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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1733

Lalin’s Column: Hands Up, Don’t shoot

By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando

Another tragedy at a Police check point. The last one was at Pasyala (2014) .This time it was at Kokuvil on 21 October 2016 in the second year of the Yahapalanya government. It has a IGP leading it in its 150th year, 20 DIGs, a Police Commission, a Law and Order minister no less and 70,000 officers to keep the public peace. So what happened to what is probably the oldest police force in South Asia?

Sadly two 2 Jaffna university students Vijayakumar Sulakshan, age24 and (driver) and Nadarajah Gajan (rider) age 23 while on a motor bicycle were shot at the Kokuvil Kulapiddy junction police check point. Sulakshan died of gunshot injuries and Gajan died after being thrown off the vehicle. Apparently they ignored an order to stop. The familiar police cover up followed. They made out that the deaths were due to a RTA. It was refuted by the Jaffna Hospital as there were bullet injuries on both bodies.

Had it been the LTTE terrorists that did it, some politicians in Jaffna may have condoned it. No one disobeyed them at check points as many in the North and CFA time dreamers so gleefully proclaimed during the heady and bloody Palmyra days of the LTTE and their believers. Fortunately disobeying the SL Police has never been considered such a fearful proposition anywhere in SL. They do reflect society and for all their faults are largely acceptable to all.

When the Police shot Subash Jayasinghe at a road check point at Pasyala after he had got off his motor bicycle in June 2014, the following questions were asked by me in an article on 22 June which appeared in the Island and the Asian Tribune: What were the rules of engagement, standing orders and SOPs, who authorized these orders, who is in charge at the check points , who orders fire to be opened , was the order given to a particular policeman or did someone open fire on his own or without due (legal) authority? There were no answers. Apparently the policeman who shot Jayasinghe was drunk.

The people’s security and safety are the only reason for the existence of the police. Whatever the police do must be lawful and have the support of the public to be effective. So did the public support the Police having check points with armed men ready to shoot, manning them in peace time? Certainly one Chief Justice did not think so and made a ruling against such check points. That was when a war was on. How it then that is there are so many check points all over SL yet and no public protests or legal action has been taken? Possibly the public were lulled into believing it was for their good and the administrators did not want to rock the rickety boat or ignored it. Result: Loss of two irreplaceable lives at around midnight on 20/21 October 2016 of peaceful if unsteady, over enthusiastic and daring undergrads of the Jaffna University.

According to the IGP it was an accident. So did two young men have to die because the police have accidents with fire arms? Another authority said such incidents (accidental killings) occur elsewhere too. Is this what the public bargained for or expected? There were nationwide protests at the killings but the check points continue. The dead could have been a pregnant woman, a critically ill person, a runaway couple or just two inebriated frivolous youths or even petty criminals. What law permits killing them simply because they did not stop at a check point when ordered? Will this in time become a social time bomb waiting to explode ? Of course if they were criminals who have committed a crime for which the death penalty is mandatory there would be few or no protests even if the killing was not lawfully executed. That is unfortunately what SL society absorbs, bred on 30 years of terrorist brutality that laid waste 100,000 lives.

Is it not more effective to have snap check points and mobile and foot patrols doing random checks on roads instead? The present static check points will surely be avoided by professional criminals unless they have no alternative get away route when pursued. It is opportune to also outlaw the possession of fire arms by private individuals as in Singapore (where the penalty for such possession is death).There were over 30,000 unlicensed fire arms before the conflict ended according to retired SSP Tassie Seneviratne. It could be double that or more now. For reasons best known to the powerful but not a secret to the public this unhealthy trend continues with many politicians having private armed platoons. The planned future ‘Megapolis’ consequently may encourage Chicago type gun violence. Life in SL remains extraordinarily cheap.

Is it time that the former Defence Secretary’s decision (2010) to have only unarmed police on routine duties be implemented very quickly. If an armed threat crops up, the use of weapons can be authorized to overcome it at that time only. Was there any such threat at Kokuvil? If not, who authorized this and other armed check points?

There is no justification to take life unless it is allowed by law. According to SL ‘s laws with regard to the person, if there is a threat of murder, grievous injury, rape, abduction, kidnapping, commission of an unnatural offence, the taking of the offender’s life is justifiable but only as a preventive measure and not after the event unless the threat continues. Thus except to prevent the above, arming the police should be the exception and be authorized only at the highest level .It would appear that the arming of the police in Jaffna as elsewhere in SL is a continuance of customs, practices. Tactics and drills (possibly from the time of Saradiel!) that have not been revised despite the counter terrorist conflict having ended in 2009.

