Punishing Tamils under the guise of ‘checking’

By K. Arvind

The right of a lawfully constituted government to bring in “special measures” during periods of exceptional stress for the conduct of government is something that cannot be questioned provided these special measures are sanctioned through the established legal process. In the background of a deeply polarized society under threat from “extra-legal” action, not excluding armed attacks such as the one we are now faced with, the sympathy of the public must be with the democratically elected government.

The much-detested checkpoints and the entry of police and armed forces personnel into one’s home – are some inconveniences we are all willing to suffer in the wider interest of the country. But the introduction of such drastic measures always coughs up the wrong variety of “enforcer” on the side of the state. While one side would say they are only carrying out their duties by the state, there are valid reasons for the other side to say that under the guise of legitimate “checking”, they are being harassed, incarcerated unnecessarily and their household belongings sometimes robbed.

Sometime after November last when the new government took over, hundreds of Tamils were taken into various police stations in the city after their homes were subject to the humiliation of late night raids. Some of the housewives taken were not even given the chance of changing into other clothing than the nightwear they were in. In the Havelock Town area, a Sinhala mother and a bank executive daughter, upon seeing their years-long Tamil neighbour being forcibly taken by the police, charged into the police station in minutes, using strong language and bravely managed to help secure the early release of their friend and neighbour.

Many taken in these raids were Tamils who have lived all their lives in Colombo. They have not seen the ‘colour’ of Jaffna, Trincomalee or Batticaloa. Some have lived in the same Colombo addresses for over three decades with no adverse police reports against them. Some were senior government servants, mercantile executives and successful businessmen. Taken in were also several youth born in various parts of the North-East Provinces though many of them were in legitimate employment in Colombo for long periods of time.

Dozens were detained in sub-human conditions in tiny shabby enclosures. Pregnant women, held for long hours, were given small bottles to ‘relieve’ themselves while others watched.

Though the Police and Army refuted all charges against them, most of these people taken in were shocked when they were privately told if they were prepared to pay “something”, they would be released. Some Tamils thus detained, accepted the kind ‘offer’.

It was edifying when a police high-up with the Bribery Commissioner’s Department at a police conference televised recently, openly admitted tha, 99% were totally innocent and released after being held for many hours and sometimes days. He openly admitted police officials demand bribes for their release.

He goes further and notes the “going” tariff, for release:

Rs. 3,000 for those possessing all identification documents and who have been resident in Colombo all their lives (some over 70 years).

Rs. 50,000 from those born in the North-East, but who have been resident throughout in South for long; the same tariff for youth born in the North-East:

Rs. 100,000 for youth born in Vavuniya, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu and

Rs. 200,000 for those youth with no identification – newcomers to Colombo and whose whereabouts are totally unknown to the police even after weeks of investigation. The last category poses a potential threat to the state.

Some suggestions for the authorities:

1. Have prominent Tamils (of both sexes) to accompany the raiding parties. When a Tamil home is entered the police should get the Tamils with them to explain the purpose of the raid and seek permission to carry out their task. The presence of Tamils in the raiding squad will not only reassure Tamils being subject to search, but also eliminate the possibility of charges of harassmen, theft etc.,

2. There are instances when over 30 Police, Army men have entered two and three room apartments in the Kollupitiya area. After “checking” they get the residents to sign a document absolving the raiding party of charges involving the loss of personal belongings during the raid. This is unsatisfactory. The loss of things comes to one’s notice only after sometime. The raiding party should be no more than two to three persons.

3. Police must allow food to be brought to those detained and also allow free access to friends and relatives.

4. Government must publish and prominently display at the police stations concerned, a list of those held for more than a few hours, including their full name, address from which they were taken. Early legal access to detainees should be allowed.

5. Whenever someone is taken away from a house the most senior of the raiding/ arresting party should give an official receipt naming the party taken in, where he/she is being taken. The full name/designation of the official also should be provided compulsorily to the other house holders.

6. An acceptable methodology should be drawn for the state to pay damages/ compensation within a timeframe to those detained on flimsy, untenable grounds. The errant official/s in this case should be subject to suitable and transparent punishment and

7. Where checkpoints are concerned, WPCss to be employed where body searches of women are concerned. [Source: Island]

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