By Basil Fernando –
The media reported a speech made by the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, wherein he stated quite openly and categorically that the police should make use of the present opportunity and take steps to change. This is a welcome statement in a climate where any kind of positive development in Sri Lanka either in the economic front or in any other area of development requires a radical change in the entire administration of justice, of which the police are integral.
Crisis of law enforcement is the primary crisis in Sri Lanka. Dealing with the problems that prevents proper law enforcement in Sri Lanka remains the ‘Achilles Heel’ for any government that wishes to make a significant change in Sri Lanka.
The present government has come to power promising change. However, there is a widespread disappointment in the speed at which the government is moving and there is a kind of public perception that no significant change has taken place to address the kind of structural disruption that about 40 years of authoritarian rule did to Sri Lanka.
The strategy for authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka, which began with the 1972 Constitution and was achieved with greater intensity through the continued implementation of the 1978 Constitution, was to dismantle the legal structure of Sri Lanka. It was to dismantle it in a manner that allowed the Executive President to do whatever he wished to do, whether his proposed actions were legal or illegal. The basic principles bequeathed by the British in the legal system that they left behind were subtly manipulated to give the impression that no big change had been made in the legal set up. In fact, there was a radical undermining of the entirety of the legal structure taking place. Thus, we need to undo the authoritarian structures constructed by the previous governments to ensure that the basic structure of the rule of law is reprised.
The crisis of law enforcement was a result of the undermining of the basic legal structure of Sri Lanka. The fact that this has been understood by the stakeholders today is a positive step and we hope that the words of the IGP will be put into effect by the institution he represents. We are also happy to put on record that the National Police Commission is also of the view that there should be radical changes to make it possible for the police to function as they are expected to function.
We wish to point out a practical step that can be, and should be, taken urgently as a first step towards creating a functional system. It is the critical evaluation of the role of the Assistant Superintendents of Police (ASPs) in Sri Lanka. The ASPs play the immediate supervisory role over police stations in Sri Lanka. An ASP supervises each police station and, according to the police regulations, the ASPs duties have been enumerated in great detail.
An ASP is expected to visit a police station every week and also to visit the scenes of crimes in all instances of serious crimes. The ASP is expected to look into every aspect within the police stations, for example the cells where the suspects are kept, and the kind of services that are rendered to the suspects being kept inside the police stations. Thus, the legal position is that everything that happens within a police station should be within the strict and direct supervision of an ASP.
However, in the last 40 years this role has been lost and a nexus has developed between the ASPs and the police stations. Gradually the role of the ASP as a supervising officer responsible for proper carrying out of duties within the police stations was lost, and in many instances the ASPs themselves became a part of the problem of, rather than a solution for, dysfunctional police stations.
There is no provision within the police regulations to hold the ASP accountable. Many of the applications, even for fundamental rights applications and other complaints regarding the police to other institutions, have not taken up the issue of the responsibility of the ASPs regarding these violations.
ASPs are responsible for all the violations that happen within the police stations from the point of view of the command responsibility, because the ASP is a direct link for the command to administer the police stations. One of the clear examples of the failures of ASPs is the extent to which cases of torture are being reported from police stations.
In a recent demonstrations organised by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, it was reported that within the last year there was 314 cases of torture. It is acknowledged that the number of cases that get reported are far less than the actual instances, as most people are afraid to make complaints against the police.
It is not possible for torture to take place in any police station without the ASPs knowing about it. Torture is not an act that can be done in secret, for the simple reason that the even tortured persons make enormous noise and protest against torture. Everyone at a police station knows of the torture that takes place there. An ASP who is the direct supervising officer would be presumed to know every such act of torture that takes place within police station.
Therefore, acts of torture taking place in police stations are an indictment against ASPs who are in charge of those police stations. It means that either they approve this practice of torture at police stations or that they are willing to overlook the issue and to let it happen anyway.
If the IGP’s instructions and exaltations for a change of the police are to have practical value, the very first step that should be taken is a strict examination of the liability of the ASPs for every misdemeanour and crime that takes place within a police station. If the government, the ranking police officers, and the public takes notice of this issue of liability of the ASPs and insists on the due performance of their duties, it is likely that significant change will take place in the manner in which police stations function in Sri Lanka.