted safe norm. Heart attacks and respiratory disease have become the main causes of death in Sri Lanka. Toxic chemicals stimulate the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues. Nitrogen dioxide can lead to immunosuppression. Carbon monoxide poisoning is like suffocation, binding to the haemoglobin contained in red blood cells, reducing  the ability of the cells to transport and release oxygen to bodily  tissues.  Benzene suppresses bone marrow and impairs development of red blood cells leading to cytopenia, bone marrow loss and leukaemia. Polycyclic hydrocarbons cause skin and lung cancers. Increasing levels of air pollution are associated with rising mortality rates among diabetics.

The government promised roadside tests in January 2011. I have not noticed them yet. They are clearly not working. DMT Commissioner General S H Harishchandra said detecting teams are operating daily to apprehend errant drivers. He claimed that these teams select random areas and conduct checks using state of the art equipment. The vehicles that have excessive emission levels are given a concessionary period to fix their engines and reduce the emission levels before ia fine is imposed. If this is really happening, why are emissions getting worse?

Sri Lanka imported 45 gas analyser machines from Germany, at a cost of nearly Rs. 50 million, to conduct comprehensive roadside inspections independent of the two private companies Cleanco and Laugfs Ecosri that carry out mandatory annual emission tests on vehicles. The Island reported that AW Dissanayake, Project Director for emission testing at the DMT,  “maintained that they were catching belching vehicles, but when asked to give details of the vehicles they had detected, he was evasive and requested us to meet the Commissioner General of Motor Traffic.”

Expensive equipment should not be necessary. Nothing more state-of-the-art than a police officer’s nose and eyes is required. The black smoke should be obvious to anyone. One sees many police officers on the roads, stopping three-wheelers and motorcycles to check licences.  My experience suggests that targets have been set to encourage police to issue more tickets and collect more spot fines. Could their performance indicators not focus on emissions? Perhaps there could be financial incentives.

Many of the major polluters are vehicles whose owners are in a position to be strongly  influenced  by government. On Friday 27 January 2012, I was enveloped in the worst black cloud I have ever experienced. The guilty vehicle was a police jeep. Police should be stopping buses, SLT vans, CEB lorries, ambulances that are spouting diesel fumes. If the police are not up to the job, perhaps the Army could do it.

The Commissioner of Motor Traffic has announced that from March 2014, vehicle owners will have pass two emission tests every year rather than one. This seems to be directed at increasing revenue rather than decreasing emissions. It is a pointless and expensive inconvenience to subject the owners of relatively new vehicles to two tests a year, while buses, the main polluters, are exempt from testing altogether.

Your taxes are funding the emissions testing programme. It needs to be effective. Young lives are at risk. Children are especially susceptible to air pollution because they have high inhalation rates, greater lung surface area per body weight, and narrow lung airways. Their immune systems are not fully developed. The main source of air pollution that is causing significant harm to children is vehicle emissions. Most schools are alongside roads and around five million of the 20-odd million population of Sri Lanka are schoolchildren. Do the traffic police, the environmental police, Commissioner of Motor Traffic, the bus operators, not have any anxiety about this persistent child abuse?

Who Can Police the Police?

Colman's Column3

This article was published in Ceylon Today Wednesday 22 January, 2014.

Your British police are wonderful!

When police shot Mark Duggan in Tottenham, riots erupted all over England. There is tension yet again after an inquest jury decided that Duggan’s  killing was lawful. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, it has revived interest in the conduct of the British police.

Since 1990, 1,476 people have died following police contact in Britain.  Blair Peach was a campaigner against the far right, who died from a blow to the head during a demonstration against the National Front in Southall, west London. It took 30 years for Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan police commissioner to unequivocally accept the finding of a secret report that a Met officer was likely to be responsible for the death. Sir Paul expressed his “regret”.


In 2012, PC Simon Harwood was found not guilty of killing Iain Tomlinson, a newspaper seller who was just walking home at the time, in 2009 during the G20 summit protests. The Met dismissed Harwood for gross misconduct.


IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) research found that 333 people died in police custody between 1999 and 2009, including 86 who died after being restrained. That figure included 16 of the most controversial cases classed as restraint-related. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some cases were not included in the statistics because the person was not officially arrested or detained.

Three deaths occurred after police restraint within one week in August 2011. Philip Hulmes, aged 53, and Dale Burns, 27, both died after police discharged taser guns. Jacob Michael, aged 25, died after police used pepper spray. Witnesses to his arrest have described how the police punched and kicked him while he was on the floor, restrained and in handcuffs. Eleven police officers were involved in the arrest.

