SRI LANKA: Breaking the nexus between the Sri Lankan police and criminals

In romantic notions where they world is divided between good guys and bad guys, the underworld is responsible for crimes, and the police are responsible for fighting back. A black world of criminals is pitted against a force of white angels. This notion of crime, brought to us through popular magazines and film, does not exist. The real cause of crime in Sri Lanka is the nexus between police officers and criminals. This nexus consists of simple and complex exchanges. Some include the taking of bribes to permit illegal trade in alcohol or other illicit goods, or to desist from investigating crimes and recording statements. Others involve much greater profits, such as where drugs are traded. Others still include joint operations between criminals and police officers bent on committing crimes. Without this nexus, many crimes could not be committed, or if committed, would soon be exposed. With this nexus, most crimes are readily committed, and all but impossible to expose. Any real world discussion on how to prevent crime must address this nexus as its root cause.

Why does the nexus exist?

Money. Police links offer criminals the opportunity to earn far greater profit than they would otherwise. Criminal links offer police officers access to financial gains and other resources far beyond their limited salaries. The rewards are shared across all ranks. The few officers who decline to become involved may themselves become victims of the others who are cooperating closely with criminals. Such officers find it difficult to fight the nexus, even if they are holding a high rank. Attempts to impose discipline may cause them serious trouble, or at very least see them transferred to an inactive post.

What is the overall effect of the nexus?

Anarchy. Many parts of Sri Lanka are now virtually lawless due in large part to the nexus between police and criminals. In fact, the country may well be on the brink of a catastrophe far beyond anything ever faced before. The effects are now being felt by the middle and affluent classes, no longer just the poor. Unable to control the deeply destructive forces that have banded together, society moves towards disaster. While most people already find daily reality difficult, for many the near future holds much worse in store.

Who polices the police?

Nobody. At present, the criminal justice system lacks the means to investigate police officers. Even relatively narrow inquiries into police wrongdoing cause strong backlashes by police, to the extent of threatening to strike if they are investigated. During recent times, witnesses in criminal torture cases against police have been subjected to threats, attacks, and most recently, murder. The police officers involved have been able to use the unique combination of their authority and links to the underworld to obstruct investigations into their wrongdoing.

Can the nexus be broken through the police hierarchy?

No. Attempts at taking serious action to counter the nexus always encounter obstacles. Police have threatened to strike at attempts to impose discipline. Even minor attempts at limited action by the National Police Commission (NPC) have been seriously resisted on the ground that these steps would hinder crime prevention. Such rhetoric barely conceals open defiance of discipline. Some senior police officers speaking earlier about crime prevention have now begun to justify inaction by asserting that they must prevent a crisis within the police force. They now talk of a ‘balance’, which means downplaying the importance of discipline. Business must be allowed to go as usual lest even the minimally functioning police system collapse altogether. Thus senior officers are frightened away from dealing with the nexus. They are even afraid to take disciplinary action in minor cases. In short, a systemic paralysis prevents the possibility that the criminal-police nexus can be addressed.

Can crime be prevented through the death sentence?

This question could be rephrased as, would society agree to execute a large number of its police? The same persons who readily say yes to the first question would stop short of replying in the affirmative to the second. The reason is that in proposing the death sentence the objective is not in fact to prevent crime, but to avoid having to address the nexus that is its progenitor. Increasing crime provokes social insecurity. People need to feel safe. The easy way out is to exaggerate the powers of the hangman to mythical proportions. The public is asked to believe that when the death sentence is introduced, crime will magically disappear. Such disingenuous solutions appear most often in response to dramatic crimes, such as the recent killing of a high court judge. However, no victim of crime will really believe that the hangman is a saviour, or a means to prevent further crime.

Is there another way to prevent crime?

The answer to this question depends largely upon the extent to which citizens are willing to speak openly. Among those issues that need to be addressed are the following.

1. The weaknesses of police hierarchy, particularly the Inspector General of Police, and the Attorney General must be fully exposed. This effort should concentrate on how to establish the rule of law and provide a functioning and disciplined police service. Rhetorical commitment to people-friendly policing and the like should be condemned as hypocrisy unless accompanied by strong measures to break the criminal-police nexus.

