State brutality will further escalate violence

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A number of cases have been reported across the island of the Police and the military opening fire at protesters and crowds near fuel stations. Troops fired live rounds in Visuvamadu, in the Mullaitivu district which Police said later injured four civilians and three Army personnel. Similar incidents have been reported around the country and in Kurunegala a Police officer was captured on camera manhandling a motorcyclist who was not happy after hearing that a filling station had run out of fuel. 

These incidents of police and military brutality come just two months after the Police opened fire at protestors, killing one and injuring 13 others, in Rambukkana in April. Though the DIG in charge of the area has been arrested after a public outcry over the incident, there has hardly been any accountability of the political authorities who instigated the Rambukkana shooting or the senior police leadership which should have prevented such incidents by issuing clear instructions to their subordinates.

These episodes of violence are just another blip in the long and disgraceful history of State brutality in this country. With regard to the Police, in the last two years alone at least 17 persons were killed while in its custody. In 2011 Police fired live ammunition at a group of protesters at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone and killed a 21-year-old man. The IGP who resigned after the Katunayake incident was later given an ambassadorial post and sent abroad. Similarly, not a single policeman has been held responsible for any of these heinous crimes which has set a precedent of immunity for custodial deaths and police brutality.

The use of the military to handle what is a law and order issue of angry citizens turning violent is a recipe for disaster. The military to begin with is not trained to handle such situations and cannot be expected to act with maximum constraint in a volatile situation. Unfortunately, the use of the military to kill protesters in Rathupaswala in 2013 has set a precedent on using security forces against non-violent protests. Instead of holding the perpetrators of that crime accountable, the brigadier in charge of the military unit that killed three civilians was not only promoted in rank but given a diplomatic posting to the Sri Lanka mission in Turkey by the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government.

As a result, it seems that a carte blanche of immunity is carried by the Police and military in their dealings with protestors. In the Appeal Court judgment of the case concerning the killing of Premawathi Manamperi, it was held that the Army Act requires a person subject to military law to obey only the lawful commands given by his superior officers. It is not applicable to a command which is obviously unlawful. According to the dicta of this case officers holding custody of prisoners are duty bound to ensure their safety.

There is a systemic and endemic problem of police brutality and military excesses that needs to be addressed. As the Police officer threatening a motorcyclist with a gun in Kurunegala clearly demonstrates there is not even a sense of wrongdoing when such acts are carried out in front of television cameras. Instead, the Police officer probably knows that he would likely be rewarded for his behaviour rather than be admonished.

The Government is committing a fatal blunder if it assumes that public anger and frustration over the spiralling economic situation can be contained through brute force. On the contrary such acts of intimidation and violence will only further fuel public sentiments. It is only through discipline and constraint that such situations can be handled and the IGP, the Minister in Charge of the Police and the Government in general should be held accountable for any escalation due to police and military brutality during this economic crisis. 

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Disclaimer: State brutality will further escalate violence - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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