Colombo Telegraph

Political Patronage Of Criminals & Police Dilemmas

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Law Enforcement and the Security Services: Politicisation and Demoralisation – 8

The assassin of Vijaya Kumaratunga was in police custody and was killed off. The Commission looking into the assassination found the Police guilty of killing the assassin to cover up for Premadasa. The truth about the Police action, as we reliably understand, was ironic. One element in the Police action was revenge for the assassin having killed one police officer and injuring another.

There was also another important element. Several senior police officers involved in anti- JVP operations did believe that Premadasa, first prime minister and later president, was in league with the JVP, particularly with regard to eliminating his rivals in the UNP. They also believed that the link was through Somawansa Amarasinghe, a member of the JVP politburo who was Minister Sirisena Cooray’s brother-in- law. There was no evidence for this belief. It was a gut-feeling founded on circumstantial factors. Many would today dismiss these suggestions as ridiculous. Wherever the truth may lie, one must keep these beliefs in mind to understand how people thought and acted during that crucial era.

These police officers believed that key persons arrested by them, whether JVP operatives or underworld figures, may in time be released through political influence. One police officer said, “You may not approve of this, but if you want to fight crime in this country, you cannot do it through the courts. Almost every leading underworld figure has a powerful politician as patron, and it makes it very difficult to pin them down in court.” Good examples are Sothi Upali and Gonawela Sunil. The latter was convicted for rape and was released from prison by Jayewardene under an amnesty specially designed for him.

Police officers who were disgusted with the collusion between the UNP government and criminals were quick to become disillusioned with the PA government, which was newly elected in 1994. A police officer on election duty in the Badulla District met with the party of a PA candidate. Going a little further, he discovered that the brother of UNP candidate Wickremaratne had been badly beaten by the party he had passed. The incident was recorded in the investigation book by the local area inspector. The victim died about the same time that the assailant was installed as deputy minister. The latter charged the inspector who did his duty with maliciously making a false report. Justice was stalled.

Police officers identified several prominent PA men with gangland connections, although they were not allowed the same freedom that their UNP counterparts had during UNP rule. One cannot say for how long this will remain true. A recent case just before the October 2000 general elections is probably just the tip of the iceberg. A new van belonging to a businessman was stolen at a traffic light junction in Colombo by thugs who beat up the driver. Much later it was recovered by the Police along with other stolen vehicles and returned. The Police said that the vehicle had been used for election campaigning by a PA minister and they will not be filing charges. In this situation, several police officers opine that since it is impractical to fight crime by eliminating politicians who harbour criminals, the next best thing is to eliminate hard core criminals against whom there is considerable evidence. As with Vijaya Kumaratunge’s assassin, even under the PA, one now and then hears of a well-known criminal dying after a reported gun-battle or an escape attempt.

The fact that many policemen justify extra- judicial measures has its roots in the criminalisation of the State. Although the elite as a protected group are often not unhappy with extra-judicial measures, they are no recipe for the goals of justice, equality and social harmony. Take for instance two examples, both of which are part of this country’s experience.

During the late 1980s an important hospital in this country was affected by JVP-instigated strike action. Employees and then doctors walked out. The Police went there and could make no impact. Patients hardly in a state to move and mothers on the point of delivery dragged themselves out of the hospital. Police officers watching this felt very angry. They made inquiries and obtained the names of two employees identified as the ring leaders. Through the hospital authorities their addresses were obtained. They were ‘neutralised’ and there were no further strikes. This is the kind of action members of the elite have approvingly described as ‘fighting fire with fire’.

But then the PA government that followed has been given little credit for greater democratic tolerance, although similar situations have been created. This time, most ironically, by the Government Medical Officers’ Association, who struck for demands going contrary to the Government’s political programme of devolving power to the regions. Many in the same class of people who approved of ‘fighting fire with fire’ were at least uncomfortable when the Police so much as questioned the GMOA leaders. Extra-judicial measures therefore work – and then no more than temporarily – only with people from the vulnerable classes. In the long run they will lead to violent social upheaval. The justification for extra-judicial measures is inter-twined with the criminalisation of politics and as long as the ruling class is happy to canvass mafia bosses and gangsters to join political parties, and the others remain complacent about it, this state of affairs will continue.

*To be continued.. Next week –Magistrates – The Weak Link in Policing

*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

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