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Custodial deaths, dystopian truths

02 Dec 2021

One thing Sri Lankans always advocate but rarely do is putting themselves in the shoes of another. We do it only when it resonates with what we always believed in, and there is hardly any room for a change of attitudes. The same was observed during the past few years when a spate of deaths of suspects or accused implicated in organised criminal activities who were killed in crossfire during attempts by the Police to find hidden weapons and raids, which the people thought was justifiable, because of the simple reason that they had been branded as hardcore criminals, and the inadequacies in the country’s legal system which the people do not believe penalises such said figures. In short, good riddance of bad rubbish.  The mother of Janith Madushanka alias “Podi Lassi” this week wrote to the United Nations (UN) Sri Lanka Resident Co-ordinator drawing attention to the alleged threats to the life of her son, who is currently detained at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID).  Her concerns are not new. On a few occasions in the past few months, rights groups had raised concerns about the safety of some of the high profile suspects/accused, who died in similar circumstances, mostly when they were taken to various places by the Police to find hidden weapons, according to the Police. The deaths of Mabulage Dinith Melan Mabula alias Urujuwa, Dharmakeerthi Tharaka Perera Wijesekera alias Kosgoda Tharaka, and Samarasinghe Arachchige Madush Lakshitha alias Makandure Madush, are some of the notable deaths, and the most recent death was of Hewa Lunuwilage Lasantha alias Tinker Lasantha.  Despite the settings and circumstances pertaining to most of these deaths bearing significant similarities, thus far, the concerned citizens have not heard anything from the law enforcement agencies apart from the usual answer that they are looking into these incidents. These incidents also have a direct and an extremely adverse impact on the country’s human rights record both at the national and international levels. Furthermore, in a country such as Sri Lanka where politics is connected to nearly every field, it’s unrealistic to expect that these underworld figures operate in isolation without political patronage. Therefore, when one of them dies in police custody the information they had on corrupt politicians and their other dirty secrets die with them, never to be publicised. In this case it’s the politicians who benefit from the deaths of these figures. Unfortunately, the country has not seen much progress on the part of the law enforcement agencies on matter. They conduct investigations, and conveniently say that these incidents were mere accidents which were unavoidable. Within a few months, everyone forgets what happened until another death during an alleged raid or an alleged attempt to find hidden weapons is reported. There is no debate that proper investigations must be conducted to find out the truth about these alleged accused, or suspects, especially owing to the fact that almost all the allegations which led to these deaths concern high profile cases. However, In addition to the safety of the public, the safety and the right to due process of these suspects also needs to be ensured, because they too are members of the public. These spontaneous raids or attempts to find hidden weapons need to be monitored for the safety of the suspects and the Police officers handling this process. Who can monitor the Police investigations is the next question. Technically, aside from the suspects who are suspected or accused of terrorism related allegations, in which case a detention is only possible if the Defence Minister approves of such, those suspected or accused of other crimes can only be detained as per a court order. Therefore, technically, they are under judicial custody, which also suggests a certain responsibility on the part of the Judiciary when it comes to their safety.  Therefore, as a start, the authorities can look into several short term, immediate measures, including increasing the involvement of the Judiciary in this process. Informing the Magistrate or a Judge, who have the jurisdiction in which the Police conduct a raid or try to find hidden weapons with the involvement of a suspect/accused, before engaging in such activity involving a high profile case, could perhaps be one of the steps we can take. It will give a sense of accountability to this process, because in addition to the Police officers taking suspects for the said purpose, a member of the Judiciary will also be aware of particulars such as the exact individuals, places, times, and activities, such a raid or an attempt to find hidden weapons, involve.  However, finding the root causes of the issue is what can ultimately bring to an end these extremely suspicious deaths, and legal and/or policy changes are also necessary to see some solid change. To do that, the unbiased contribution of the experts in the field is necessary. This responsibility, however, has to be taken by the National Police Commission (NPC), the apex body that governs the affairs of the Police force. It can include experts in custodial torture, extrajudicial killings, and human rights and the law, in addition to ex-cops who do not have conflicts of interest with the Police officers and teams that are being monitored or investigated. Most importantly, the silence, and sometimes celebration, on the part of the public towards these deaths is concerning.  Among other parties, the media has a huge responsibility to report facts without sensationalising such news. A person’s right to be treated as a mere suspect or accused until proven guilty, which the country’s law upholds as a most basic principle, must not be neglected by the media to indirectly control the public opinion regarding such deaths.  “It is good that the Police are getting rid of the criminals who are most likely to be released if presented in court” – is a much more common opinion than we think.  The authorities have a responsibility to pay genuine attention to this spate of deaths which takes place in eerily similar circumstances, leaving no witnesses except the Police officers who were present at that time. The people on the other hand should be prudent enough to think that what happens to one person can happen to any person; and most importantly, the media has a responsibility to not glorify highly questionable acts that result in unwarranted deaths of citizens and instead initiate a discussion around it.  There is no question that most of the people who died in the said incidents had serious criminal charges against them. But, in a country where the laws still guarantee a fair trial to everyone, the criminal records of those who died is immaterial, and what matters is whether what they faced is legally justifiable. Put simply, Sri Lanka is a democracy where rule of law reigns, and must not be allowed to become a lawless dystopia. if an unlawful act against one citizen can go unaddressed, a similar act against another too can go unaddressed, and therefore, these deaths should be a problem for everyone.

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