Custodial deaths deserve attention

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 00:00 –      – 31

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26-year-old Nagarasa Alex became the latest statistic in a long list of victims to have died while in police custody. The individual who was initially arrested by the Vaddukoddai Police on allegations of robbery was admitted to the Jaffna Hospital due to a sudden illness. Despite being returned to prison on 16 November, the suspect fell ill again on 19 November and succumbed after admission to the Jaffna Hospital’s emergency unit. The magistrate’s court has found that this was not a natural death and ordered the arrest of four police officers over the incident.

The incidents of extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths in Sri Lanka are commonplace. The story presented by the Sri Lankan Police usually to the Magistrate is always similar. Either they were shot while trying to escape or the police were taking the culprit to a weapons cache when he turned on them with a weapon of some description, amazingly, usually a hand grenade. It is uncertain as to what is more ludicrous, the fact that the police never bother to change their story or the fact that they honestly believe the citizens of Sri Lanka are so gullible they will believe them. Unfortunately, they do not care about the opinions of the citizens, only the Magistrate who has no independent witnesses and can only take the word of the officers reporting the case.

In this context, at least it is welcome that the Magistrate has determined that the death of Nagarasa Alex warrants further investigation and has ordered the arrest of those who held the youth in custody. It is a rare deviation from the usual impunity that is widely enjoyed by the police and prison authorities.

Incidents of police brutality take place often in Sri Lanka. In September 2010 a Fundamental Rights petition was filed by a resident of Embilipitiya town, stating that her husband had been arrested and ‘killed’ by the police who thereafter ‘fabricated a version to justify the killing’. After nearly a decade later the Supreme Court in 2019 ruled this was a case of custodial death, ordering seven police personnel and the State to pay a total compensation of Rs. 2 million to the victim’s family.

On that instance Supreme Court Justice S. Thurairaja ruled, with the other two judges on the bench – L.T.B. Dehideniya and Murdu N.B. Fernando – that it is the State’s responsibility to protect every citizen of Sri Lanka, and as such the State has failed its responsibility and has violated the fundamental rights of the deceased.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) says 90% of their torture complaints are against the police with hundreds of cases being reported each year. All these instances and many others point to police brutality being a systemic problem in Sri Lanka. Police are routinely protected with transfers and other slap-on-the-wrist punishments. For decades the State of Emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act provided them with often blanket legal and political protection. The institutionalised impunity was never rolled back despite the conflict ending 14 years ago.

Minorities, the poor and the disabled are among the most vulnerable due to this continued impunity and lack of sensitisation. The effort to seek justice for these victims should ideally be coupled with changing this deeply problematic and damaging police brutality carried out in the name of law enforcement.