The shocking pictures published in Friday’s newspapers of police assaulting HNDA students at Ward Place, Colombo 7 pose the question whether the police or some of its personnel are suffering from an unquenchable thirst for blood. The horrifying scenes of a well-built police officer beating a lean girl on her head with a baton raises a series of questions ranging from the validity of the order to baton charge to the criminalization of the mentality of the police in general or that of an individual police officer.
It will be extremely difficult for the police or the government to justify the savage nature of the attack on the students – in spite of the possibility of it being justified finally with the passage of time -- since it was clearly evident that the students did not have a motive such as toppling the government, apart from expressing their grievances.
The ridiculous attempt on Friday by some high-ranking police officers to deny that police attacked the female students, putting the blame on the media for “publishing misleading pictures” is nothing but sheer shamelessness. How can they say that they did not assault the students, especially the female students when the photographs clearly attest to it?
How can the pictures taken by photographers of various newspapers depict similar visuals from various angles if no female students were attacked? How can the publishing of these self-explanatory photographs be misleading? The pictures exposed the mindset of the police or some of its personnel and publishing them was not an act to mislead the people but rather the fulfilling of the media’s responsibility to inform the people.
Democracy, which also includes the right to protest is a major promise by the leaders of the yahapalanaya government during their mobilization of the people against the Mahinda Rajapaksa government which killed some of the protesting free-trade zone workers at Katunayake, some of the people who asked for drinking water at Weliweriya and fishermen who asked for a fuel subsidy at Chilaw. If that message on the essence of yahapalanaya or good governance had not trickled down to the police even ten months after the regime change who is to blame? This was a police service that had been brutalized by a high level of politicization by the past regimes and by the thirty-year war. It would be surprising if just a regime change would change the mentality of such a police service.
Needless to say the police also have the right to protect the rights of other people if the latter were to be affected by the actions of protesters, just like the students or workers have the right to protest. It was a well known fact that these students were unarmed and the police could have easily dispersed them with water cannons and tear gas. Even in case a baton charge was called for as a last resort, then the brutality we saw on TV screens is incomprehensible. In short the police was not dealing with terrorists though some police personnel seem to have thought so.
The Prime Minister has directed the Law and Order Minister to initiate an investigation into the incident. He might have done it with good faith, but the minister had in turn instructed the police chief to carry out the investigation. If so, the question that arises is whether the high-ranking police officers held the media conference on Friday to deny the attack and put the blame on the media without the consent or knowledge of the police chief.
The assault on the students had taken place at a time when the government was working hard to portray itself at the UNHRC as different from the previous regimes in respect of human rights. The authorities have to bear in mind that the world human rights body is concerned not only about human rights during a war, but also about them now. One should not forget that the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka had also pressed the government to address the accountability issues in connection with the Weliweriya shooting and the Aluthgama attacks on the Muslims.