In a scathing indictment against police inaction during the communal violence in three districts in the North Western Province and Minuwangoda, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in a letter to the Inspector General of Police claims that police had been present while mobs congregated after curfew was imposed.
In a letter to Police Chief Chandra Wickramaratne, HRCSL Chairperson Dr Deepika Udagama said local police stations had called for reinforcements of STF and extra personnel “very late”, allowing “Mobs to go on the rampage, causing severe damage to property and livelihood while villagers fled in fear to save their lives.
According to the HRCSL Chairman, in Bandara Koswatte the mob attacked the main mosque despite police and army presence.
The letter to the IGP added that in Kottampitiya, police had asked villagers to move off the main roads because of possible attacks, but had failed to prevent the mobs from attacking the village.
“You will recognise that this is a very unacceptable situation to say the least, whereby vulnerable civilians had to fend for themselves.”
The commission has therefore recommended that police take heed of early warning signs, including complaints and appeals by residents, and take preventive action when there is even the slightest hint of communal unrest. “This includes providing reinforcement to those areas early, not after the event,” the letter said.
HRCSL also urged the IGP to urgently provide crowd control training and necessary equipment such as tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and water cannons in a manner that is easily accessible to provincial police stations.
The Chairperson said the IGP should also instruct OICs of the need to strictly enforce Section 3 of the ICCPR Act No.56 of 20O7 in relation to those who are inciting communal violence, to ensure that no undue political or other external interventions are tolerated and that strict legal action be taken against those who obstruct police officers from performing their duties
“Given the unsatisfactory situations we observed, which clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public, by subverting the law taking its proper course, we recommend that you take immediate corrective action,” the letter reads.
The letter added that as gathered from eye witness accounts when suspected persons were arrested, crowds gathered outside the police station demanding release of such persons.
“The police have the authority to disperse such crowds when they are obstructing its officers from performing their legal duties. On the contrary, what we observed at the Bingiriya Police Station was that the suspects had been moved to the Hettipola Police Station owing to a crowd demanding their release, and then retransferred back to the Bingiriya Police Station when the suspects were released on police bail for mischief,” the letter said.
According to Dr Udagama, records of the Bingiriya police station has indicated that while the suspects had been taken in for engaging in communal riots (bailable only in exceptional circumstances by the High Court) they had been released on police bail for mischief, as stated above. Further, we noted that there was no record of transfer of suspects from Bingiriya to Hettipola and back.
“This very problematic situation is compounded by allegations of political interference,” she said.
The HRCSL upon visiting the affected areas has observed the lack of preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks of 21 April.
Hundreds of shops and homes belonging to Muslims were vandalised or burnt in communal unrest that spread through areas of the North Western Province and Minuwangoda on May 13 and 14. At least one person was killed in the violence that police said appeared to be politically motivated and highly organised.