SRI LANKA: Casual Killings: Seven People Shot Dead by Police within 70 Days

Within the first 70 days of the year 2004, the number of people shot dead by the police in Sri Lanka came to seven ¡V an average of one person every 10 days. All of these shootings have taken place during peacetime policing, and all of the victims were civilians. None of the deaths suggest that there was a life-threatening situation requiring such drastic action. The casual and carefree way that guns are being used by law enforcement officers is shocking and points to the breakdown of disciplinary control within the policing system.

The names of the people who were recently shot to death are:

Dissanayake Mudiayanselage Suranga Sampath a 17-year-old student from Gampola who was attending a musical show on Jan. 10, 2004. The police allegedly shot into the crowd, and the victim was later found dead;

Jayasiri Sanjeewa Perera of Madiwela, Kotte, was shot dead on Jan. 25, 2004, during an attempt to arrest a person. The police claim that, due to a possible attack by a person inside the house with a bomb, they opened fire;

Ajit Rohana, 26, was shot dead allegedly by an officer of the Wennappuwa police force while allegedly the victim was travelling in a van with some friends. The police version is that the vehicle proceeded after ignoring their signals to stop and that they followed it and shot at it. The death was the result of this shooting;

Mohamad Naushad, 26, was shot to death on Feb. 13, 2004. The police claim that while they were trying to arrest him the victim allegedly tried to stab an officer and, therefore, they opened fire on the victim;

Bellanavithanage Sanath Yasaratne, 22, was shot dead by an officer from the Baduru-eliya police force in the course of their investigation into a minor family quarrel. The magistrate court inquiry has concluded that the death was a homicide caused by the shooting;

Ranjit Lilaratne was shot to death on March 10, 2004, at the police post at Walkada Jadawa, Kathigollya, Anuradapura. The police version is that the victim was shot while he was trying to escape after being arrested;

H. M. Nirosha, 30, was shot to death on March 10, 2004, allegedly by officers of the Haldumwal police. The police maintain that, while they were shooting at a mad dog with a T-56 semiautomatic rifle, she was hit accidentally.

Can any of these shootings be considered justifiable? What is the criterion in judging such justifiability? What guidelines have the police been given for the use of firearms in the course of their normal duties? What level of evidence is sought by the magistrates before they are satisfied that the shooting was justifiable? All of these questions are vital and need to be answered by the Sri Lankan authorities in relation to these shootings.

In an initial examination of these cases, all of these incidents seem to be trivial and the shootings so casual. The failure to observe a traffic signal by a passing vehicle, an alleged attempt by a criminal to harm a police officer in the course of arrest, the fear that someone may be in possession of a bomb, attempting to stop a minor clash during a musical show and killing a passerby in trying to shoot a mad dog are the alleged reasons given for shooting people to death.

In all of these deadly incidents, it is not even alleged that warning shots were fired prior to the use of deadly force by the officers or, if the shooting was required at all, that the precaution was taken to shoot below the knees in order to disable the alleged culprit and, thereby, do everything possible to prevent serious harm to the victim.

The unavoidable conclusion arising from these cases is that firearms are being used in the most casual manner. The officers who have allegedly engaged in these shootings are not high-ranking officers. However, this fact does not exonerate high-ranking officers for their liability in their failure to effectively supervise the use of firearms by the rank and file. Given the admittedly low qualifications of the rank and file of the Sri Lankan police, the liability for allowing such casual use of firearms falls heavily on these officers.

What makes the situation even worse is that there is no special investigation procedure for the use of firearms. Any objective criteria would require that a serious internal inquiry would be held within the police department itself when such incidents are reported. Instead, the officers who have allegedly done the shooting and made up a story about how it happened are allowed to go and narrate such stories at the initial inquiries in courts. The high-ranking officers, except in some exceptional cases, help cover up the story rather than investigate the matter thoroughly. It is also a requirement within a law enforcement agency that officers who are alleged to have caused a death are suspended from duty until proper internal inquiries are held.

It is the duty of the National Police Commission (NPC) and the inspector general of police (IGP) to lay down strict procedures regarding the use of firearms by the police and also to ensure that the procedures laid down are strictly observed. These casual killings by police officers suggest that the supervision exercised over them is also very casual.

The attorney general of the country also has a duty to ensure that law enforcement agencies are not allowed to abuse their powers by the casual use of firearms. It falls on the attorney general to enforce the law strictly on this matter. This can be done only if there are proper and serious inquiries into these deaths. It is also the duty of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as the watchdog institution of human rights in the country, to be more seriously involved in ensuring an end to this police practice of casually using firearms.

– Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-08-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Extrajudicial killings,