SRI LANKA: Forensic inquiry must be conducted into the death at Pussellawa police station

Kaviratne Raviraj, 30 years old, arrested and taken to the Pussellawa police station by some plain clothed police officers and was later pronounced dead upon admission to the Pussellawa Hospital. According to the relatives of the deceased, he was assaulted by the officers at the time of the arrest, and one of his brothers states that he saw his brother being assaulted inside the police station.

Large crowds gathered on learning of this death, protesting against what happened to the deceased at the police station. The protestors stated that if such killings occur at police stations, it is not safe for them to go to a police station. As a result of the protest, one Sub Inspector and one constable have been suspended. However, the crowd demanded that the OIC should be suspended immediately.

Although the police claim that the man hung himself with his own t-shirt, and committed suicide, the protesters did not believe the police story. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) calls for a comprehensive forensic examination of Raviraj’s body by an independent judicial medical officer. A proper judicial medical examination will establish whether the death was from suicide or not. Similarly, whether the deceased was assaulted at the time of arrest and while at the police station can also be verified by such a forensic examination.

Going by past experience, the police behaviour under such circumstances is to ensure that no proper inquiry takes place, and to attempt to influence officers to getting favourable reports for themselves. It is thus essential that the Inspector General of Police should first and foremost remove the Officer in Charge of the Police Station (OIC), and all Senior Officers, in order to remove the possibility of interference into the inquiry.

The AHRC has consistently pointed out that on all matters relating to torture and ill treatment, and any other illegal activities taking place inside a police station, it is the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) in Charge of the police station that should be taken to task immediately. Past experiences demonstrate that such ASPs often try to interfere with proper inquiries so as to exonerate the police officers against alleged charges.

In recent times, the Inspector General of Police and Senior Police Officers have been making many statements that they are engaged in ensuring a change in the pattern of policing in Sri Lanka, and in ensuring that the police behave in a responsible and a friendly manner towards the public. The National Police Commission has even put forward a Code of Conduct for the police. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has repeatedly stated “a Full Stop to Torture,” which is one of their major policies.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera, speaking on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government, was categorical in condemning the use of torture and ill treatment and also promised the Human Rights Council that he will send instructions to the police and the military, on the prevention of torture.

All such public declarations can be tested on an occasion like the alleged hanging of a man inside a police station. This story is not at all a new one; it is heard a few times every year. By observing what happens afterwards, the AHRC has learnt of the highly manipulative process that takes place, ensuring that no credible inquiry occurs. The large crowds that gathered around the Pussellawa police station are quite an indication of public feeling throughout the country about the police’s conduct.

The AHRC thus urges the Government, the IGP and all other relevant institutions such as the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and also the recently appointed Torture Committee under the National Human Rights Plan for Action, to demonstrate where they stand. Is the same old story of a cover up to be repeated again, or will the people witness a proper inquiry conducted into the death of a person at a police station?