Anger swells over impunity in post-war Sri Lanka
Criminal impunity has become an increasing target of public anger in Sri Lanka since the end of a 25-year war in May, which exposed the extent to which the rule of law has eroded in the Indian Ocean island nation.
Sri Lanka, since it first battled Marxist insurgents in 1971, has had a history of criminals or members of the security services carrying out executions or torture with tacit backing from the nation’s influential and politically-connected quarters.
But with the war no longer providing an excuse for acts motivated by personal, business or political reasons, public patience may be running out over impunity — a challenge as Sri Lanka tries to reinvent itself as an investor-friendly nation.
A recent spate of violent incidents implicating police has spawned a wave of public fury and angry editorials — rare under a government that in wartime was quick to brand critics traitors.
“The inescapable reality is that with normalcy or near-normalcy restored, the people are now opening their eyes to cases of police violence against ordinary people,” the Sunday Island newspaper said this week.
“What we need now … is to clean this clearly disintegrating system.”
On Monday, a court remanded 11 police officers accused in the abduction and torture of a student over a dispute with the son of an influential police officer. The senior officer was transferred but not charged, a police spokesman said.
Last week, residents of a Colombo suburb stormed a police station and blocked trains to protest the killing of two men. Local media reported the men had heckled the girlfriend of the police officer in charge of the station.
The two victims’ bodies were found the day after police arrested them, bearing bullet wounds and evidence of torture.
Seven officers including the officer-in-charge were arrested and remanded on charges of criminal links — but not in the deaths of the two men. A police spokesman declined to comment, saying the case was under investigation.
WAR ON UNDERWORLD
Rights groups say the events are a risk to the emerging stability Sri Lanka is beginning to enjoy, after two Marxist insurgencies in 1971 and 1988-89 and the 1983-2009 civil war with the Tamil Tigers separatists.
“Perhaps the type of political system that has emerged in the country may require instability and chaos. For that, the police in Sri Lanka contribute enormously,” said Basil Fernando of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.
Fernando, a Sri Lankan lawyer, has long criticised Sri Lanka’s record of letting the guilty go free.
The government has also declared war on the underworld, seen by many as a purge against gangs who helped the Tamil Tigers operate in Colombo or are linked to rival political parties.
Since the end of the war, police have repeatedly reported killing a criminal, giving the explanation that officers fired after the suspect tried to throw a hand grenade while in custody.
“The government had already taken action against the police officers who are guilty and we will not hesitate to take action against perpetrators’ despite their position or seniority on the available evidence,” said Lakshman Hulugalla, director general of the Media Centre for National Security.