We are fighting the underworld for real- Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake | Sunday Observer

We are fighting the underworld for real- Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake

PIC: RUWAN DE SILVA
PIC: RUWAN DE SILVA

Outlining his plans to reform the police department and raise the living standard of policemen, Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake said the government was fighting the underworld in the south and the north head on. “There were rival gangs in the past, but today, the gangs have teamed up against the government because we are going after them for real,” he said. He said he will not use unorthodox means to fight crime but the offenders will ultimately be brought to book. “I am of the view that Sri Lanka has enough political messing about in the police. I am someone who is not popular even among the MPs because I don’t play to their whims and fancies,” the Minister said. He scoffed at the ‘absolutely wild accusations’ that he was in allegiance with the Rajapaksas and recently held a secret meeting with the Chief of Staff of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gamini Senarath who is currently being investigated for misuse of public funds..

The excerpts of the interview:

Q: Both Aluthgama and Gintota incidents began with private disputes, but Aluthgama became an inferno while Gintota was controlled, what action of the Government made the difference? 

A. On the first night of the incident at Gintota, we brought it under control. The situation started in the evening. I was on the phone with the IGP and Commandant of the STF and area Minister Vajira Abeywardena. The police and the STF brought the situation under control that evening.

The STF is based 26 km away from Galle and 28km off Gintota, so it took us a while to get them on the scene. The police held on until then. There were some skirmishes. The next day we thought the situation was becoming normal. At five a clock we reduced the number of STF static guards. But the riders and the mobiles were kept on alert.

Thereafter the situation turned around after a meeting at a temple to iron out the issues. We moved the STF back but by then it was out of control. A lot of facebook, social media inciting was going on.

I saw pictures on facebook showing people in pools of blood, claiming to be in Gintota. Rumour mongers were at play and their efforts were yielding the intended results in creating panic. Muslim MPs and Ministers quickly joined in to calm the people, it took us a while to bring things under control.

I sought the Prime Minister’s intervention to get the Army and the Navy moved in. The President and the PM discussed and agreed to our request. The Airforce was on standby. The police along with the public order teams managed to control the situation around 2.am but by that time there was damage done.

The next day we had the Budget debate on the Law and Order Ministry in Parliament. I travelled to Gintota the following day. By the time I got there the people were scared - the Sinhalese as well as the Muslims.

I felt more had to be done about understanding the layout of the village. We were not ready to face a third night of problems. We did not allow extremists to rule the day, that made the difference.

Q: Do you suspect any political hand behind it?

A. I don’t think there was a political hand behind it. It had stared with a private problem but there are these bankrupt politicians who always want to be in power. They used the opportunity to incite the people. In both communities, a very small number of extremists was causing panic.

Somehow we controlled the situation and the next morning the PM visited. He did not go to any place of worship. I too did not make mine a political visit. I wanted to make sure that everything was in order, security wise.

I saw how scared the people were. The women and children were not in the village, the men were there but they had switched off lights pretending the houses were vacant. It was like a ghost town. I don’t wish that upon anybody.

Q: That was a good lesson for the government, so any plans in the long run to prevent a repetition of the Gintota clashes?  

A. We learnt a lot from that situation and the experience will be useful in future. The IGP stated yesterday that the police failed the people as far as the Gintota incident was concerned. I don’t agree, I strongly oppose that statement. There were weaknesses. Of course we can’t have weaknesses, and learn at the expense of innocent people. But Police did not fail. Even at zero we did a fairly good job. And IGP also did a good job in facing that situation. What he says internally is one thing. It has come out in the public and I am not happy with that.

Q:You have said the masterminds overseas were controlling the ‘Awa group’ leaders in Sri Lanka. Have you initiated action to alert Interpol and get these masterminds arrested?   
 
A. Money is the mastermind behind everything. We have started investigations on the way the funds flow in. Most of the diaspora money come to their kith and kin here, not necessarily for sinister activities. There may be some organized activities but not all the time. It is about young fellows in motorcycles wanting to be Robin Hoods.

