The President cannot escape violations of the law under the direct command of certain senior police officers and responsible ministers, on the basis that they are ‘acting independently.’ On the contrary, he has the responsibility to ensure that these abuses do not happen on his watch.

By

Kishali Pinto- Jayawardene

Sri Lanka’s Department of the Police should stop piously quoting provisions of the Constitution and the law and instead, declare the truth without fear or shame, “we do not respect the law; we will break the law at every chance we get; who is there to stop us?”

Systemic State repression of peaceful protests

That honesty will at least, be a tad more refreshing than the nauseating twaddle that the police spokesperson trots out each time a new scandal on the behaviour of Sri Lanka’s ‘brutes in uniform’ breaks. The latest in this long and sorry line of abusive incidents is last week’s horrendous act of a male police officer grabbing a female colleague by the scruff of her neck with several abusive words thrown while thrusting her into a police vehicle along with female protestors who were peacefully demonstrating their right to protest.

There were many things grievously wrong with this incident, not the least of which concerned the legal grounds for the arrest of the female protestors. Apparently, all they were doing was walking along the road from Panadura to Colombo in protest. Pray on what grounds does this constitute an unlawful act?

The modus operandi of the police seems to be to flood the courts with cases against protestors, whether a prima facie basis exists for these arrests or not.

If so, there arises a legal basis for public interest litigation before the Supreme Court, invoking the infringement of constitutional rights, most particularly, equality under the law, freedom of expression and the right to assembly by a collective of hundreds of activists who have suffered as a result. This should be differentiated from individual challenges filed so far on ad hoc abusive actions by the police. The point here is to attack the systemic policy of repression that the State is clearly activating, in violation of the Constitution.

For that, vicarious responsibility at the executive level, a legal ground well established by the Court in the 1990s, goes beyond the Inspector General of Police (IGP) or his subordinates. The core legal issue concerns the actions, directives or punishments that are meted out to police officers who violate the law by the police hierarchy or by the Police Commission which seems to be twiddling its thumbs. There are interesting parallels here.


‘The politics of destabilisation’

Sri Lanka has endured bankruptcy due to the gross idiocies of corrupt rulers. The responsibility for that goes beyond bad economic and fiscal decisions by those in power and their acolytes in the Central Bank, the Monetary Board and elsewhere. That is the core of several fundamental rights challenges ongoing in the Supreme Court.

Similarly, the ‘politics of destabilisation’ of society by the police has reached a stage where a few errant officers cannot be assessed as responsible.

The President cannot escape violations of the law under the direct command of certain senior police officers and responsible ministers, on the basis that they are ‘acting independently.’ On the contrary, he has the responsibility to ensure that these abuses do not happen on his watch.

Yet the contrary continues to be the case.

Recently a popular television quiz show in the United States, watched by millions, asked the question, ‘what was the name of the country whose President fled in the face of peoples’ protests to the Maldives?’

It seemed to be a not very difficult question for the contestants. All that may be history. But it seems as if we have not learnt from our histories, recent or past.

Is the Wickremesinghe Presidency attempting to break all records of his predecessors in office, including the ‘Terminator’ President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who ‘terminated’ his own presidency and fled the country?

Do civil society and the corporate sector justify the arrest, harassment and intimidation of protestors and journalists on the basis of ‘stability’ per se?

Abusers of power in gay collusion

Drivers of the Wickremesinghe-led so-called ‘governance push’ under the ‘yahapalanaya’ label in 2015 which miserably failed, are now frolicking hand and glove with Rajapaksa loyalists who preached racist and communal politics with gay abandon.

They must understand that the Rule of Law and ‘stability’ mutually reinforce each other as the fundamental basis on which a society is governed. Without adherence to the Rule of Law, ‘stability’ is only a bewitching illusion, have we not understood this warning already?
Were the crowds that poured out to the streets in Colombo a few months ago, not sufficient proof of this?

Next time that violence erupts, we will not have nattily clad young girls handing out red roses to the police manning the barricades, lectures on governance at Independence Square or the more idealistic among us planting vegetables at Galle face Green which the police later miraculously converted to ganja stalks.

Of course, given the President’s proposal to allow the cultivation of ganja for exports in his budget which was heavily focused on expenditure for defence to the exclusion of other priorities, one wonders what the fuss was about anyway?

Perhaps the police can direct their attention to collaborating with the ‘aragalaya’ activists to grow ganja, to bring much needed foreign currency to the country. That may be a better use of their time rather than creating news headlines by locking up perfectly peaceful protestors and assaulting female colleagues.

Blatant impunity of brutes in uniform

For the core question is, the blatant impunity with which these actions take place which the Panadura incident speaks to. Regardless of cameras rolling, regardless of eyes watching, this particular chief inspector of the Panadura North Police station had no qualms regarding the ‘manhandling’ of his female colleague. The fact that the Inspector General of Police has ordered the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) to conduct an ‘inquiry’ into this incident, reassures no one.

There are countless such inquiries, directed to be held when the heat of a particular abusive incident becomes too much and then, these matters are quietly dropped.

Moreover there is no necessity for a ‘probe’ on whether the female police officer was abused as the police spokesman sees fit to proclaim in a fit of more than ordinary stupidity. That fact of abuse was in plain sight for all the world to see. Maybe the police spokesman should check his eyesight first and foremost, if he has trouble distinguishing what took place.

His claims that ‘the Sri Lanka Police respects and protects the rights of women’ is more hogwash, to put the matter bluntly. These pronouncements insult the commonsense of citizens.

Which is why I return to my initial admonition, the police should just stop mouthing this nonsense. Bankruptcy to gender abuse, we have no respite from the list of shame that Sri Lanka is getting cited in.

These past few weeks are good illustrations thereof, when a so-called national cricketer becomes embroiled in an unsavoury ‘date rape’ accusation in Australia.

This is not the first of his abuses, reportedly, the consequences of which had been avoided in the past due to protection from his powerful patrons. Hot on the heels of that shame comes these incidents in Panadura during a peaceful protest which should have just been allowed to continue on its way. Is the thinking of the Government to control protests by such brutal tactics?

If so, that belief is misplaced. Next time, violence spilling over on Sri Lanka’s streets will be of the poor, the starving and the repressed.

Those eruptions will be uncontrollable.

Courtesy:Sunday Times