Police are increasingly killing and abusing people under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic measures and an anti-drug campaign, alleges the Washington-based Human Rights Watch.
In statement released from New York the HRW said: Recent police abuses reported in the media include alleged extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detention. The government should restore independent oversight of the police and meaningfully investigate and prosecute alleged police abuses. International partners, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the United Kingdom’s Police Scotland yard, should suspend assistance programs until there is progress on accountability and reform.
“Sri Lanka’s police seem intent on building on their past record of serious abuses, instead of cleaning up their act,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN, the UK, and others working with Sri Lankan law enforcement should recognize that without the political will to reform on Sri Lanka’s part, their engagement risks appearing to endorse abusive agencies.”
Since May 2021, the police have been implicated in several unlawful deaths, including some linked to disproportionate and abusive enforcement of Covid-19 quarantines.
On May 17, police allegedly stopped D. Sunil Indrajith, 49, for violating a Covid-19 quarantine in Weligama and ordered a civilian police employee to beat him. He collapsed on the road and was killed by a passing bus. The incident was captured on CCTV, and two policemen and two others were subsequently arrested.
On June 3, Chandran Vidushan, 22, died in police custody shortly after being arrested in Batticaloa. His family alleged that police tied him to a tree outside their house and severely beat him with poles, then took him away. The authorities said that he died of a drug overdose.
On June 6, Mohamed Ali, 42, died after police arrested him for an alleged quarantine violation in Panadura, near Colombo. The police reported that he was fatally injured jumping from a moving police jeep. Ali’s wife alleged that the police beat him to death. Two policemen are reportedly facing a disciplinary procedure for “negligence.”
Police abuses have also been linked to a government crackdown on “the drug menace.” Police fatally shot Melon Mabula on May 11, and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera, on May 12. Both were in police custody for alleged involvement in organized crime, where lawyers and others had warned that their lives were in danger. In a statement the Bar Association of Sri Lanka said that both cases “have all the hallmarks of extra-judicial killings.”
In 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa established a task force of senior military and police officers to create a “disciplined, virtuous, and lawful society,” and placed the police and National Dangerous Drugs Control Board under the Defense Ministry. In February 2020, the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva, who is banned from visiting the United States due to his alleged involvement in unlawful wartime killings, said, “The security forces, which eradicated terrorism in the country 10 years ago, have been given a new task– to combat –drug trafficking.”
The police crackdown on drug dealers and users has allegedly involved planting drugs on suspects, torture and other ill-treatment in police custody or at “rehabilitation” centers, and invasive body searches of female suspects. Trafficking or possession of drugs in Sri Lanka carries severe penalties, including death or life in prison. No executions have been carried out in Sri Lanka since 1976, although death sentences continue to be handed down and about 1,500 prisoners are on death row.
People accused of using drugs can be arbitrarily detained without charge or trial for “rehabilitation” in facilities run by the army. A new report by Harm Reduction International found that the treatment of inmates in Sri Lanka’s “rehabilitation” centers includes near-daily beatings and other physical abuse amounting to torture.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in her report to the UN Human Rights Council in January, wrote that she was “concerned by a recent series of deaths in police custody and in the context of police encounters with alleged criminal gangs” amid a “militarised approach to law and order and drug control.” She highlighted five possible extrajudicial killings involving the Sri Lankan police between June and October 2020.
Police officers who investigate alleged crimes by the security forces face threats and prosecution on trumped-up charges. Senior Superintendent of Police Shani Abeysekera, who had investigated numerous high-profile cases, including the successful prosecution of a senior police officer for the contract killing of a businessman in 2013, was suspended by the new Rajapaksa administration in January 2020 and arrested in July 2020 for falsifying evidence.
He was released on bail in June 2021 after the Court of Appeal found that the evidence against him was “a fabricated, false version and an exaggerated account or concocted story involving a set of collaborators or conspirators, to unduly cause prejudice and harm.” While in prison he contracted Covid-19 and had a heart attack. He has repeatedly said that, although he has received death threats against him and his family, his police protection has been withdrawn.
The current police abuses come in a context of shrinking civil and political space under the Rajapaksa administration. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has condemned the police’s use of the Covid-19 pandemic to curtail freedom of expression, including detaining peaceful protesters at a quarantine facility in July.
Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies receive international support from various countries. The UK government through Police Scotland provides police training. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime supports Sri Lankan counterterrorism units, which have long faced allegations of grave rights violations, as well as counter narcotics programs.
International partners should suspend their engagement with abusive Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies until there is demonstrated political will to address the situation, Human Rights Watch said. Such assistance risks appearing to endorse or lend legitimacy to agencies that are unwilling to improve their respect for human rights.
UN agencies should ensure that any engagement with Sri Lankan security forces complies with the “human rights due diligence policy on United Nations support to non-United Nations security forces” and the UN common position on drug policy.
“The Rajapaksa government needs to demonstrate that alleged police abuses will be properly investigated and prosecuted, and the law should promote accountability, not weaken it,” Ganguly said. “Until that happens, international partners should be under no illusions about human rights in Sri Lanka, and they should withhold assistance to abusive law enforcement agencies.
President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer
Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.
General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.
General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.
He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.
“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.
The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.
“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.
The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.
“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.
Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan
Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.
“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.
The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.
“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.
The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.
“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.
MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.
“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.
Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution
‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration’
UNHRC 48th sessions:
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.
Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.
Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.
Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.
Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.
The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.
The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.
Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint
Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.
Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.
Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.
Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.
Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.
Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.
Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.
Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.
Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.
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