Trying to understand the police crisis in Sri Lanka* – Basil Fernando

The case studies of torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka outlined in this special report are exceptional when compared to cases of torture in other countries, in that they all relate to inquiries over common crimes, or mere grievances between a police officer and his victim. They indicate a severe crisis in the way the Sri Lankan police conduct criminal investigations. Under the law, there are prescribed procedures for criminal investigations. These procedures seem to be completely ignored.

The type of assaults committed also show that police officers are not making an attempt at all to collect information relating to crimes in an independent or rational manner, as the law requires them. In all these cases, and many others, the very first thing the police seem to do is to beat people mercilessly with the hope some information may come out from suspects. However, the frequently extraordinary level of torture makes the victim incapable of remaining normal.

Gerald Perera’s case demonstrates the problem very clearly. The police were inquiring into a triple murder that had taken place some time before his arrest. The police apparently were under enormous pressure to show the results of the investigations into this very serious crime. They were unable to deal with forensic evidence. They were also not qualified in the use of rational methods for discovering information. They seem to have been arresting people on unverified information. All these added together resulted in some major consequences. One of the first persons to be arrested in this triple murder case was a three-wheel taxi driver. He was harassed into admitting involvement in the crime. He has since attempted to commit suicide, unable to bear the harassment and accusations, about which he knew nothing. He was a pious Catholic and became horrified. Unable to face his neighborhood community and family, he took pesticide. He has been saved, and there has been no official allegation at all against him of any involvement in the crime. This incident was highly publicised, yet even at that stage, the higher officers did not evaluate the quality of the criminal investigation that was going on. The same investigating officers remained at their posts to carry out another horrible experiment.

The second victim was Gerald Perera, who also has subsequently been declared absolutely innocent. In his case, as so many others, no evidence of any sort existed against him at the time of arrest. Someone’s casual remark was enough. No statements were recorded from anyone making accusations. A belief that beating people is the path to discovering the truth was all that these criminal investigators went by. It is on that basis that AHRC has stated that there needs to be a serious inquiry into the manner in which criminal investigations are conducted at police stations.

Most disconcerting is the popular perceptions that develop among the people regarding police stations. The atmosphere in police stations is one of terror, and that does not in any way help to obtain the type of cooperation from the public that is very essential for criminal investigations. On the one hand, there is an extreme breakdown of cooperation between the public and the police. On the other hand, as a result, there is even more torture, which results in a further loss of confidence and contact with the people. The criminal investigator thus functions in a vacuum.

Is torture committed due to the pressures under which police work?

There may be many factors contributing to the pressures on police officers to engage in torture. Some of these pressures are as follows:

1. Personal obligations

In the case of Angeline Roshana Michael, the police officer who engaged in the torture was the friend of a very rich family. The lady of the family complained of the loss of a gold watch and suspected the part-time domestic helper as the thief. The officer set about getting the watch back by first using verbal threats and then torture. He was trying to do a favour to his friends. In fact, the complainants were present for some time when the police tortured the victim. They were allowed to observe the abuse.

In the case of Eric Kramer, the police were trying to oblige some staff members of a company. These people were trying to find out who made an attempt to cut open one of their safes. Eric was tortured without any evidence against him. In fact, the purpose of the torture was to find something against him. In this case too, police officers allowed the torture to be witnessed by the staff members of the company: “See, we have done our part of the job”, was the message given.

Such personal favours may not be purely personal. They can be in conjunction with bribery or political pressures too. It is common enough to hear of arrests and assaults made on payment.

2. Gang behaviour

Another remarkable feature of these cases is that the police seem to be acting as a gang, rather than people doing independent work on criminal investigations. Led by one or two persons they engage in beating the suspects like thugs. Torture typically takes place at night and is done by more than one person. In many cases the officers involved get drunk as they engage in the act.

