Two students from northern Sri Lanka’s Jaffna University were shot by police near a checkpoint in the early hours of October 20, 2016. Both died from their wounds.
Initially, police denied the shooting, saying that Sundiraja Sulakshan and Nadarasa Gajan died in an accident. However, the autopsy found bullets lodged in their bodies. Sri Lankan authorities would still very likely have covered up the incident, the norm in police abuse cases, if it weren’t for the public outrage. Media, students, and politicians, especially in the predominantly ethnic Tamil north, refused to accept the official narrative, pointing out discrepancies. As a result of the outcry, the authorities suspended five police officers from service and placed them in custody.
On November 15, Sri Lanka is due to appear before the United Nations Committee Against Torture and is expected to make a case about its security sector reforms – something it agreed to take on after a 2015 UN Human Rights Council review. But this will be a difficult case to make, in large part because of police abuse.
Human Rights Watch research shows that arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings by the police are all too familiar, and the government almost never holds officers responsible.
In June 2014, Indika Jayesinha was shot dead by the police on the Colombo-Kandy road while on his motorbike. The police officer admitted to killing him, but remains on active duty. Sandun Malinga, 16, died from police torture in May 2014. His father said the skin on his son’s back had been ripped, revealing raw flesh underneath. Progress on the case has been slow and halting. In March 2015, a teenager was stopped near Delgoda while fixing his motorbike. Police took him into custody without any explanation and tortured him until, in his words, “I could feel my skin peeling.” He has been too afraid to leave his house since then, has missed school-leaving exams, and has no idea how to overcome his fear. He has been too scared to take any action against the officers.
The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka recently confirmed the existence of unofficial police torture centers and called for police to end these practices. In the few cases where action has been taken against the police, it is almost always because of public outcry or the intervention of an overstretched human rights commission.
If the Sri Lankan government really wants to reform its security sector, it will need to take on police abuse, which may only get worse under a proposed new counterterrorism law that expands police powers. It shouldn’t be just public outrage – as with the deaths of Sulakshan and Gajan – that leads to police accountability. The government has to take the lead.