There have been 32 fatal shootings by police in the past ten years. On 22 September 1999, Harry Stanley was returning home carrying, in a plastic bag, a table leg repaired by his brother earlier that day. Someone had phoned the police to report, “an Irishman with a gun wrapped in a bag”. The crew of a Metropolitan Police Armed Response Vehicle challenged Stanley. As he turned to face them, they shot him dead at a distance of 15 feet.
On July 22 2005, on a subway train at Stockwell station in south London, police shot Jean Charles de Menezes seven times in the head and once in the shoulder at close range. He died at the scene. Hollow point bullets, which are illegal in warfare, were used.


Andrew Hayman was the head of the anti-terrorism unit which carried out the killing. The IPCC report concluded that there were inconsistencies between what Mr Hayman had told a crime reporters’ briefing and what he told a Metropolitan police authority management meeting on the day of the shooting. Hayman got a CBE in the June 2006 Honours list.

I recall seeing a powerful play back in 1982, by GF Newman, called Operation Bad Apple. The title refers to the standard police explanation for corruption – a rotten apple in an otherwise clean barrel. “Rotten apples” are either weak individuals who have slipped through the screening process or succumbed to the temptations or acculturation inherent in police work. A writer in a magazine for policemen says “all police officers should be not tarnished with the same brush”. Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons on June 21:”The vast majority of police officers are honest and act with integrity,”

Operation Countryman provided the inspiration for Newman’s play. This was a £3 million investigation into police corruption in London in the late 1970s. Eight police officers were prosecuted but none convicted. An informer occupying an important position in the criminal underworld claimed that members of the elite Flying Squad were receiving bribes from criminals in return for warnings of imminent police raids or arrests, the fabrication of evidence against innocent men, and dropping of charges. The corruption was not limited to “a few bad apples” but was endemic and widespread throughout the hierarchical command rather than confined to those below the rank of sergeant.  Successive Home Secretaries refused  to publicly release the findings of Operation Countryman as they are protected by public interest immunity.

In recent days, The Independent published details of a leaked report about another investigation, Operation Tiberius. The Metropolitan Police file, written in 2002, found Britain’s biggest force suffered “endemic corruption” at the time. Notorious criminal gangs had bribed scores of former and then-serving detectives to access confidential databases; obtain live intelligence on criminal investigations; provide specialist knowledge of surveillance, technical deployment and undercover techniques to help evade prosecution; and even take part in criminal acts such as mass drug importation and money laundering. Tiberius identified 80 corrupt individuals with links to the police, including 42 then-serving officers and 19 former detectives. A corrupt officer had “an ongoing sexual relationship with a female drug supplier”’, and accessed police records for her.

The report concluded: “Organised crime is currently able to infiltrate the Metropolitan Police Service at will.” Police offered the usual reflex reaction about bad apples and the past being different. A recently retired senior officer, speaking anonymously to the newspaper, said that: ‘The Met is still every bit as corrupt as it was back then.’

The author of the 2002 report was that same Andy Hayman who lied about the Menezes killing in 2004. An inquiry later found that Operation Helios, a £7 million investigation, which was under the direct control of Andy Hayman from 1999 to 2003, may have been motivated by race. This same Andy Hayman resigned from the police in December 2007 over allegations about expense claims and improper conduct with a female member of the IPCC and also with a female Sergeant, Heidi Tubby. This same Andy Hayman was in charge of a raid on a dwelling in Forest Gate in 2006 in which police shot one man  and seriously assaulted another.  The Met leaked to the press unfounded allegations of child pornography, which caused the shot man and his family “‘irreparable damage”, in the words of his sister. An inquiry by the chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, apportioned responsibility for bugging an MP in 2005 to the same Andy Hayman.


Hayman did not cover himself in glory when questioned by a Commons committee about the News the World hacking scandal. According to the late, lamented Simon Hoggart, one of the MPs called him “a dodgy geezer” to his face. When an MP asked if his investigation was compromised by accepting hospitality and employment from Rupert Murdoch –“You would have thought she’d accused him of being a predatory paedophile, not someone who had conducted a hopelessly inadequate inquiry into a firm which had wined and dined him, and then given him a well-paid job.” Keith Vaz MP told Mr Hayman that he appeared “more like Clouseau than Columbo”.

The phone hacking scandal demonstrated that cronyism provides fertile ground for corrupt practices. The Met could rely on News International to defend them over cases like De Menezes and Tomlinson. Police forces provide tip-offs and stories and expect the media to reciprocate by reflecting a police perspective of events. Coverage of demonstrations and rallies frequently reflect a police viewpoint. In the Met’s public statements, there is a pattern of manipulation. Through a variety of channels, through networking with local government, private industry and the media the police have long been in the business of influencing government policy.

The IPCC oversees complaints, as well as automatically investigating all deaths involving the police, but there is little public confidence in its independence. Only ten per cent of complaints succeed and a significant proportion of those are complaints from other police officers. Eight out of ten of the IPCC’s senior investigators and more than a third of all investigators are former police.

There is no watchdog that effectively oversees the mechanics of British policing.

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