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POLICE ON TRIAL: Exercising Authority without Accountability

10 November 2022 01:47 am - 21     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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“Police officers don’t believe that they are ever going to be held accountable for what they do on the streets”


Police breaking up a protest at the Parliament roundabout in July, 2021. 
Pic by Kithsiri de Mel


 

  • Officers are rarely prosecuted for misconduct, including the brutal use of force on citizens. In rare cases, officers found guilty are given minor disciplinary punishments or given warnings.
  • The NPC received a total of Rs.127, 764, 000 budgetary allocation in 2018 which was more than double what it had received in the year 2015 -- Rs.47, 030, 000. However, statistics indicate that the commission has failed to fulfil one of the complementary functions -- transforming the Sri Lanka Police into an efficient, transparent, and responsive service that upholds Human Rights, ensures public accountability, and adheres to the Rule of Law.
  • According to information obtained through an RTI by the writer, the rate of complaints at NPC being stuck with no progress has been increasing over the last five years. From the 2017 to June 30, 2022 time period, the total numbers of unsolved complaints were 5, 21, 96, 276, 1344, and 713, respectively. When asked about the delay, the NPC blamed the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • It revealed that mechanisms to hold State actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved; and even institutions to protect the Independence of the Judiciary have been eviscerated.


 

Nine Thousand Two Hundred Ninety Five (9295). That is the number of public complaints that have been lodged against Sri Lanka Police with the National Police Commission (NPC) during the last five years. These complaints include cases of unlawful arrest, false charges, assault, torture, partiality, abuse of power, as well as Police inaction. 

 

This number on record is small compared to the actual number of incidents taking place on the streets of Sri Lanka daily. Even with this high number of reported cases of Police violence and misconduct, one would expect the conviction rate and solving of complaints to be high as well, since there is a dedicated oversight body named the National Police Commission (NPC) that is responsible for ensuring that the Police are accountable for their acts of violence.   


However, officers are rarely prosecuted for misconduct, including the brutal use of force on citizens. In rare cases, officers found guilty are given minor disciplinary punishments or given warnings. “Police officers don’t believe that they are ever going to be held accountable for what they do on the streets,” Basil Fernando, Director for Policy and Programme, Asian Human Rights Commission, said.   

 


Increasing rate of unsolved cases 

Although armed with the power of the State and empowered to use force against ordinary citizens, Police is accountable like any organization or any ordinary citizen. According to the Police Media Spokesman SSP Nihal Thalduwa, Sri Lanka Police also does have an internal system to hear complaints against cops. In fact, internal management mechanisms if well implemented can be a powerful way of holding police officers to account. But is it enough? Has the internal system ever commanded the full confidence of the public?   


The National Police Commission was established under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in October 2015 with a mission to safeguard the public from unlawful action and/or inaction by the Police. Annually more and more public money is being spent to maintain the operations of the NPC only to see the performance of the Commission becoming more questionable over the years.   


According to its Annual Expenditure Reports, the NPC received a total of Rs.127,764,000 budgetary allocation in 2018 which was more than double what it had received in the year 2015 -- Rs.47, 030,000. However, statistics indicate that the commission has failed to fulfil one of the complementary functions -- transforming the Sri Lanka Police into an efficient, transparent, and responsive service that upholds Human Rights, ensures public accountability, and adheres to the Rule of Law. 


According to information obtained through an RTI by the writer, the rate of complaints at NPC being stuck with no progress has been increasing over the last five years. From the 2017 to June 30, 2022 time period, the total numbers of unsolved complaints were 5, 21, 96, 276, 1344, and 713, respectively. When asked about the delay, the NPC blamed the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Even the resolved cases are not technically resolved. A source at the NPC revealed that a considerable number of resolved cases are those in which the aggrieved parties stopped contributing to the inquiry “for reasons best known to them.” When the complainant no longer participates in the inquiry, the NPC stops pursuing such cases due to a “lack of evidence”. These numbers show that Sri Lanka not only inherited the culture of Police brutality from the past but also the acceptance of this kind of unfair behaviour because the Police are not held accountable for their illegal actions.   

 

"The National Police Commission is an eyewash.

When a person’s lungs fail due to respiratory disease, they try to get oxygen from an external machine, which is a temporary method to keep the person alive. The NPC is also like an external oxygen machine.

The root cause of the problems with Police in the country—a lack of strong work culture. I have been observing the performance of NPC since its inception. There is nothing we can say we are happy about this institution. It only has paper power. The Sri Lanka Police is a very powerful institution. What NPC is doing is just public relations work for the Police."

