The peoples discontent at the actions of the government’s representatives and its polices have become a routine phenomena.

Yesterday, news broke of how the people of Nahurupola in the Galpatha area tied Harsha Jayasiri, a member of the Panadura pradeshiya sabha, to a lamp post and handed him over to the Kalutara police after calling them on the hotline. Jayasiri, who is from the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna, had been drunk and harassing the locals. He had broken two window panes of a house and caused chaos in the neighbourhood. A medical examination had confirmed that the provincial politician was drunk. The police were to produce him before the Kalutara Magistrate’s court yesterday. It was not the first time Jayasiri had terrorized the local community and this time around it was their chance to turn on him.

Before that the state minister Mohan De Silva was assaulted with a helmet in Rajagama by his supporters. It was their way of venting their anger at the rising cost of living. In just one month, food prices have risen by an average of 63 percent even as people queue for essentials including rice, sugar, milk powder and domestic gas.

Last week thousands of people took to the streets in Colombo to protest at the cost of living in what was perhaps the biggest public protest since president Gotabaya Rajapakse took office. The protest was organized by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the main opposition political party, and coincided with the second anniversary of the president’s tenure as head of state. The large turn- out was despite the police stopping thousands of others from provincial areas such as Badulla, Bandarawela, Kandy, Haputale, Gampaha and Peliyagoda from joining the Colombo protest.

The government had been trying hard to disrupt the protest which the opposition had been speaking about publicly and well in advance of the gathering.

The government is scared of us, bellowed opposition leader Sajith Premadasa addressing the crowd at the end of the protest.  They had walked from his office in Colombo to Galle Face, close to the country’s business hub in Fort. ‘It is using quarantine regulations to suppress dissent.

Premadasa was alluding to the government’s declaration of anti- coronavirus regulations days before the protest. Among the provisions was a limitation to the number of people at public gatherings.

While security was beefed up especially with a heavy military presence in the vicinity of the parliament crowd containment measures were also put in place. More than 50 roadblocks are reported to have been set up around the countryand the police were seen turning away SJB supporters who were coming with their organisers from the outstations to join the protest in Colombo.

There were angry scenes as protestors confronted the police who were citing quarantine regulations for not allowing them to enter the city. Protestors were seen lying across the road and having heated exchanges with the police about why they were not allowed to pass through. There were visuals of spikes that had been laid across the road to prevent buses carrying protestors from passing even though regular buses were allowed to proceed. It prompted protestors to question the police why buses that had more travelers in them than those in which they were travelling were allowed to proceed even though they were not. Some protestors were carrying effigies of President Gotabaya Rajapakse, his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and their older brother Chamal Rajapakse who is also a senior minister in the government.

The police in several areas applied to their local magistrates court to get an order to stop the protest  from taking place.  Among those who turned down the police request were the Fort Magistrate, the Colombo Chief Magistrate and the additional magistrate in the Mount Lavinia court. On the other hand, some magistrates courts including those in Thalangama and Mirihana, issued orders to stop the protest.  

SJB organisers have vowed to take the government to court for preventing their supporters from taking part in the protest. Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and assembly.

During his speech to his followers at the end of the protest, Premadasa swore to stop the misery the people are having to endure because of among others the skyrocketing cost of living,and to revive the economy and society. He said he will protect the country’s sovereignty and not allow an authoritarian regime to take root.

That same day in Panamure in the Ratnapura district, an angry mob surrounded the policestation and almost assaulted police officers after tensions between the two groups spilled over following the death of a man in police custody.According to the police the man had hung himself in his cell. He had been taken to the local hospital but was presumably dead on arrival. The SJB told parliament that the manhad reportedly taken part in the opposition’s protest. Responding to the SJB, Public Security minister Sarath Weerasekara told parliament about the dead man’s antecedents and his involvement with narcotics. He said that the man’s immediate family had also lodged complaints about him to the police.  

Sri Lanka’s record of deaths in police custody have come under scrutiny repeatedly.  In the annual report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which was tabled at the 46thHuman Rights Council sessions in January this year, the High Commissioner expresses concernabout deaths in police custody.  Special mention is made of the deaths that have happened during encounters between the police and criminal gangs given that they cannot be divorced from the statements made by senior political figures including the president, about the need to be tough on law and order and drug control. The report lists five such deaths that took place between June and October 2020, including that of Samarasinghe Arachchige Madush Lakshitha, better known as Makandure Madush who was reported killed in police crossfire while he was in police custody.

The report also mentions deaths in policecustody due to alleged police torture.

These incidents reflect the persistence of longstanding and endemic patterns of custodial deaths, use of torture and other ill-treatment, and extrajudicial killings by law enforcement officials with impunity’, the report said.

Meanwhile British registered charity Freedom From Torture is putting pressure on the UK government to stop training the Sri Lanka police.  

Writing on 2 November this month, the group said that ‘Boris Johnson’s government is funding Police Scotland to train the Sri Lankan police force, a force with a long record of human rights abuses including torture, sexual violence and killing. Over the 15 years the training has been taking place there have been no significant improvements to human rights in the country.

It went on to explain how the Sri Lanka police use the training as a smokescreen for its brutality and human rights abuses to give the illusion that it is making improvements.  

The group is lobbying for the trainings to be stopped because it says that training a police force that uses torture risks the UK’s reputation as a country which protects human rights.

The Scottish police trainings which started in 2016 are expected to continue until March 2022. They have reportedly been put on hold because of the pandemic. Among the areas the trainings cover are community policing and gender based violence.  

It is in the midst of this growing unrest that last Friday, the President issued an extraordinary gazette calling out members of the tri forces from 22 November to maintain public order in specified areas.  


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