By Rajan Hoole –
It is often the case that good intentions are derailed by a Government succumbing to paranoia and resorting to unlawful methods. Also contributing to this derailment are the public, the opposition and civil society, who, though in a better position to reflect on realities calmly, fail to exert a corrective influence. The second half of 1995 marked a crucial period during which the Kumaratunge government began using the Police in a manner that foreshadowed steady deterioration and by the year 2000 the Police Force was in shambles. It is well to remember that the public, opposition and the media who protest loudly today, at that time, in 1995, encouraged these same tendencies.
1994 to 1995
Going back, the first major human rights crisis faced by the PA government was the appearance of about 22 corpses in lakes and waterways around Colombo. This happened over a few weeks from mid-May 1995, after the LTTE recommenced the war. The President ordered an inquiry. To the relief of many the CID did a good job of it. It was found that the corpses were of Tamils tortured and strangled at the STF HQ in Bullers Road, where the Commandant, DIG Lionel Karunasena, had his office. The details were revealed by the IGP Rajaguru at a press conference at the end of August. Karunasena was transferred out. However, legal proceedings against the culprits were pursued unconvincingly and quietly dropped. But even this much was remarkable after 15 years of lawlessness. The failure to pursue the matter, however, once more underscored the fact that impunity will continue – this too was what the Press and the elite who spoke for the public then wanted.
Before going into the developments, we refer to two press items. The first is the article by a Senior Gazetted Officer titled ‘Police Commemoration Day’ which appeared in the Island of 5.9.94 to which reference was made in Chapter 18. It described the preferential treatment with financial rewards given to officers who led the way in mass murder during the late 1980s. It named 3 persons as gentlemanly victims sent out of the Force to make way for the meteoric rise of others. These three were Senior DIG W.B. Rajaguru and SSPs A.J. Iddamalgoda and Kingsley Wickremasooriya. All three were taken back by the PA government as Senior DIGs.
The Island writer made a strong case for DIG G.B. Kotakadeniya. He was posted to the Southern Range as DIG during the JVP insurgency in 1987. Discovering a large number of prisoners herded into cells at Hambantota in very inhuman conditions, he ordered the SSP to release those against whom there were no charges. For this, he was within two days transferred to the North Western Range. At Gampaha Police Station, he discovered that three young girls had been detained for 1 1/2 months without a matron and that even their statements had not been recorded. Realising that they had been used as ‘sex slaves’, he ordered them bailed out. For having acted according to the law, the political bosses demoted him to SSP and sent him on 1 1/2 years’ compulsory leave. Although exonerated and reinstated, he became junior to the SSP in Hambantota whom he had checked. The HQI in Gampaha who had detained the girls illegally, was found guilty by the Supreme Court in a fundamental rights petition filed by the girls, but he was then promoted and held the rank of SSP in 1994. The writer urged the new government as a top priority to use the “few genuine and honest” officers left in the Force to revamp its image and to “ease the vitriolic situation”.
The PA government gave prominence to the 4 officers mentioned. Rajaguru became IGP in July 1995 and Kotakadeniya was in that month made DIG (Metropolitan) – a highly sensitive posting. The situation 5 years later was described by Tassie Seneviratne in his Sunday Times column (11.10.99 and 2.4.2000) in these terms: “Notable upsurge in criminal activities, collapse of the rule of law, underworld gangs, gun culture and drug barons!… A recent United Nations human rights development report titled ‘The Crisis of Governance’ has revealed that 83 per cent of Sri Lankans thought the Police Department the most corrupt state machinery…
“Today there is no semblance of leadership in the police service. Those at the top are only concerned with their positions and perks and are not interested in their colleagues and subordinates or in serving the public. They, including the IGP, are blaming each other for the deteriorating standards in the Police and are levelling allegations of corruption against one another in public. The lack of espirit de corps in the top brass is seeping through the rank and file and the Police Service is fast disintegrating.”
How serious this situation is would not become apparent until one examines the situation today of Tamils in Colombo. The war has drawn many Tamils from rural areas into Colombo for a variety of practical reasons. Those coming from the North have to come with a valid passport as it were – a permit to stay in Colombo. This has resulted in much corruption in the Police and many desperate people bribe their way into Colombo without permits, so making themselves doubly vulnerable, and becoming further subject to extortion and harassment by the Police in Colombo.
Even those with valid permits are taken in on the pretext of investigation, and when produced before the magistrate, a detention order under the PTA sought by the police officer is virtually rubber stamped by him. This discretion which the Police enjoy by default is, as mentioned, used for extortion. Although certain police stations, e.g. Kotahena, have been notorious for torture and extortion, nothing has been done for years.
Lodges taking in Tamils coming to Colombo are supposed to be registered. But the Police prefer them unregistered so that they get regular payments from lodge keepers, who have also been known to provide rooms for nefarious activities by policemen. The lodgers are also more vulnerable to arrest, extortion and worse. This system places unconnected Tamil women coming to Colombo in an unenviable plight. They become powerless when they or members of their family are taken away on the pretext of interrogation, which has been known to take place in rooms of lodges. Testimony comes from people who have seen disturbing things, and are themselves frightened. The victims themselves would not talk about it. But we can be quite sure that the term ‘sex slave’ used in connection with the incident referred to above during the Southern insurgency, would also be quite descriptive of the fate confronting several rural Tamil women in Colombo at present.
The fact of the matter is that when the Police are notoriously corrupt, high-level ministerial and parliamentary committees are of no avail. For a victim to complain to someone there should be a fair guarantee of redress and security. It also entails there being a section of the Police interested in monitoring such corrupt practices and bringing errant officers to justice. These conditions, alas, do not exist.
*To be continued.. next week “Fall-out from the Navaly Bombing : The Mulder Affair”
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here