 


Are independent commissions really independent?

Renowned academic Professor Siri Hettige, who had been appointed to the post of the Chairman of the National Police Commission in 2016, didn’t stay in his post for over a year. In January 2017, he resigned, citing an academic commitment. Speaking to the media, Prof. Hettige compared the attempt to overhaul an institution to “similar to rehabilitating an alcoholic.”   


When he was working, he had initiated a series of joint action plans in order to address outstanding issues, including the elimination of corruption and impunity within the NPC. In a brief interview with the Daily Mirror, Prof. Hettige talked about how most of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions have become less independent and less effective over time. “This decline in the independence and effectiveness of the democratic institutions, including the Police and the Public Service, has made these institutions obsolete.”


“When I was Chair, I tried to make a few changes. In fact, I did some initial things which didn’t see the light of the day. Then I resigned,” Prof. Hettige said. He went on to say that there is no point in talking about these Independent Commissions now because they are no longer independent.   


He criticised that under the present system of governance, the rule of law, transparency, and accountability are no longer visible. “The institutional fabric, which is a very important factor in a country, is severely damaged,” he opined.   

 


Sri Lanka Police lacks a strong work culture

In a report titled “Authority without Accountability: the Crisis of Impunity in Sri Lanka,” the International Commission of Jurists revealed in 2021 that in Sri Lanka, impunity has over the years become institutionalised and systematized. It revealed that mechanisms to hold State actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved; and even institutions to protect the Independence of the Judiciary have been eviscerated.   


Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Director for Policy and Programme, Asian Human Rights Commission Attorney at Law, Basil Fernando, said, like other experts in the use of force, minimum force is the first principle. “This is a very important principle to follow because Police officers hold people’s lives in their hands. Their duty is to protect lives, not to take them,” he said.   


“The root cause of the problems with Police in the country—a lack of strong work culture. I have been observing the performance of NPC since its inception. There is nothing we can say we are happy about this institution. It only has paper power. The Sri Lanka Police is a very powerful institution. What NPC is doing is just public relations work for the Police.”   


Attorney Basil Fernando underlined that the NPC lacked the kind of independence to do its job purely in the way the law requires. “The National Police Commission is an eyewash. When a person’s lungs fail due to respiratory disease, they try to get oxygen from an external machine, which is a temporary method to keep the person alive. The NPC is also like an external oxygen machine,” he said.   


He believes that the actual number of Police misconduct cases is nothing compared to the reported cases as victims have no confidence in the NPC to investigate their complaints and take necessary legal action against law-breaking Police officers.   


“If you lodge complaints and see that nothing happens for years, you feel like giving up. Then the NPC says the number of public complaints is lower. In recent times, after the Aragalaya started, a large number of illegal arrests have been taking place in the country. The numbers should be higher than in many previous years.”   
 

To be continued...


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  Comments - 21

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  • hoodwinker Thursday, 10 November 2022 04:03 AM

    Ma' m what an interesting and alarming piece of reading, Thank you DM.

    Citizen Thursday, 10 November 2022 09:45 AM

    Shocking ! Should not some institution like the BASL move the Supreme Court against the National Police Commission ?

    Sokrates Thursday, 10 November 2022 12:04 PM

    In a corrupt country like Sri Lanka it is important that every police officer up to the DIG wears a body cam, including CID. The camera is switched on when duty begins and off when duty ends. All data are to be stored on a common server and at the same time a copy at the NPC. This will change police behavior for the better and reduce corruption.

    jackie Thursday, 10 November 2022 01:21 PM

    When you make a complaint and try to follow-up, first thing you hear is top-up/reload my phone or buy something when you visit me next time. Why don't you all pass an amendment to fix this issue first and promote good values. STOP bribery/corruption from here FIRST

    Aquarius Thursday, 10 November 2022 01:33 PM

    Today's Police in Sri Lanka is just pathetic and disgraceful. Many in high ranks were appointed by politicians and only obey their orders and not applying the law of the country. The NPC is just an eyewash, another tool to deceive the public. Add to that, some judges are "bought" by the corrupt politicians and mafias. Isn't it interesting that those who set fire to the illegal President's house, are on bail and Wasantha and the monk are held under the PTA without any charges?

