Death in the care of the State | Sunday Observer

Death in the care of the State

How many people die while in police custody in this country? How many times have we read news reports of people ‘dying’ or being ‘killed while escaping’ or ‘committing suicide’ while in the custody of our guardians of the Law?

Readers will acknowledge that such reports are neither rare, nor are they reported with much prominence, being such regular and common occurrences. While the country yet awaits provision of accurate statistics of such custodial deaths, readers must also satisfy themselves that such deaths in police custody are lawful occurrences.

And that is our focus today: the question of how lawful has been this loss of human life while in the care of the State. Our comment is prompted by yet another death in police custody, this time in Matara, in connection with police investigations into a major armed robbery that also resulted in the death of a brave police officer.

The Sri Lankan Republic ended the practice of judicial execution in the late 1970s under the government of President J. R. Jayewardene who was elected to power on the promise of building a ‘Dharmishta Society’. To date, this country – in stark contrast with many other nations with louder claims to democratic perfection – has not implemented the death sentence. This is surely, also in keeping with the boast of Sri Lankans that their island home is a ‘Dharma Dveepa’.

Ironically, however, within the decade of the ending of judicial executions, this country was aflame with social violence, political repression and insurgency, resulting in the occurrence of an increasing number of civilian deaths – some while in police or military custody and others at the hands of mysterious, unidentified armed groups who soon became described as ‘death squads’.

At the same time, a similar number of civilians were being killed by known armed political rebels both in the north and the south of the country resulting in much confusion over the identities of the perpetrators of this sickening violence on all sides. Indeed, with such political violence rampant, many committed individual acts of murder using the larger confused situation as cover.

Even if such political violence is only a tragic history – with which we must deal with care and justice – deaths in custody in relation to civilian crime continue to occur with alarming regularity and frequency. Our long experience with the abuse of power by political and administrative actors at all levels of the State lends credence to the suspicion that many of these custodial deaths are not lawful.

The proper administration of justice requires that all persons in the custody of the State be correctly accounted for and their safety and well-being guaranteed by the State. The institutions of Law &Order, that is the Police, the CID, the Judiciary and the Prison system are supposed to be modern, sophisticated protectors of the citizenry from all harm.

Despite the seeming strength of all these institutions, many questions continue to be raised about the circumstances of these custodial deaths. The sheer number of deaths of suspected criminals – some of them no doubt with existing criminal records – while in custody but before full investigation, prosecution and conviction has been completed, begs the question whether judicial processes are being conveniently side-stepped. Such cruel circumvention could be either due to a confrontational situation or due to vested interests of those in lawful control over the suspects.

Questions need to be asked why our ‘guardians of the law’ are so incompetent as to be so frequently caught unawares when a suspect in custody (presumably handcuffed) suddenly turns violent and even finds a lethal weapon to use against his captors. In the recent Matara incident, the suspect – no doubt a seasoned gangster in this case - reportedly, suddenly produced a grenade.

It is up to a proper judicial probe to discover exactly how the death of the suspect transpired in this case. But in this year alone there have been many such reports of deaths in custody and not all of them have been of suspects who were ‘hardened gangsters’.

And then there are those many other instances where ‘known criminals’ have been killed in shoot-outs with the police – supposedly. Again, the number of instances are so many that it seems like the police and the State are conveniently freed of the labour and expense of properly judicially investigating and prosecuting these suspect offenders.

Certainly, Sri Lanka, being a developing country, has a long way to go before our institutions of law and order and their dedicated and hard-working personnel are fully trained and equipped with the best resources and facilities to prosecute crime and ensure public peace and safety. It has been pointed out by expert organisations, including the Asian Human Rights Commission, that it is very often due to the lack of ability to rigorously and scientifically prosecute that the police resort to extra-institutional actions or are susceptible to outside influences to bend the law.

The armed forces have benefitted from much state investment in the national effort to combat successive, devastating insurgencies. It is time that the Sri Lanka Police and related agencies and their staff also receive the same extensive facilitation to empower them and enable them to carry out their national duty. The public knows full well that the Police are brave, caring and selfless in fulfilling their duties.

Our Police have been as heroic as our armed forces personnel in the fulfilment of duty. What is needed is a rigorous mix of strict interdiction of any miscreants and intensive infusion of training, equipment and incentives for best practices. 


Well written article, it is about time [mounted dash-camera's] on all police vehicles, and camera's in remand cells , but it will take another 100 years to implement.