But there is an organization behind them. When they are organized the money comes in. We have advised the diaspora not to throw money into Jaffna. It should be sent to a specific project that would ensure economic benefits to the people. It may be a tourism project, industry or something that creates jobs. If not they could fund a cultural centre or a playground.

Q: There are a lot of unskilled youth in the peninsula? 

A. Of course, there are lots of unskilled youth but don’t leave it all to the government. The diaspora money can also be effectively used.

Q:With the arrest of the Awa group leader recently, how confident are you of dealing with the rest of the gang members ?   
 
A. We just arrested two Awa leaders last night in Kopai. We had tremendous public support to do it. Not only the Awa group but any organized crime group will have no space in Sri Lanka. We have a zero tolerance policy on that. We must also stop the drug menace in the country. The organized crime and drugs generally go hand in glove.

In the past, the arms and weapons trade was part of the organized crimes here but that has ceased after the war ended and is not prevalent anymore.

Q: How many more leaders of Awa group are to be arrested ?

A. I don’t have the figures right now.

Q: There is an allegation that the current government has not been able to control the rise of the underworld... It was claimed that the former Defence Secretary used unorthodox but effective methods to keep the underworld at bay during the former regime.   

 

A. I think that is not a correct reading of the current situation. The previous regime used the underworld to control the underworld and their political opponents. For them some of the underworld was illegal, while the others were not.

On the other hand the reporting of incidents was controlled by the top officials in the Government. No journalist dared to step outside their limitations. They did not want to be victims.

We are fighting the underworld for real and they know it. There is only one underworld kingpin in Sri Lanka at present, while the others have fled the country. They operate from overseas and we are pursuing them. In the meantime we are working on dismantling the local networks.

It is not an easy job, as soon as we latch on to a notorious kingpin, and work on a serious charge, they go to prison on a milder offence and later come out on bail. There were rival gangs in the past but today, the gangs have teamed up against the government because we are going after them for real.

There is only one group working alone. We’ve identified everything but with very basic equipment to help out. Despite the obstacles, we have made a tremendous headway, these men have the capacity, capability and dedication. Of course, there will always be the odd fellow who is corrupt. The underworld, drugs and weapons involve a lot of money and it could be very attractive. Even after the salary increase I don’t think the police department salaries are good enough.

But the majority hold their ground and I have tremendous respect for them.

Q: There are accusations that you protect the Rajapaksas and that you have recently met former President’s Chief of Staff Gamini Senerath. What is the basis for these allegations ?   

A. I responded to all these allegations last week. The police have done a lot of work and handed over the cases to the Attorney General. The AG’s Department is working on them. These are complex cases, AG has filed indictments on some cases over financial crimes. The killings and abductions are being handled by the CID and there is substantial progress. We started below zero with no evidence to start off. The evidence in the Ekneligoda, Thajudeen, Lasantha Wickremathunga and Keith Noyahr cases were concealed.

Keith Noyahr still doesn’t want to return to the country for fear of his life. He came back only to record a statement. The laws have now been put in place for him to give evidence via video conferencing. Hence, the trial can start soon, after a few legal hurdles are cleared.

I must add that when it comes to law and order, there is very little grey area. It is mostly black or white. If someone has committed a crime there is no escape. Yet it is up to the courts to punish the offenders, not the Minister. I just support and facilitate so that the law can take its due course.

I am of the view that Sri Lanka has enough political messing in the police. I am someone who is not popular even among the MPs because I don’t play to their whims and fancies.

Q: Is it frustration that drives them into make such allegations?   

A. It could be, but then the Court system should also be upgraded. Important cases get repeatedly postponed and hearing dates are way apart in certain instances. The AG’s Department needs to be beefed up. I need more help, for instance, from the Foreign Ministry when seeking mutual legal assistance from overseas. I do agree that we need to speed up the trials.

We have already made proposals for a speedy structure in the courts system.