In the case of Gerald Perera, about eight people participated in torturing him. He was hung up and assaulted by a group of police. The case of Gresha De Silva was similar. He too was hung up and beaten by a group. The beating was stopped when the officers obeyed a superior’s command. When he was to be taken down, they obeyed. When the body was to be hung up and assaulted they did that also.

In the case of Nandini Sriyalatha Herat the behavior of a male gang was very evident. One officer, on seeing the woman as their victim for that particular evening said, “Today we have a good bite.” They all participated in beating the woman, stripping her, and watched while one officer put a pipe-like object into her vagina. They continue to beat her even after that. At a later stage when one officer wanted to beat her up again, another signaled him not to and he stopped. Thus, the group did work according to commands.

In the case of Lalith Rajapakse too it was just routine behaviour of a gang at that police station to spend the evening beating up people. A similar pattern is shown in cases from the Ja-ela Police Station. When the case of Angeline Roshana came to light it was revealed by a woman warden-who did not want to be named-that during the few days before Angeline’s incident two other women were brought to the same police station and stripped, hung and beaten up. Such seems to be the evening pleasures of these officers.

3. Orders of superiors

In the case of Gresha de Silva, he clearly remembers that when he was brought to the police station, the OIC took a telephone call and reported to someone that Gresha had arrived. It was after this conversation that Gresha was taken away and tortured. Gresha was later told by the officers who tortured him that it was on orders from above that he was arrested. They admitted that he was innocent.

Evidence of such direct orders are few. In most cases police seem to act independently and without directly informing whoever has been arrested on how they are conducting the investigation. However, there seems to be tacit approval by immediate superiors. The common practice of torture taking place in the evenings cannot be a secret to higher officers. The departmental orders do prescribe rules for very rigid supervision by superior officers. The connivance of the superior officers is evident from the fact that when complaints are made of torture, no prompt action is taken. Action is taken only when there is strong external pressure. In the case of Lalith Rajapakse, even after huge exposure, the superior officers did not proceed against the alleged culprits. When the officers concerned filed fabricated cases against him, the superior officers did not examine these records and did not try to stop the mockery of justice.

A retired Senior DIG recently commented in private that there was an understanding in “the good old days”, meaning till the nineties, that when a person was tortured it had to be done under the supervision of a senior officer. The idea had been to prevent uncontrolled torture, which may create problems for the victim and the department. There was no absolute prohibition against torture. Instead there was a basic belief that successful investigation into crime was impossible without torture. Thus, the gruesome torture that now occurs with such frequency has its origin in the acceptance of ‘controlled’ torture by the higher authorities. Clearly, there is tradition of approval of torture by senior officers. Thus, these cases are not exceptions but part of institutional practices.

4. Pressure of publicity

Crime receives a lot of publicity in Sri Lanka. This may also be bringing some pressure on the police. The media highlights when crimes are not resolved. At the time of torture of Gerald Perera, officers of Wattala Police Station were investigating a triple murder. At the time of Gresha de Silva’s torture, the police at Habaraduwa Police Station were investigating another murder which had received a lot of publicity.

Under such circumstances, the police may want to create the impression that they have resolved the problem by getting a confession. The arrest of a person also receives publicity, whether the person is actually the culprit or not. With that, public criticism against police dies down and sometimes police officers even get promotions. Whether the actual culprits are found or someone is merely accused of the crime are two different things. It satisfies the police if someone is accused and prosecuted.

However, it must also be noted that many cases recorded by AHRC are not related to highly publicised crimes. In fact, some may not be related to any crime at all. Lalith Rajapakse’s case is one such instance. The case was fabricated after the event, in order to create an excuse to use “minimum force”.

Closer study of the idea that pressures on the police result in torture show that it does not sufficiently explain such common usage of torture, or its severity. It does offer some explanation, but not a sufficient one.