2. The management of criminal investigations through police stations should be abandoned in favour of special unit investigations. This will allow inquiries to be carried out by competent officers. It will also weaken the links between local police and criminals. At present, officers in charge of police stations have the status of petty warlords. Promotion to officer-in-charge is usually an invitation to get rich quick. Abuses in stations happen with the connivance of those in charge. Some, judging by their records, are habituated criminals; some can even be characterised as serial killers. Therefore, breaking the nexus will require significant changes to allow specialised units to carry out criminal investigations. Keeping police stations functioning as they are now will only encourage further crime.

3. The Attorney General must also be given greater control over criminal investigations from the start. Present arrangements typically have the Attorney General spread across many functions, denying criminal prosecutions the requisite attention. The Attorney General is also usually heavily dependent on police investigators. The role of the Attorney General must be enhanced in order to counteract the negative effect on investigations of the criminal-police nexus.  Best way to do this is create a Prosecutor General’s office to deal with criminal prosecutions. To do this requires a political decision. There are vast differences between political bluff and genuine political decisions to resolve serious problems. To talk of hangman’s mythical powers and not to create an effective Prosecutor General’s office with strong powers and resources is nothing but political bluff.

4. A strong witness protection programme with sufficient resources for effective functioning is a must. In the absence of security, complainants and witnesses live in fear. The average citizen fails to cooperate to ensure the proper administration of justice for this reason, despite being deeply aware of the criminal-police nexus. Such fear can only be laid to rest through a well-publicised and highly effective witness protection programme. Thailand has recently taken the initiative to establish a witness protection office, and a number of victims of gross police abuse have been the first to benefit from it, for which it is hoped a strong precedent will be set. The Sri Lankan authorities could study this model, particularly in light of the recent killings of complainants in criminal cases, like Gerald Perera, the killing of some customs officers and other state officers, and even the killing of a judge. All of these were made possible due to the lack of an adequate witness protection programme.

5. The judiciary must take a degree of responsibility in regulating itself. There had been too mush of unresolved scandals about judiciary. The Bar Association is at present beset by constant public scandals that it has been unable or unwilling to address. Judges are now subjected to threats of death, rape or otherwise partly because of the low esteem in which the public holds the bar. The judiciary and legal profession must face up to this challenge. If the Bar Association proves incapable of doing so, and even goes to the extent of being a political stooge, then lawyers must take matters into their own hands. In fact, public liberties in Sri Lanka to a large part now depend upon the willingness of lawyers to rebel against widespread maladministration of justice. Some self-interested lawyers in powerful positions will inevitably oppose efforts at serious reform; however, they and their cohorts must be overcome to break the restraints on reform from within. It must be stated that the senior members of the bar have failed the young.

6. The National Police Commission should strongly assert its prerogative to take disciplinary control of the police as required by the constitution. Recently, elements in the police hierarchy, some officers’ unions and politicians have severely pressured it not to strongly assert this role. However, as the NPC was brought about by the public pressure that gave rise to the 17th Amendment it is duty-bound to speak frankly to the public regarding its problems. One of those relates to the number and quality of its staff. To date the NPC remains not only understaffed, but also in recruitment of officers it should be advised to opt not only for former police officers, but also persons of integrity from other walks of life. Some new blood in the agency could give it a lease on life to help it achieve its role as mandated under the constitution.

7. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka can play an enormously important role if it adopts the appropriate working style. Unfortunately, it has not yet gone beyond expressing nice words about human rights protection, even at a time that its own affairs are in disarray. The rogue elements in the staff of the HRC who have virtually brought it an extremely bad reputation both at home and abroad should be removed without delay. The criminal-police nexus has benefited from the bad practices of these rogue elements. It is time that civil society encouraged the HRC to critically examine itself and become a visible force generating a positive spirit to win the battle for the rule of law. Indeed, the commission should be at pains to influence policy in the areas described above, notably the establishing and effective management of a witness protection programme. It is sad to admit, but if there were a strong human rights commission in Sri Lanka undertaking such a role, Gerald Perera would not be dead today and many others like him would not be facing severe harassment and intimidation. For too many victims, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka remains an empty hope, but a hope nonetheless, and one that at very least should undermine, not support, the criminal-police nexus.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-54-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,