- The police explanations of killings have the same old hackneyed excuse. Almost all suspects have tried to grab a weapon from the cops when they were taken to recover hidden weapons. In other instances, some have tried to escape, jumping to rivers with their handcuffs on.
- This has effectively fostered a culture of impunity, which during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration hit its zenith, culminating in the Welikada prison massacre, where inmates were allegedly singled out and executed according to a kill list, as it was alleged by the survivors.
The whole story is an embodiment of a culture of impunity so deep-rooted that nothing matters anymore.
A suspect, Tharaka Perera Wijesekera alias Kosgoda Tharaka, an underworld kingpin who was in the custody of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was suddenly transferred to the custody of a special police unit in Peliyagoda. His lawyers fearing that his client would be killed informed the Bar Association Sri Lanka (BASL) about the danger to the life of his client. Acting on the complaint, the President of the BASL, informed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana Wickremeratne that a suspect in police custody is about to be killed, and reminding the Police chief that the Police and the State have a duty to protect persons in their custody. The attorney of the suspect also made separate representations to the IGP, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and the Director CID.
Alas! so much for all those pleas, the suspect was killed while in police custody on the same night, ostensibly ‘when he tried to attack police while recovering some weapons’.
The previous day, another suspect, Melon Mabula alias ‘UruJuwa’ met with the same fate, a day after he was arrested by the Nawagamuwa police, and his lawyers had pleaded for the life of their client. The suspect was taken to Wanduramulla where he was killed.
The police explanations of killings have the same old hackneyed excuse. Almost all suspects have tried to grab a weapon from the cops when they were taken to recover hidden weapons. In other instances, some have tried to escape, jumping to rivers with their handcuffs on.
Both suspects who were killed last week were known underworld figures. Kosgoda Tharaka was in remand custody for several murders and was later transferred to the custody of the CID after he was accused of masterminding a large drug trafficking operation from his prison cell.
Suspects’ lives of criminality are often deemed as a justification for extra-judicial punishments. The implicit understanding behind the killings is that the judiciary is either incapable or too slow in holding the high profile criminals to account.
This has effectively fostered a culture of impunity, which during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration hit its zenith, culminating in the Welikada prison massacre, where inmates were allegedly singled out and executed according to a kill list, as it was alleged by the survivors.
In December 2019, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ruled that the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in police custody violated the right to life and ordered the State to pay Rs. One million to the dependents of the deceased. In the case of Rathnayake Tharanga Lakmali v Niroshan Abeykoon, the petitioner, the wife of the deceased claimed that her husband’s arrest and detention was illegal and that he was subject to cruel and inhuman treatment and that he was killed by the police.
The court ruled that the police has violated the right to life of the deceased, and observed that even though the Constitution of Sri Lanka does not explicitly recognise a right to life, it has been held that Article 11 (freedom from torture) read with Article 13(4) (freedom from arbitrary punishment) recognises, by necessary implication, a right to life.
“It is the State’s responsibility to protect every citizen of this country. In the instant case, I find that the State has failed its responsibility and has violated the Fundamental Rights of the deceased,” Justice S. Thurairaja ruled with the rest of the bench agreeing. The court ordered the State to pay Rs. One million to the deceased’s wife and four respondents, all police officers were also ordered to pay Rs. 250,000 each to the petitioner.
However, the Supreme Court ruling had done little to deter a culture of custodial death.
October last year, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the IGP about the increasing number of custodial deaths. That was after the killing of Samarasinghe Arachchilage Mudush Laksitha, another underworld kingpin who was transferred from his original detention to the Colombo Crime Division. When the suspect was transferred, the HRCSL wrote to the IGP informing that the suspect’s life was in danger and urged him to take precautionary measure. On the following day, the suspect was killed.
At that time, HRCSL noted that there had been at least eight custodial deaths during the last four months.
The HRCSL itself was emasculated after the passage of the 20th amendment, which placed appointments of commissioners to the commission at the discretion of the president. After a set of new commissioners were appointed by the President, HRCSL has been muted. Its new President is Jagath Balasuriya, a Rajapaksa acolyte and a former Minister of the ruling party.
Nor does Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President, who at best has a chequered human rights record, seem to think such checks and balances are needed for a civilized country.
He pardoned a soldier who was found guilty of the murder of several civilians, including children, and has now brought a Parliamentary motion to dismiss over 75 cases, including cases that deal with charges of gross human rights abuses and potential war crimes, which are blamed on individuals of his inner circle and corruption and nepotism blamed on his extended family and cronies.
Sri Lanka has a long-running problem with custodial deaths, just as its grim record of extra-judiciary killings, which were the byproduct of the two insurgencies in the South and the North. However, the recent spike in custodial deaths smacks as if they were politically sanctioned. The audaciousness of the killings cannot be explained otherwise.
However, these are the worst possible times for old habits of predation to resurface. As the rest of the world is busy fighting the Coronavirus pandemic, and lockdowns and other restrictions keep dissents in check, a complicit state now has a carte blanche. If those temptations for summary justice are not reined, instead of courts, many more suspects will wretchedly end up in rivers with their handcuffs on.
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