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A tale of expired and injurious tears

A tale of expired and injurious tears

08 Mar 2023 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • Civil society report on Police use of tear gas on protestors claims issues in the procurement of the lachrymose crowd repellent and the potentially dangerous use of expired tear gas hand grenades, cartridges, and the travails in obtaining factual information on the same 

Even though the Police’s conduct during last year’s (2022) “aragalaya” (the people’s movement to remove the Government led by then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then-Prime Minister and incumbent Government Parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa and then-Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa) protests was marked with a severe and deliberate disregard for the protesters’ human rights and safety, a report by a local civil society organisation reveals that the Police had placed the protesters’ lives in danger in more ways than was previously observed. 


That is through procuring tear gas without conducting a proper evaluation of the contents of the tear gas, and through the use of expired tear gas, some of which had been produced over 20 years ago and had expired over a decade ago. 

The report, released by the Centre for Society and Religion’s (CSR) investigations unit, focused on the procurement and use of tear gas by the Police during the past 10 years, and was based on information acquired through a Right to Information (RTI) request and interviews with trusted sources. At the launch of the report, it was further revealed that in response to the said RTI request, the Police had provided false and misleading information, and in some instances, had failed to provide certain information. 

The research team included journalist Tharindu Jayawardhana, Attorney-at-Law (AAL) Manushika Cooray, Fathima Rasma, priest Rohan Silva, activist Ruki Fernando, and AAL Suren D. Perera.


Obtaining information under the RTI

The report and the speakers who spoke at the launch of the said report underscored that during the aragalaya period, a large number of protesters who were exposed to tear gas experienced various prolonged and severe health complications, some of which are unlikely after being exposed to ordinary tear gas. Noting that the said situation led to a suspicion that the Government and the Police had purchased poisonous tear gas, the report said that ascertaining its veracity was the motive for submitting the aforementioned RTI requests. Taking into account the health-related aspects of this situation, three RTI requests had been submitted to the information officers of the Police Headquarters (HQ), the Police Supply Division, and the Police Field Force HQ on 24 May 2022. That was in accordance with Section 25(3) of the RTI Act, which reads “Where the request for information concerns the life and personal liberty of a citizen, the response to it shall be made within 48 hours of the receipt of the request.” Among the requested information were how many units of tear gas had been obtained by Sri Lanka, on how many occasions they were imported, and how much money was spent on each occasion. The speakers noted that despite the urgency of the RTI requests, only the Police Field Force HQ responded stating that the requested information was not in its possession and that the Police Supply Division should have that information, while the Police HQ and the Police Supply Division did not respond at all. Even though an appeal had been submitted to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana D. Wickramaratne, he too had not responded, which led to the submission of an appeal to the RTI Commission. During the lengthy process that followed, the three said Police Units had, on several occasions, refused to provide information, provided contradictory information, and had failed to provide information as agreed. While this process was ongoing, more RTI requests had been submitted requesting information on technical evaluation committees’ reports on tear gas, the tender procedures followed, how much tear gas was used each year, how many expired tear gas hand grenades and cartridges had been used and what were the reasons for such use, and who granted permission to use expired tear gas, during the period from 1 January 2010 to 1 January 2022. In addition, information had been requested on the number of occasions during which tear gas was used between 31 March 2022, and 17 July 2022, the number of tear gas units that were used on each such occasion, and the year in which they had been purchased. The speakers noted that although several discussions were held in the ensuing months with the involvement of the RTI Commission, some requested information was not provided, while in some cases, even the information that was provided was incomplete or misleading or false.


Police use of tear gas during the past decade

Pointing out the findings of the report, the speakers noted that during the aragalaya period, the Police had not only violated the public’s rights and freedoms pertaining to expression and peaceful assembly, but had also placed the public’s lives in danger during protests and had used public funds to oppress the public. The information obtained through the stated RTI requests had revealed that between 31 March 2022 and 20 July 2022, the Police had used over Rs. 26 million (Rs. 26,706,578.17) worth of tear gas hand grenades and cartridges on 84 occasions. According to the report, during this period, the Police had used 6,722 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges, many a time blatantly violating and disregarding safety instructions pertaining to the use of tear gas while the Police had even used expired tear gas and had attempted to cover up that they had, when information was requested in that regard. “When tear gas was purchased, the Police had not conducted laboratory tests about the content of the tear gas and had accepted as true the details provided by the producer or the institutions that submitted tenders. In some purchases, the producer had not even mentioned the chemical composition of the tear gas. The Police has admitted in writing that in such cases, the Police accepted the assurance provided by the relevant companies that tear gas had been produced in accordance with the relevant standards,” the report claimed, adding that in some cases when the Police purchased tear gas, a member with expertise on tear gas had not been appointed to the relevant technical evaluation committees.

As per the information obtained through the RTI requests, between 2012 and 2022, Sri Lanka has purchased tear gas on four occasions. In 2012, 2017, 2019 and 2020, Sri Lanka has purchased 20,000, 5,000, 15,000 and 5,000 units of tear gas, respectively. The report added: “A total of 20,000 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges had been purchased in 2012. Between 2012 and 2015, the Police used only 2,306 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges. Although the remaining stocks expired in 2017, they had not been destroyed. The 20,000 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges that were purchased in 2012 expired in 2017, while the tear gas hand grenades and cartridges that were purchased in 2017 expired in 2021, and the 15,000 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges that were purchased in 2019 expired this year (2023). In total, around 40,000 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges expired by this year. Between 2012 and 20 July 2022, the Police used 8,265 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges. Even if they were assumed to have been purchased in 2012, 2017, and 2019, 31,735 tear gas hand grenades and cartridges should remain in stock.”

Moreover, the report noted that the manner in which tear gas was used to control protests in 2022 was highly questionable. This was mainly based on the experiences of those who underwent various intense and sometimes unusual complications after being exposed to tear gas, which the presenters of the report noted were concerning and raised doubts as to whether the Police used tear gas that was up to the standards. “Although instructions had been issued by tear gas producers that tear gas should not be used in the proximity of firearms, in 2022, the most amount of tear gas was used near firearms. Although tear gas producers had issued instructions that tear gas should only be used by trained officers and should not be launched directly at protestors, there were reports that even untrained officers had launched tear gas directly at protestors. Several protestors were injured due to such conduct. It has been revealed that the Police used tear gas hand grenades and cartridges in large quantities without adhering to a proper method or supervision. The Police used tear gas even in places surrounded by buildings which in turn resulted in longer periods of time for the air to clear and for ventilation to occur. The Police had also used tear gas without issuing a warning to protestors to disperse.”

In addition, the report claimed that even by December 2022, IGP Wickramaratne had not taken steps to dispose of expired tear gas and had provided false information to show that the claims that expired tear gas was used were untrue.

With regard to the use of teargas, the report noted that in 2022, the Police used teargas in excessive numbers. During the protest which took place on 31 March 2022 near former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s house, the Police had used 328 units of tear gas, while 480 units of tear gas had been used during the protests which took place near the Temple Trees, which is the Premier’s official residence, on 9 May 2022. To disperse the Inter-University Students Federation’s protest on 8 July 2022, 232 tear gas units had been used. In addition, during protests on 9 July 2022 on the Baron Jayathilaka Mawatha and on 13 July 2022 at the Polduwa Junction, the Police had used 788 and 660 units of tear gas, respectively.

What is more, the report noted that there is no specific law in Sri Lanka with regard to the use of tear gas. Quoting senior Police officers, it further noted that tear gas is used under the use of minimum force, and that there is no mention of tear gas in the Departmental orders regarding riot control.



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