As for the allegation over Gamini Senerath, I don’t know him. I have met him once, many years ago. Even if I see him on the road I would not recognize him. I have had wild accusations thrown at me. You must have some reasonable ground to make such claims. I feel sorry for the people who keep throwing those accusations at me, because they are absolutely baseless.

Q: Whose brainchild is the project to re-structure the Tourist Police unit ? When will it actually take off the ground ?   

A. It’s a unit that is already there. We are going to completely revamp the entire unit. At present they operate in the same uniforms as other police officers. They don’t have the wherewithal. I feel we have not picked the right people for this unit. Tourist police needs a lot of PR and a lot of patience.

The funds have already been allocated for the project. They will have new equipment to facilitate their job, like beach buggies, etc. There has been a lot of discussion on the police uniform in ‘general’, whether it should be changed. We have decided not to do it immediately, since we are now going through a complete reform process.

Sir Hugh Orde, former Northern Ireland Police Chief and President of the Association of Chief Police Officers of UK is advising us on this project. After the conflict in Northern Ireland he reformed the Northern Ireland police force. In that position he advises the government on how the police should be reformed from time to time.

The ongoing process involves consultations within the police department at every level and also with the public and other stakeholders.

He will oversee the implementation part as well. It will be a long process. We want to take on the re-branding of the police - the colours, the sign boards, stations, the uniform - all these will be a package of the reform process.

As far as the tourist police is concerned we don’t want to wait so long. We want to get it off ground immediately. The proposal is to have a different uniform based on the location they are assigned. For example one uniform for duty on the coastal line and another in historical sites like Sigiriya or Dalada Maligawa.

There will not be a whole range of uniforms but a few, depending on the location of duty, so that it will help tourists to make the distinction.

Q: How long do you think it will take for the uniform of the tourist police to change?   

It would take two years.

In the meantime we are planning to issue light weight shoes and hats for all members of the police Department irrespective of their rank. There will be no discrimination. The tailoring of uniforms will also be streamlined so that they will not have to go from pillar to post, like how it happens now. Everyone will get the same material, of best quality. There will be minor changes in the uniform for high rankers but basically it would be the same for everyone in service.

Q: The Rs.5 billion police department modernization project, has it been halted ?   

A. This is one of the things that we have not progressed in. The police department may not agree with me but I strongly believe that we have not got the knowledge within the Police department to carry out such a task. We need to get some help from outside.

There are people in Sri Lanka who can help, but we need to tap international expertise on public order management, public safety and to maintain law and order. We need a good resource person or may be a team of people to take on that task.

We are starting the project, in 2018. We wanted to get some advice from the Microsoft, but the procurement system in this country takes so long hence, one whole year was lost on that. The Treasury has said they would help us to cut through the red tape next year and get the funds released.

Q: Does that mean the said modernization project is still on?  

A. The one that had been handed to us was prepared some six years ago. We need a project to keep up with technology. We should not lag behind other countries. We should not spend that kind of money without a good plan.

Q: There is a perception that the Inspector General is not adhering to the rulings of the Police Commission?   

A. I think that perception may not be correct. Of course there may be healthy discussions which is not a bad thing. In my view, the Police Commission and the IGP are working together. I don’t take part in Police Commission meetings, it is an independent body.

The police and the Ministry have been working with the Police Commission in unravelling the mess of promotions and transfers, so as to have proper systems in place. The mess had been created over the years. You cannot blame just one government. It had been bad during certain governments, the last being one of them. The transfers are not that complicated. We do take special cases into consideration, like a sick child or a wife. But the promotions are a mess.

Unravelling the promotions had been a very difficult task. If you make it fair for one group the others are up in arms. Therefore we should do it, in a proper way since such things contribute to de-motivate the staff, which is not good for the system. We need a motivated police force.

It is not only money that motivates them. We need to look at career advancement and family life. Of course, we have increased their salaries by 40%. That is fairly a good amount. But we don’t think it should stop at that. They work under extreme conditions on harsh work shifts without proper sleep. Gintota was a good example, they were up all three nights of the clashes. Hence we cannot put them in the context of others. 

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