Police action under scrutiny: Law enforcement vs. rights and freedoms 

  • Doubts over maintaining law and order through abusive practices: Kumarapperuma 
  • No update on complaint to HRCSL: FSP; investigations on complaint initiated: HRCSL 
  • Independent mechanisms to oversee misconduct are no longer independent: Activist 
  • People trying to create an issue, Police followed norms when initiating action: Alwis 

By Yoshitha Perera 

The denial of the right to freedom of speech and expression has been at the centre of political and social discussions in the country, raising questions related to its moral validity.

Recently, Colombo Additional Magistrate Lochani Abeywickrama has expressed that because people’s right to expression, right to protest, and freedom of speech are constitutionally protected, quarantine law should not overpower such rights of the people.

Abeywickrama made these statements in the courtroom Tuesday (17) when a case filed against the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Propaganda Secretary by the Mutuwal Police was heard.

There is a long-standing discourse within the general public on the alleged abuse at the hands of the Police, including alleged extrajudicial killings, torture, unlawful arrests, and arbitrary detention. 

As per the statements given to the media by the public who were affected, they have to live in continued fear due to certain unlawful actions of the law enforcement authorities. Many viewed that the Police had tried several forms of illegitimate action, even in the past, to suppress the voice of the general public. 

However, in the present situation, the Government and the Police have been accused of using the Covid-19 pandemic as a tool to stifle the voice of the masses, specifically those who raise their grievances over various administrative decisions taken during the past couple of months. 

Recently, plain-clothed policemen, allegedly without any identification document or warrant, had arrested the people who had protested against various issues in the country. Such activities by the Police are seen by some as a violation of freedom of expression and speech, as mentioned in Article 14 of the Constitution. 

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, senior lawyer Upul Kumarapperuma highlighted that a police uniform is a type of identification and that it is the only way the general public could take legal action against the Police, if there is any matter. 

“Recently, many media reports circulated on the policemen in civvies who arrested teachers, university lecturers, and trade union activists over the recent protest they held against the (teacher-principal) salary anomaly issue and the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill. These actions by the Police are illegal and can be described as abusive policies and practices,” he explained. 

He said that on the police uniform, there is a separate tag including the name and number of the particular police officer, and these have been specifically introduced to the police uniform as an identification mode. 

“The uniform is introduced to them to wear it and they should wear it when they come before the general public. The problem is not about arresting, yet the nature and the procedure they followed when arresting these people. It is illegal,” Kumarapperuma said. 

Explaining the instances where police officers could appear in civvies, Kumarapperuma said that according to the police regulation, only the officers attached to Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the officers attached to the Intelligence Services could appear in civvies. 

“These police officers also can’t arrest people. There is a procedure on CID duties. The Criminal Procedure Code explains the provisions related to arresting a person,” he pointed out. 

Emphasising the security threat, Kumarapperuma stated that the public is not aware whether the person who is trying to arrest them is a police officer or a kidnapper, adding: “There was information that the Police had shown an identity card during the unlawful arrests they made recently. We have not seen any police ID earlier, and as lawyers, we were not aware of such a thing. They can even forge IDs and come before the general public.” 

Adding that the Police are trying to set a bad precedent before society, Kumarapperuma said that in the future, underworld gangs too could start abducting citizens appearing as the Police. He questioned the upcoming security threat before the general public and highlighted the lack of accountability developing gradually within the body of the Police. 

“The Police represent civil society of any state, and they are responsible for maintaining public order and safety. With these bad examples and abusive practices, how can the Government and the Police maintain public order and safety?” 

Within the past few weeks, the Police had arrested over 44 education sector activists, including 36 teachers, who held protests against certain major decisions made by the Government recently. 

The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), on 15 August, made a public appeal from the Sri Lankan citizens to intervene and stop the “private mercenary” behaviour of the Police as a law enforcement authority. Many education trade union activists and Opposition political parties also filed complaints with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). 

Action by HRCSL still pending 

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Education Secretary Pubudu Jagoda said that they had filed a complaint with the HRCSL on 15 August, requesting them to conduct an immediate investigation into the alleged threats that activists are facing from the Police. 

However, he claimed that there was no update on the investigation procedure by the HRCSL on the complaints filed by various education sector activists and members of some Opposition political parties. 

“Over the last few weeks, police personnel in casual clothes have been hunting our party comrades and some of them have not participated in these protests. Our party members and families are also receiving unidentified calls from various unknown people saying that they were from intelligence units. Some individuals who claimed to be police officers had visited the families of some party members without any search warrant or identification document. It is clear that the Government and the Police are trying to take repressive measures to prevent public dissent,” Jagoda said. 

He added that the complaint filed by the FSP with the HRCSL has named Inspector General of Police (IGP) C.D. Wickramaratne and Senior Deputy Inspector General (DIG) for Western Province Deshabandu Tennakoon as respondents. 

Meanwhile, when The Sunday Morning contacted HRCSL Director – Inquiries and Investigation Sulari Liyanagama, she informed that the commission had already commenced the preliminary procedures of the investigation related to the alleged threats people are facing from the Police. 

“The HRC had started initial procedures pertaining to this investigation,” she reiterated. 

Responding to The Sunday Morning’s query on a number of complaints received by the Commission pertaining to these actions by the Police, Liyanagama said that at the moment, the main office of the HRC is closed for cleaning and disinfection and she could not inform the exact number of complaints received in this regard. 

“I remember that we had received many complaints in this regard. However, at the moment I can’t tell you an exact number,” she said. 

Stating that the abuse of police power is not new in Sri Lanka, human rights activist Shreen Saroor said that in the last two years, under the cover Covid-19, many cases of torture, degrading treatment, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial killings have been reported, without much success in victim families accessing justice. 

Sharing views with The Sunday Morning, she said: “The independent mechanisms which oversee these misconducts are not independent anymore and it also comes in a context of shrinking of civil and political space. Thus, proper investigation and prosecution of this abusive enforcement body is unlikely.” 

However, government authorities have a different view when it comes to the recent arrests made by the plain-clothed police without any identification documents or warrants. 

The Govt. responds 

Denying claims made by activists and members from the Opposition parties, Secretary to the Ministry of Public Security Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Jagath Alwis said that there were officers in police uniforms when arresting these education sector activists and teachers. 

“There were uniformed policemen during these arrests and we have given clear instructions to the Police to arrest the people while abiding by the law in the country. The Police have to identify themselves when making an arrest and we have done that,” he said. 

Maj. Gen. Alwis added that people are coming out with various claims against the Police, yet in all the recent cases, there were police officers in plain clothes as well as in police uniforms while the arrestees were transported through police jeeps. 

“People are trying to create a major issue, but wherever the Police had made the arrest, there were uniformed policemen also, along with the civvies,” he added. 

When questioned about whether these actions would make people afraid of the Police and hesitant to co-operate, Maj. Gen. Alwis stated that people must be afraid to do wrong things and not of the Police. 

“The Police are part of society and we have to educate people to adhere to the health guidelines in the present situation. Now, we can see the repercussions of those protests; people are dying and many people are getting infected at a rate. It was because we had a lot of protest marchers during the last few weeks walking up and down the country. If we abided by the procedures, we wouldn’t have come to this situation, and I must say that the Police are following the normal norms of arrests,” he clarified.