The Kataragama shooting is one of the latest black marks in the history of the Sri Lanka police. Armed police or military shooting at unarmed civilians in Sri Lanka is not something new, though the frequency has declined since the National Unity Government took office in 2015.
In 2014 we heard of an incident similar to what happened in Kataragama last week. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international human rights watchdog, reported this among number of other incidents of police killing and torture before 2015. The report titled “We Live in Constant Fear; Lack of Accountability for Police Abuse in Sri Lanka,” was released in 2015.
In one of its case studies, the HRW said that on June 11, 2014, Indika Jayasinghe was shot by police while he was riding his motorcycle about 11:30 pm at Pasyala, on the Colombo-Kandy Road. A colleague was riding on the pillion with him. According to eyewitnesses, the police stopped them as part of what seemed like a routine check for the rider’s license and registration. Mr. Jayasinghe had just stopped the motorbike when one of the policemen had allegedly pulled out a pistol and fired a shot that hit him in the armpit. Mr. Jayasinghe died soon after the shooting.
These incidents are part of hundreds of others including deaths in police custody, inhuman torture and abuse mainly during the former regime but also now.
The killing of young garment factory worker, Roshen Shanaka, who was shot by police during a protest at the Free Trade Zone in Katunayake in 2011 and the shooting at civilians including schoolchildren in August 2013 while they were protesting against a factory allegedly contaminating their groundwater resources. They are two of the main incidents where armed security forces fired at unarmed civilians in public.
Coming back to the Kataragama shooting of 25-year-old Pathiranalage Niroshan, a father of one, it is the latest black mark to the record of the Sri Lanka Police.
Our double-spread News Feature headlined “Shooting incident in Kataragama: Villagers look for clues as police allegedly breach law”, published in the Daily Mirror on Friday, gave a detailed account by eye witnesses and family members of the slain youth, who spoke of what they saw as police irresponsibility.
The only eyewitness to the incident, the pillion rider Nuwan Buddhika, who had a narrow escape, but is still hospitalised at Kataragama narrated the incident. He said around 10 pm on January 20 while they were on their way back home from a party, a torchlight was directed towards them and the rider Niroshan stopped the motorcycle a few metres away. He described how they were shot as they were getting down from the motorcycle. After the shooting the police even had allegedly slapped them when they asked why they opened fire without reason. One constable even used his foot to kickoff Niroshan’s helmet.
The dead youth’s widow, 22-year-old Chathurika, who had married Niroshan in 2011 was shocked beyond words as Daily Mirror reporters met her carrying their three-and-half year child. She said the family had many dreams including building a house of their own. The widow said she believe the death sentence should be imposed on the police constable who killed her husband.
In 2015, the HRW prepared a comprehensive report analyzing many incidents relating to police negligence and irresponsible behaviour. In its report, the HRW proposed a series of recommendations to the government, the Minister of Law and Order and the Judiciary. They include: Setting up an independent oversight authority to investigate allegations of police abuse; ensure that commissioners appointed to the National Police Commission and the National Human Rights Commission are truly independent and appointed through high-level and transparent mechanisms; amend police rules and manuals to be consistent with the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and ensure that disciplinary proceedings taken against officers for abuse result in appropriate and proportionate sanctions.
Some of these recommendations have been implemented since 2015 but much more needs to be done and we hope the national government will move fast to do this because proper police conduct towards unarmed civilians is essential for the setting up of a just and peaceful society.