The presumption behind these explanations is that police officers are seriously investigating crimes, though they make mistakes and even grave mistakes. Is this correct about the police officers of present day? How much interest do they have in criminal investigations? How much time will they spend on such investigations? Do they have more pressing concerns than crime investigations, for example, making extra-money by several means each day? Do they spend as little time each day for investigation into crimes, so that they may have more time for other things? In short what is the behavioral pattern of a modern police officer? Are we seeing officially full time, but really part time employed officers whose main interest lies in pursuing extra incomes? Has there developed an understanding among the higher and lower ranks keeping the appearances of policing while safeguarding each other’s outside interests?

“Torture is the cheapest method of criminal investigation”

One of the most common justifications of torture is that it is the cheapest method of criminal investigation. Though not expressed openly, this view is shared by the state, though publicly-and particularly for international audiences-it expresses the opposite view.

How has torture become the cheapest method of criminal investigation? By relying on cheap labour. The average police officer in Sri Lanka counts among the least educated persons in the country. Becoming a lawyer, doctor, or even a teacher takes years of education. Achieving some prominence in these or another profession requires many years of patient practice. No such basic education is necessary to be a police officer. (This is not to deny there are handful at the top who have a basic degree, and a few with longer training.) Those police officers with hardly any basic skills associated with an inquiring mind are the investigators of crime under normal circumstances. Their sensibilities are so underdeveloped that engaging in acts of brutality does not create much of a problem for them. “The rougher the person, the better”, is an underlying principle of selection, though this is not openly expressed. The recruitment, use and manipulation of cheap labour are primary elements of policing in Sri Lanka. The result is that no real selection criteria applied in practice, though they may be used for publicity purposes.

Professional training of police in many countries now takes several years, after which they are selected on the basis of particular criteria. In some countries it takes three to four years. No such expense needs to be spent when the aim is simply to use cheap labour for policing. Just three months of ‘training’, if any-most of which is spent on physical exercises-is all there is. In fact, this may be a matter of policy. How can a better-trained officer adjust to the rough and brutal practices that go on in police stations?

Both the elements of cheap labour and inadequate training explain why it is difficult for the institution to impose a high degree of discipline on the average police officer. The subject is not really capable of such discipline. Thus cheap labour implies a high degree of tolerance of corruption within the police institution.

Under such circumstances, nothing more than cheap investigations can be expected. Cheap labour in policing means use of muscle, rather than the mind. Thus, the whole police institution becomes a monster that challenges every principle of decent social dealings and shows its fist to every one, saying, “If you have us cheap, you have no grounds to complain about what we do.”

“No one can catch us”

Torture victims and their supporters who seek redress are told by police officers and their associates time and again, “Do not strike your head on a stone. No one can do us any harm.” The knowledge that law enforcement officers have of the weak nature of the law enforcement system in Sri Lanka gives them the assurance that their misdeeds will not be discovered and that to escape criminal liability is not difficult. The “catch me if you can” game goes on all the time. Awareness of the difficulties that a victim will have in getting redress gives a police officer the psychological assurance necessary to continue to commit violence against the citizenry.

Added to this is the taste of blood acquired during the period from 1971: the Emergency Regulations and later anti-terrorist laws lifted all legal safeguards against extra-judicial killings and the cruelest forms of torture and other endemic violations of rights. The killing of arrested persons became so common that in the late eighties and early nineties over 30,000 people simply disappeared, sucked through detention centres cum-torture chambers into mass graves and other anonymous sites. It was the security forces-both police and military, with criminal collaborators-that were used for that purpose. Although those terrible times have been accounted for in official reports, adequate recording and examination is yet to occur.

Having tasted blood, the habits of normal law enforcement gave way to the brutal use of force. This practice will continue if deliberate action is not taken to purposefully eliminate it. That in turn will be possible only if Sri Lankans themselves take the initiative and demand that their law enforcement agencies respect the rule of law, and in so doing, respect they the people.

End Note

* This is edited text of a series of articles currently appearing in the weekly e-newsletter on Sri Lankan human rights issues, Jana Sammathaya, of AHRC. To subscribe, visit the AHRC website, www.ahrchk.net, or email AHRC, ahrchk@ahrchk.org, and put “Subscribe to Jana Sammathaya” as the subject.

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