Police brutality, racial profiling and shallow patriotism
Sri Lanka plunged into a vortex of seething rage and sheer despair when the CCTV footage of a 14-year-old autistic boy being brutally assaulted by policemen triggered the public domain thus instigating a reign of agony and bellow of wrath. Not only did the surveillance videotape constrain people to hurl backlash at cops through a shrilling social media uproar latched on the trending hashtag #JusticeForThariq, it also prompted a belated probe on the detestable crime that ensued the interdiction of a police SI, Sergeant and Constable on the charges of evading their duties (or gross negligence?)
Thariq Ahamed, a teen afflicted with autism spectrum disorder (a condition related to brain development that impacts behaviour, communication and social interaction) since the age of 4, had cycled to the curfew-imposed Ambagaha junction in Dharga Town on May 25, which had been beefed up by a police checkpoint. As he ventured out, 6-7 policemen garbed in civvies had accosted to manhandle him. Thrusting the onslaught to an aggravated assault, two grown men who arrived at the scene in a trishaw had joined the wallop in broad daylight. The following are excerpts of a twitter thread posted by former MP Ali Zahir Moulana who visited Thariq in person:
“…Thariq was first stopped and accosted by a policeman in civvies and pushed violently off his bicycle. Thariq, being autistic, was not able to effectively communicate who he was and what he was doing there. According to his father, he was visibly terrified and disoriented. As he was pulled to his feet, another five policemen walked up and started brutally assaulting him, including slapping him across the face and blows to his head and torso. He was then dragged across the road towards the checkpoint and a nearby petrol station where two civillians, who stopped by in a three-wheeler, joined the police in assaulting him. All the while, he was sobbing unintelligibly, given his circumstances, which further infuriated the police. His hands were then tied behind his back as he was trying to struggle free and tied against a post under a tree by the checkpoint. Several passersby who stopped to witness the onslaught, included a man on a motorcycle who knew Thariq and his father who thereafter proceeded to immediately fetch him to the checkpoint. When the father arrived, he immediately rushed to his son and pleaded with the officers to release him, explaining his son’s medical condition. The officers then verbally abused him and upon realising his child was in fact mentally-ill, allowed him to take his son away after forcing the father to agree that the fault was his in letting his son out of the house.”
“The father, out of the fear of reprisal from the police, was apprehensive to take Thariq to hospital that day as he was threatened by the police. After pressure from those who heard about the assault, he proceeded to the local police station to lodge a complaint. He was told the mistake was his in letting his son leave the house and no further action was taken. He then proceeded to the office of the Assistant Superintendent, who was in charge of that area police division. A written complaint was taken down, but it became obvious that no action would be taken. Thereafter, through the assistance of others, he was able to bring it to the attention of the Deputy Inspector General of the Kalutara District, who then passed along instructions for the boy to be medically examined. Thariq, his father and a policeman then went to meet the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) at the Nagoda Hospital in Kalutara. Upon examining the boy, the JMO passed on vile comments to the cop: “Why did you bring him here? He should be sent to Angoda. His kind (Muslims) is the reason why we are all wearing masks today. He deserved this and they should all be punished. I will show them.” The JMO proceeded to refer Thariq to the psychiatrist at the hospital, recommending that he be institutionalised at the National Institute of Mental Health in Angoda, as he had not taken his medication for several weeks. However, the JMO did not inquire Thariq nor his father whether or not he had taken medication. To their luck, the consultant psychiatrist happened to be the doctor whom Thariq had been channeling for years. Thereafter, he was prescribed his usual medication and discharged from hospital… It is important to note that police brutality has been common in Sri Lanka for a while. It is only now, with the advent of social media and other technology, that police too have become more aware and are attempting to curtail such violence.”
"COVID-19-struck world gripped with pandemic of racism"
Grim and ghastly as it is, the tragedy rippled shockwaves across international media outlets and one of them, The Straits Times, penned an article headlined ‘Sri Lanka probes ‘racist’ police assault on autistic teen’ in which it spewed out the following: “…The 14-year-old boy from the minority Muslim community had been stopped at a checkpoint at the southern town of Aluthgama where police allegedly beat him up for violating a curfew last week. The coastal town of Aluthgama, south of Colombo, is a flashpoint for inter-communal unrest. Three Muslims were killed during mob violence blamed on Buddhist nationalists in June 2014.”
One may argue the article’s title fuels racist (and xenophobic) rhetoric, but the answer to a question of having substantiated evidence to support such an argument could be drawn from the racial prejudice and disposition of relevant police officers as well as the blasphemous and profane discourse by the JMO who kept ranting and raving over Thariq’s religion which was unwarranted. Another school of thought by those who hold “chauvinistic” and “anti-Muslim” sentiments is that Thariq’s father shirked his responsibility in assuring his son adhered to curfew regulations, which deviates from the crux of the matter: Brutally assaulting an autistic child! And others who field a barrage of irate tweets astonishingly keep mum about how mourners contravened social-distancing etiquette at the funeral proceedings of Ceylon Workers Congress (CMC) leader Arumugam Thondaman.
"Tragedy rippled shockwaves across international media outlets"
However, before the assault on Thariq propelled into limelight, the COVID-19-struck world was gripped with a pandemic of racism following the death of George Floyd on May 25. The 46-year-old Afro-American who was arrested in Minneapolis died after Derek Chauvin, a white policeman, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes while he was lying face-down handcuffed on the street. While this grisly incident sparked a wave of protests themed ‘Black Lives Matter’ in most parts of the world, Sri Lankans too voiced solidarity and took a firm stance against police brutality and racial profiling in the US. While the efforts made by all communities including fellow Sri Lankans who diametrically opposed to racism and police brutality need to be lauded, we should contemplate as to whether the injustices meted out to both Thariq and Floyd were calculated using the same yardstick, predominantly on the grounds of racial profiling and police brutality, neither due to the fact that both events coincided (May 25) nor because one was domestic and the other foreign.
"Sri Lanka has documented rampant extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths"
Adding insult to injury, an appalling incident was reported from Elpitiya over the weekend where cops had taken hostage a 14-year-old child until his father surrendered to police to be interrogated over an incident where he had allegedly bought a stock of stolen cinnamon, thereby flouting Article 13 of the Constitution subject to provisions of freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention/punishment and prohibition of retroactive penal legislation, as Sri Lanka does not sanction taking children hostage in a bid to encourage suspects of a case to report to law enforcement authorities. The more such events receive full glare of publicity, the weaker public confidence in police and regaining the trust of the people is nigh impossible.
As a country that has registered a dark past of extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths, relevant local authorities should act to ensure police brutality and racial profiling are shunned permanently, not merely when they are in office and calling the shots. Just as much as we lend a patient hearing to the woes and grievances of those nestling in foreign territory, let us continue to fight against violent extremism, religious bigotry and institutional racism in Sri Lanka in the pursuit to achieve sustainable peace and religious pluralism. Let us accentuate the rampant injustices taking place in our country and speak up for the underprivileged, distressed and downtrodden. Let us give voice to the voiceless. Let us ensure we are a sovereign state and robust democracy that fosters social cohesion and interfaith harmony whilst respecting freedom of speech and cultural diversity. Let us rise like a phoenix from the ashes and soar to great heights as one country to ensure Sri Lanka is secure in itself and confident of its place in the world!