It is quite inane for government officials to say that no politician influences the police. Even in this land of impossible fairy tales, with proposed airports, cricket stadiums and expressways jostling each other in flagrant mockery of commonsense while basic governance flounders from the management of the economy, the pitiable state of education and the rampant rapes of children, such claims can only evoke considerable hilarity.
Extreme degeneration of law and order
The most recent such assertion is made by Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who vehemently insists that the Inspector General of Police has been afforded the full reach of the law to arrest the culprits responsible for crime. He of course, denies that there is a high crime rate in the country.
These unconvincing disclaimers struck me even more forcibly than normal a few days ago when two brothers from the South, Muslim in ethnicity, came desperately seeking legal advice regarding a sequence of events that should not surprise anyone familiar with similar stories. Nevertheless these accounts still give rise to shock and awe at the extreme level of degeneration of law and order that we can see.
No ‘terrorists’ were involved here, depriving the police of a convenient excuse. Instead, this was a simple take of absolute greed illustrating yet again the precise nexus between the underworld, sections of the police and powerful politicians.
Regular police officers ‘mortally afraid to interfere’
A business venture between two individuals had gone wrong as is wont to happen at times, particularly when unreasonable commissions are demanded by one party. But what took this case out of the ordinary was when two weeks later after the falling out, one businessman was lured out his house and in full public glare, was bundled into a white van where he was mercilessly assaulted by the competing businessman enraged in being deprived of his ‘cut’, along with several other thugs. The assault victim was later taken to the nearbye police station and put into a cell, curiously enough, not by the regular police officers attached to that station following procedure but by his tormentors in violation of all procedures.
As was related in pithy Sinhalese, these thugs are ‘backed by a senior ranking police officer in that area who in turn, has the backing of a prominent area politician. The thugs are therefore ruling the roost at the police station with other police officers mortally afraid to intervene.’ That next morning and without even a bare inquiry as to why the arrest had been made, this unfortunate man was taken before a magistrate who did not bother to inquire as to the basis of the arrest nor as to whether he had been assaulted. He was then let out on bail.
Interestingly, there is a particular feature which distinguishes this case from many similar stories. After complaints to senior ranking police officers had been disregarded, the victim put his case before the IGP. After inquiry, the IGP satisfied himself as to the merit of the complaint and minuted that this was a ‘very bad case’ where the victim had been ‘framed’ by the relevant senior police officer. The Deputy Inspector General of Police, under whose supervisory jurisdiction the offending police station was placed, was directed to take necessary action. However, all consequent inquiries proved to be futile as the offending police officer declined to appear, sending instead his subordinates who pleaded ignorance of the entire sordid episode. Now the victim is compelled to hire lawyers and journey periodically to court to defend himself against a false charge lodged by the police without a shred of evidence. That too, while his complaint remains ignored.
Not an exception to the rule
Certainly, this case is not the exception to the rule. Any public official who maintains that Sri Lanka’s police is not susceptible to political influence is engaging in the most ridiculous of boasts. This is not to say that the police force, in its entirety, is tainted. Rather, this influence comes at certain levels and in certain contexts. The consequent result is to completely subvert the command authority of the police. Directions issued by the IGP have negligible impact on abusive police officers who are protected by their powerful political patrons.
And as practice has shown us, police intimidate victims by lodging false cases against them. This abuse of power is not subjected to effective oversight either by the Inspector General of Police, the Attorney General or, for that matter, by the magistrate. It is a relevant legal question, at least in regard to the first two public officers mentioned above, as to whether their non-action amounts to disregard of their duties in law.
Political stranglehold on the police
Meanwhile, the ability of the National Police Commission (NPC) or the National Human Rights Commission as constituted under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, to intervene in these instances is minimal. Even if there was political will on the part of these Commissions to act, (which is by no means, an automatic assumption), their directions will only be airily ignored by the abusers. To all intents and purposes, the NPC has a much publicized Public Complaints Procedures which is violated in all its respects by such police actions. However, the impact of these Procedures is virtually non-existent.
Indeed, the Supreme Court itself has limited power given the stranglehold that politicians maintain over the police. Not so long ago, the Court professed its amazement at the manner in which a notoriously errant police officer had, despite his various infringements, risen steadily through the police ranks as a result of political blessings bestowed on him (M.D. Nandapala Vs Sergeant Sunil (R 11834) and others, SCM, 27/04/20090. This again, is just one of many such instances. Our case books are littered with similar judicial reprimands.
Limits to the long arm of the law
In the face of all this body of evidence irrefutably to the contrary, claims that the IGP’s line of command has been undisturbed by politicians deserve the strongest possible condemnation. On the contrary, political influence extends down the line, targeting selected police officers in a manner that ensures that justice can never be done when powerful political interests are involved. Thus we may have exceptional instances, such as the recent murder conviction of the accused in what is popularly known as the ‘Royal Park murder case’ but rest assured that the long arm of the law stops at justice being served when political power is in issue.
These claims also challenge retired senior police officers who objected vociferously to the establishment of the National Police Commission in 2001 on the basis that the IGP’s powers would be weakened and who also take exception to the Supreme Court’s interventions against police abuse on the basis that affidavit evidence is not the best way to inquire into the factual realities of a particular disputed incident. Effectively they are put on their mettle to engage in more forthright critiques as to the political corruption of the police line of command in the current context.
Spurious claims that politicians do not interfere with the police need to be treated with the contempt that they deserve. What we need is the Department of the Police to be delinked from the Ministry of Defence as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Yet we may as well ask for the moon if we expect this recommendation to be honoured. And we may also ask ourselves that further question from our own conscience ‘if this is the state of affairs in the South, what kind of misery do people of Tamil ethnicity continue to suffer in the North and East?”