Outrage over death of suspect in police custody | Sunday Observer

Outrage over death of suspect in police custody

The death of a suspect in the Matara jewellery heist while in police custody drew swift condemnation from Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a Matara District Parliamentarian who tweeted that it was a “brutal murder” yesterday while lawyers and human rights activists slammed the police action as an “extra-judicial” killing.

“The rule of law must prevail even when dealing with criminals,” Minister Samaraweera tweeting last evening after police claimed the suspect had been shot trying to retrieve a hand-grenade from a hiding spot – the same sequence of events used by police personnel to justify multiple deaths in police custody.

The suspect and victim of yesterday’s shooting Chamara Indrajith was one of four suspects who were arrested during a jewellery robbery in Matara town. A gunfight ensued when police officers arrived on the scene while the robbery was taking place, leading to the death of one policeman and injury to two civilians.

An irate Finance Minister tweeted that the tit-for-tat murders were tantamount to a breakdown in the rule of law.

“The brutal murder of a Police Constable on duty cannot be justified by an equally brutal murder of suspect whilst in police custody. This is Yahapalanaya, not Yamapalanaya,” Samaraweera tweeted.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris said whenever a death occurs in police custody, the law must provide for an immediate independent investigation. He said the same familiar story had been heard too often. “A suspect in police custody, taken to recover something suddenly hurls a grenade taken from thin air and is promptly shot dead,” Pieris PC added. “There should be no room for extra-judicial killings in this country,” he charged.

Attorney at Law Chandrapala Kumarage told Sunday Observer that the suspect Indrajith’s death was an extra-judicial killing and amounted to “cold-blooded murder.”

“This is a repetition of incidents that took place in the past, where Police takes the suspect away to another location to check something, and then suddenly, a weapon materializes and the suspects attacks the Police with it. Then, the Police say he was killed in self defense, but this is just an excuse,” Kumarage said, echoing Pieris’ statements.

Police custody was protective custody, the senior lawyer said, where police have an obligation to ensure the security of the suspects. “Therefore, action must be taken to prevent repetition of such incidents. The Police officers involved in the incident should be taken into custody and an inquiry should be held with independent witnesses,” he said.

The main suspect, Chamara Indrajith who was shot dead yesterday, was arrested by the Police few hours after the incident while in hiding in a house in the Hunukotuwa area.

Police claimed the suspect had been taken to a place identified as ‘Kirala Kale’ to uncover a bag carrying clothes and other equipment used for the robbery. However soon after the suspect has found the bag had retrieved a hand grenade from it and attempted to throw it at the police officers and an officer fired at the suspect inflicting injuries resulting in death, the police report on the incident claimed.

Police Spokesman ASP Ruwan Gunasekera said the suspect had succumbed to his injuries on admission to hospital.

Three other suspects are currently receiving treatment at the Karapitiya hospital while the two civilians and the two police officials are receiving treatment at the Matara hospital. Several attempts to reach the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka for comment on the shooting were unsuccessful. The death of suspects in police custody rarely gets investigated independently despite how widespread the phenomenon has become.

In almost every case, the suspect is a member of the underworld, or stands accused of injuring or killing police personnel. The police report in almost every one of these cases, the suspect either tries to recover a weapon or jumps into a water-body while leading police officers to evidence. The incidents occurred with alarming regularity while the previous Government was in power, but have continued sporadically even in the last few years, leading lawyers and rights activists to believe that it is a systemic issue within the police department.