In the USA adult citizens are entitled to carry weapons. The US police shoot quickly after asking a question or two. Nearly a thousand civilians are killed annually by them. About 45 police officers were killed on duty in 2015. In SL very rarely does a police officer get killed on duty in peace time. The numbers of people killed by the police are relatively few and the SL police officers are not gun happy. However the check point killings have revived nagging concerns for public security.

No mention was made by local reporters as to the identity of the 5 policemen but one DBS Jeyarajah (from Canada?) proclaimed in the media, without batting an eye lid, that they were all Sinhalese while V Sathyamurthy from Chennai said the policemen were all Tamils. The policemen were arrested and remanded. It may turn out that three of the policemen including a sub inspector were Tamils and the other two were Sinhalese. Fortunately there can be no accusations of racism here despite sly attempts at stirring.

The injuries indicated the 2 youths were shot while approaching the check point. Apparently they had gone past the check point at Thinnavady junction ignoring an order to stop and proceeded towards the next check point (Kokuvil-Kulapiddy) which was informed and possibly agitated. The shooting occurred as the motor cycle approached. No details of the results of the post mortem are known yet to confirm the correct circumstances of the shooting.

The President immediately announced that an impartial inquiry would be held. The Prime Minister who when the incident occurred had been among other things thoroughly enjoying a visit to a European chocolate factory. On his return he reiterated or was it regurgitated exactly what the President said. Is there any need for the Prime Minster to echo the Executive President?

TNA leader Sambandan called for exactly what the President promised. Antics on TV of another politician, his hands flailing the air, brought light relief. Apparently police must first fire in the air, then at the tyres of the vehicle and if all fails they should shoot at the chest. He also questioned why the police did not pursue the 2 undergrads with their 1,000 cc bikes and catch them? Actually the victims were approaching the check point not disappearing when shot at. Bit of an exciting ‘hora’(rogues)/ police tele drama to give him cheap thrills.

While it is not known from where these revelations came, he appears to be blissfully unaware that a shot in the air could injure or kill someone totally disconnected with the incident. As for shooting at the chest or below the knee, the margin of error between the distance from the knee to the chest or the chest to the head would be roughly the same for a motor cyclist bent over the handle bars while thundering along. In this case the driver zigzagged down the road making himself and the passenger even a more difficult target. It increased the shooter’s margin of error whatever the point of aim was. Especially so as the shooter was a policeman more used to lugging a weapon than actually using it , and more so if he in fact had been a police driver as rumored. However it is the arming and shooting that should be stopped and not the selection of which parts of the anatomy are safer aiming points.

Sadly what this human windmill like politician admitted is that shooting whether over the head or below the knee at check points in normal times is justified. Obviously it was not in this instance and so it has been in the majority if not all such shootings before in normal times. If shooting at check points in normal times at unarmed persons is not prohibited immediately, many more unfortunate police killings could occur.

What must be asked is under what law can a human life be taken legally in times of peace? Even if a senior politician carried away by his excitement at unexpectedly holding high office again, unwisely declared quoting inappropriate laws that Indian fishermen who trespassed into SL’s territorial waters could be shot. This is not an action that the police (or the SL Navy in that case) should attempt.

Then who is actually responsible for what happened in Jaffna that night? Is it the policeman who shot, the one who gave the order, the OiC who deployed the check point officers, the DIG (North) the IGP, the Ministry Secretary, the Minister of Law and Order and or the Police Commission? What were the written standing orders, SOPs, Rules of Engagement? When were they issued, were they ever updated? Or were the police blindly following past practices without giving a thought to the vastly changed circumstances since the LTTE became history.

It would be appropriate and necessary to record here that in 1990, 600 Police officers were murdered by the LTTE in the East in one day. It did not strike even a chord of concern to the leaders of the TNA/ITAK, allies of the LTTE as ruled by a Canadian court no less. They may now be straining at the leash over the deaths of the 2 youths even as they declaim that the Sinhalese are racists.

However SSP Tassie Seneviratne has written about it many times over 20 years and one Nesiah did so in the ‘Island’ a few months ago. The UNP government of the day however avoided the issue. One reason could be that the government ordered the police not to fight back but to surrender and was complicit in the tragedy. No government ever since has taken action to bring those responsible to task for reasons best known to them. While legal action on the deaths of the two Jaffna undergrads proceeds, the massacre of the 600 policemen in 1990 cannot be kept under wraps any longer also.

Meanwhile the need even to have permanent check points, resulting in deaths of innocents and causing unease if not unrest among the public, needs to be reconsidered. The arming of policemen except in exceptional circumstances authorized by the Ministry Secretary should be the rule. Eventually an unarmed police force should be the aim of public/ police relations and good governance, resulting in a effective and exemplary police force.

- Asian Tribune -

 Lalin’s Column: Hands Up, Don’t shoot
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