By Kassapa

The confirmation of Deshabandu Tennakoon as the Inspector General of Police (IGP) this week is a strong signal that the country is in for a wild ride with at least the presidential election being due by October. It also provides an insight into President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s thinking

Tennakoon begins his tenure as the most discredited Police chief in the country’s history. He has been cited as a defendant in several cases where it is alleged he violated the fundamental rights of others. Recently, the Supreme Court found him guilty of one such case and recommended that the Police Commission initiate disciplinary action against him. It is despite this despicable track record that Tennakoon has been appointed.

To begin with, it appeared that Tennakoon was Public Security Minister Tiran Alles’s choice for the top job in the Police force and that President Ranil Wickremesinghe wasn’t that convinced. That may have been the case because, rather than recommending Tennakoon’s appointment straight away, he opted instead to extend the services of former Police Chief C.D. Wickramaratne not once but several times, much to the amusement of all concerned.

Even when the appointment was finally bestowed on Tennakoon, it was on an ‘acting’ basis and limited to three months. It was during this time period that the Supreme Court made a damning determination against Tennakoon.

The Supreme Court held that four police officers violated the fundamental rights of a petitioner by his illegal arrest, detention and torture at the Mirihana Police Station, which was under the supervision of Tennakoon at the time. Gory details of the torture the petitioner was subjected to by Tennakoon was highlighted in the judgment. “The affidavit further states that the 5th Respondent (Tennakoon) himself beat the Petitioner with a ‘three-wheel rubber band’ after stripping him naked and ordering him to rub Siddhalepa on his genitalia,” Court observed, noting that “the kind of conduct on display, judged even by the lowest of standards, amounts to a magnificent failure of all that the Rule of Law stands for”.

This is where the tale of Tennakoon’s confirmation in his post becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser’. If one were to give the benefit of the doubt to President Ranil Wickremesinghe it can be assumed that at first, he had doubts about the officer’s integrity and conduct and that is why he was appointed in an ‘acting’ capacity in the first instance.

If that was indeed the case, the Supreme Court judgment, received while Tennakoon was serving in that ‘acting’ capacity, should have sealed the deal and convinced Wickremesinghe that the IGP should be anyone but Tennakoon. Yet, after becoming fully cognisant of the Supreme Court verdict, Wickremesinghe does just the opposite: he confirms Tennakoon in the post!

It was no easy task either. The Constitutional Council objected to Tennakoon’s appointment. It took the casting vote of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to get Tennakoon over the line- although even that is being disputed by the Opposition and is now the subject of an entirely different lament about the independence of the Council. They argue that that casting vote can be used only when there were equal votes ‘for’ and ‘against’- and that wasn’t the case because some members of the Council abstained.

Tennakoon still has seven petitions challenging his appointment before the Supreme Court. These have been fixed for hearing in early April. What makes his substantive appointment noteworthy are the political connotations attached to it.

It is clear that the opposition- be it the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) or the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB)- are opposed to Tennakoon’s appointment. Parliamentarians of both parties have categorically spoken out against it. So, if either party assumed power after the presidential election, Tennakoon could not only be out of a job but also facing further charges and penalties. Therefore, it must follow that Tennakoon has a vested interest in ensuring the re-election of the current regime under Wickremesinghe if he is to survive in his own job.       

Recent legislation being contemplated by the government- such as the infamous Online Safety Bill and the notorious Anti-Terrorism Act- are aimed at curbing dissent and the freedom of expression. The Police will play a pivotal role in the implementation of this legislation. How these new laws are implemented will contribute significantly to the transparency and integrity of the electoral process.

One has to only consider the recently concluded election in Pakistan- and the revelations made by whistle-blowers thereafter- to realise how easily a seemingly robust election can be manipulated to one party’s advantage. It does not take a great leap of imagination to duplicate such circumstances in Sri Lanka, especially when persons of Tennakoon’s calibre head the law country’s enforcement agency tasked with ensuring law and order.

In a way, the post of IGP is now tailor-made for Tennakoon. Tennakoon needs the government to continue in his post. The government needs a crooked cop to manipulate law and order to such an extent that election malpractices become the rule, not the exception.

That a man who has been found guilty of torture and violation of fundamental rights can be shamelessly appointed to the highest position in the Police force is a horrendous indictment of the checks and balances that supposedly ensure the equilibrium of power in Sri Lanka. That though is not the real danger.

The real danger lies in what that man can then go on to do, to ensure that those who appointed him remain in office. That it is even more significant with presidential elections looming- and a general election inevitable shortly afterwards- is obvious.

This is what the collective opposition and judiciary must be aware of and wary about. It would be naive to believe that the current regime is on the way out and that therefore, Tennakoon’s days are numbered. The man can do a lot of damage and create much havoc at the elections. If any proof of that is required, one has to only review his ‘Yukthiya’ operation.

Deshabandu Tennakoon is not just a bad cop who is doing well under a repressive government. He could be a substantial threat to democracy in Sri Lanka, so he needs to be reined in before it is too late.