    Jef Thursday, 10 November 2022 04:04 PM

    Not even Lord Buddha can change the police the invators

    Andrew Silva Friday, 11 November 2022 03:56 AM

    What a shameful picture dragging a old woman by four Police she does not have the strength to resist. Are these Police from hell? They have to be. No Farther, Brother, Son,Mother,Sister or Daughter can do this. Their non of them.

    Mr John Friday, 11 November 2022 09:22 AM

    I am an Australian citizen and my wife is a Srilankan national,I personally are experiencing a case of fraud and I can honestly say that the police are acting as if they are part of the fraud, so too are some members in the legal profession. Ours is an ongoing case so cannot comment too much but we invested over here and honestly can say that it it the worst experience that you can possibly imagine.

    Martin Milton Friday, 11 November 2022 04:09 PM

    Corruption, Lethargy, antinational acts, ineptness have reached massive proportions in Sri Lanka. NOTHING apart from a COMPLETE about turn in Governance bringing in upstanding, intelligent, National minded, courageous stalwarts along with guaranteed stringent punitive treatment of anyone and everyone doing wrong, will bring a halt to this manner of 'sliding towards complete ANARCHY' !! I hope it happens sooner than later. In the present climate even the most 'apparently' trusted groups have suspicious aspects in their manifestos not yet made completely public! Let the Sri Lankan citizenry BEWARE! MM

    DJ Saturday, 12 November 2022 01:49 PM

    When have we ever heard a good word about the Sri Lankan police? Never Very Sad

    L Jaya Sunday, 13 November 2022 04:15 AM

    This is Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Police, No Law and order. Qua Vardis!

    Sunil R. Kuruppu Monday, 14 November 2022 06:43 PM

    Soon it will be time to get good riddance of Sri Lanka's "Idi Amin" from his position as "the most powerful politician in the world" if he does not extend his term with the assistance of police powers. Far from 1 seat "Amin" will have to manage with 0.000 seats where he can rest his sorry buttocks, no, sorry Disneyland fixated head. R.S. Kuruppu

    Gutter politics Monday, 14 November 2022 07:29 PM

    Disgusting scenery. In a so called Buddhist country a woman’s legs parted .

    Marcian Christopher Tuesday, 15 November 2022 01:26 PM

    All this started with the then politics of the country. Firstly with the resigning of Mr. Osmund de Silva who not wanting to carry out a political request of the then Prime Minister allowed his successor to carry out the infamous deed. The the same party government brought into the top post n the force overlooking the Seniors into Force two civilians to the Post of IGP namely a Land Commissioner and another another Civilian Mr.D.B.I.S.Siriwardena. This is where the rot set in and now also the same-thing is happening according to the present IGP a substantial number of OICs in the Police Stations are as per the request of the Phottuwa politicians of the area. So what can you expect from these bootlickers? Implementing of law and order and justice to the citizens of Sri Lanka is like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Recruitment, training and discipline is must after getting rid of political patronage in the Police Force. Till then the citizens will have to griln and bear it.

    Andrew Silva Wednesday, 16 November 2022 04:16 AM

    You don’t need to have training, not I mean not to do a ugly thing like this. It should be common decency. But do any one of these five police officers have it? This is not done even to a wild dog. Are these police trained by the Rajapaksha or Wickramasinghe brand.

    S Jayasinghe Wednesday, 16 November 2022 06:04 PM

    This happened in July 2021! Outdated and meant to mislead the foolish reader

    M Fernando Friday, 18 November 2022 08:04 PM

    Because it happened in July 2021, that makes it okay , right ?

    Wijayasiri Thursday, 17 November 2022 11:55 AM

    Reply to S Jayasinghe My man has not even read the article before leaving a stupid comment. The incident in the photo did happen in July, 2021 as it has clearly mentioned in the caption. And the article is not just about that particular incident. The article delves into the culture of police violence. Next time read the context before leaving stupid comments.

    M Fernando Friday, 18 November 2022 07:59 PM

    The policemen in the picture are National Heroes ! They are defending the country against old ladies - which takes a special brand of courage and strength. You can see it is a very strong old lady that requires four policemen to subdue her Well Done ! All should be given VSV awards

    Decency Monday, 21 November 2022 01:34 PM

    Can DM kindly remove the article or at least remove the picture. It’s so ugly and pathetic to see in a so called Buddhist country an elderly woman’s legs pulled out and been dragged. Is this in Sri Lanka? The tourist will see this ugly incident in paper. Please take it out

    Tommy Tuesday, 22 November 2022 11:36 AM

    Gosh that elderly lady would have to be in bed for months to get her hip-leg joint healed.


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