The website ‘www.educationworld.in’ lists the most barbaric and brutal prisons in the world. Three of the top twelve are located in the USA. Number three on the list is Riker’s Island, New York City. Number four is the Attica Correctional Facility, also in New York. San Quentin State Prison, the oldest prison in California, is number twelve.
This however is not about the brutality and racism that signatures the prison industrial complex that is the United States of America. It’s about a phenomenon that cuts across boundaries but focuses more on things ‘near’ rather than ‘afar’.
Here’s a date I remember. The 27th of February, 1992. Time: around midnight. Place. Wadduwa Police Station, Sri Lanka. Subject: police brutality.
Earlier that day more than a dozen activists were abducted by a group of armed men. The activists were having a discussion in a temple. They soon found out that their abductors were from the Wadduwa Police. They were tied up, questioned and threatened.
That night the Officer-in-Charge, who happened to be drunk, assaulted almost every single person in custody, including bhikkus and elderly men. Still later, he would order two suspected smugglers to beat each other with a club, screaming and urging each to hit the other harder.
The activists were held there for four days after which they were transferred to two police stations in Colombo and a securing coordinating division, also in Colombo. Released three weeks after they were arrested, the group filed a Fundamental Rights application to which the then Attorney-General responded with charges of sedition, filed in the Panadura High Court. The FR application resulted in a landmark decision cited more than a dozen times in Justice A.R.B. Amarasinghe’s comprehensive book on the history of fundamental rights in Sri Lanka. The petitioners were compensated for illegal arrest, illegal detention and torture. The Panadura case was dismissed.
That was, all things considered, nothing. Nothing compared to what happened in the late 1980s. There were abductions, proxy arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings including people being burnt alive. To the tune of 60,000 killed in just two years. Yes, the UNP-JVP time best known as ‘The Bheeshanaya‘ or ‘The Terror.’
Nothing compared to the killing of 53 Tamil prisoners in ‘prison riots’ at Welikada on July 25 and 27, 1983. They were suspected terrorists, but that’s a different issue. Once apprehended, the due judicial process must unfold with all rights affirmed. UNP time.
On October 24, 2000 26 LTTE suspects undergoing rehabilitation in a detention center in Bindunuwewa were killed by mobs. The involvement of detention facility authorities is unclear, but it was prisoners who were killed in both instances prisoners. Unarmed. Vulnerable. This was during the reign of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance, led by the SLFP.
The story of the Welikada prison riot of November 9-10, 2012 has been comprehensively covered in ’12-11-10’ written by one of the most honorable young journalists in Sri Lanka, Kasun Pussewela. Prompted by a search for illegal arms, the riots left 27 dead. The guilty are still at large. Race wasn’t an issue here but that’s no consolation for victims. This was during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the United People’s Freedom Allianca, led by the SLFP.
And then we had the ‘Yahapalana Times’. Here’s a list:
Manjula Asanka and Raseen Chintaka of Boossa, Galle, were abducted by several police officers, tortured and killed. Naval Appuhamuge Edward of Hunumulla, Gampaha was tortured and killed while in police custody. Magoda Pathirage Hemavipul was found dead in a police cell. Sathasivam Madisam of Karadiyanaru, Batticaloa fell into the Mundeniyaru Lagoon while he, along with some friends, were being chased by STF personnel. The police did not allow his friends to rescue him. Manjula Prabhath Wijewardena was shot dead by the police outside the Mayurapada Central College, Mawanella. Chadik Shyaman Wickramarachchi was killed while in custody at the Pelilyagoda Police Station. Sunanda Dias was killed while in custody at the Gampaha Police Headquarters. Nadaraja Kajan and Pavun Raj Sulakshan, two Jaffna University students were shot dead by officers of the Kankasaturai Police Station. Sumith Prasanna Munasinghe was pushed off a building by officers attached to the Embilipitiya Police.
Race wasn’t an issue in these cases either but that’s no consolation for victims. Kasun would later write a comprehensive book on impunity (‘Vinirmukthiya’) which covers transgressions between 1948 and 2018 including pressure exerted by regimes and rulers on the judiciary.
Police and brutality go together, it seems. Of course not all police officers are brutes and not all accused are saints. However, it is not a country-specific issue. There are irresponsible officers. Systems that are made to go soft on the errant certainly don’t help. Systems that are racist at some fundamental level make it worse.
I still remember the case of Amadou Diallo. On February 4, 1999, the 23-year-old Guinean was killed by four decorated officers of the NYPD — Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss. Carroll would later claim to have mistaken him for a rape suspect from one year earlier, though his claim was never confirmed by any objective evidence. The officers fired a combined total of 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo. The four officers were charged with second-degree murder but were all acquitted at trial in Albany, New York.
We mourn George Floyd. We mourn Amadou Diallo. We call out systemic violence against non-Whites in the USA. We protest police brutality in that country. We are horrified when the killers are let off by their institutions and the courts. We cannot look the other way when it happens here. Here in Sri Lanka.
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