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Sri Lankan activists call for end to heavy-handed policing

Letter urges immediate investigations of incidents of custodial violations during the pandemic

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: June 30, 2021 06:52 AM GMT

Updated: June 30, 2021 07:01 AM GMT

Sri Lankan activists call for end to heavy-handed policing

Senior citizens queue for Covid-19 vaccinations at a center in Colombo on June 28. (Photo: AFP)

Rights activists have called on the Sri Lankan government to end police torture and to immediately investigate incidents of custodial violations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Due to the lack of clarity on government regulations and decrees, the public are being subjected to ill treatment by the police, as evidenced by video footage, activists claimed.

P.I. Dissanayake, convener of the Sri Lankan Collective Against Torture, said during emergencies, and even when citizens break the law, their fundamental rights such as the absolute protection from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, freedom of thought and conscience should not be violated.

"We note reports of several incidents of custodial violations, such as arbitrary arrest and detention, custodial deaths and shootouts with suspects that have resulted in death. Particularly during a pandemic, when the rights of citizens are restricted due to health reasons, such incidents can cause public anxiety and unrest," he said.

Dissanayake said that while being mindful of the stress under which police officers are placed, that can never be justification for the violation of constitutionally protected rights of citizens.

A letter signed by 20 civil society organizations was sent to the inspector general of police on June 29 urging an end to police torture and arbitrary detention.

We have received disturbing reports of the police not accepting complaints of women experiencing violence at home

Civil society organizations urged the government to ensure Sri Lankan citizens are able to exercise and enjoy their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

"We have received disturbing reports of the police not accepting complaints of women experiencing violence at home, which compounds the violations experienced by women," said the letter

"Further, with due regard to the pandemic, police action should not worsen the already dire economic conditions being experienced by many people. For instance, quarantine measures should not be used as a form of incarceration and punishment but only to achieve the specific objective of preventing the spread of infectious diseases.”

They urged police to accept complaints made by the public regarding violations, especially violations by public officers, and to establish a hotline that citizens can use to obtain information regarding pandemic-related restrictions.

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"Examples of arbitrary application of the law include the participation of the police in the violation of health regulations, such as in the birthday party of the mayor of Kurunegala and the funeral of the mother of Buddhist monk Iththekanda Saddhatissa Thera," the letter said.

The assistant superintendent of police for Kurunegala organized a surprise birthday celebration for the mayor in the police station. Some participants including clerics to wear masks. It was a clear violation of Covid-19 restrictions and quarantine regulations.

At the funeral service of the mother of Ven. Iththekande Saddhatissa Thera, many Buddhist monks, laymen and politicians including the prime minister paid their last respects as the country remained under travel restrictions.

Ven. Saddhatissa Thera is the convener of Ravana Balaya, a Sinhala Buddhist organization that supports the government. Under the health guidelines, funerals have to be conducted within 24 hours and with not more than 25 attendees.

A senior Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Colombo said some police officers take the law into their own hands and serve politicians and their followers differently.

"In this pandemic situation, a police officer celebrated a politician's birthday in public but thousands of ordinary people have been arrested for breaking the quarantine law," said the priest, who wished to remain anonymous.

"One law in a country can't be enforced in two ways. Everyone must be equal before the law."

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