Fighting organised crime under archaic laws | Sunday Observer

Fighting organised crime under archaic laws

Sri Lanka has seen a rapid rise in organised crime in the post war era due to various socioeconomic and political needs. As gruesome killings, gang violence and the rampant drug mafia continue to make headlines, the Sri Lanka Police in recent years has been fighting a tough battle to curb organised crime within the country, with Sri Lanka also becoming a major transit and source point along the South and South East Asian smuggling routes. The increasing numbers of criminal gangs even moved the Police to establish a specialised Organised Crime Division within the force in 2017, focusing particularly, on gangs, illicit drugs and illegal weapons.

However, the Police has had to face many challenges in the process. As a senior officer tasked with dealing with organised crime puts it, “Collective failure of various elements in society and the Criminal Justice system, which gives rise to crime, often falls on the Police”. He says, while the Police has looked at many aspects to fight organised crimes, the improvement or development of other elements which can help in the process must be looked at, as well.

Delivering a speech at the Transnational Organised Crimes seminar held recently, Senior DIG Crimes, Organised Crime, Narcotics and STF Commandant M.R Latiff noted that Sri Lanka currently faces various legal, social and administrative obstacles when combating organised crime. Among those was the shocking revelation that Sri Lanka is yet to bring into force, laws particularly focused on organised crime. While countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and even neighbouring India as well as Nepal, have focused on fighting organised crime, Sri Lanka is yet to follow course, making the task of the Police all the more difficult. “We have no definition even to recognise what constitutes an organised crime” he pointed out adding that in Sri Lanka one person killing another is immediately labelled as organised crime, as a result.

But, over a decade ago, Sri Lanka did attempt to introduce an Organised Crime Prevention Act. While its draft was presented to Parliament, it was later shelved due to claims that the law would be unconstitutional.

However, perhaps, recognising its need in the modern context, former Law and Order Minister, Sagala Ratnayake announced in March 2017 that the Sri Lankan Government will introduce an Organised Crime Prevention Act to control drug trafficking, in order to support the already established Organized Crime Division. But a year on, and a change of Ministers, it appears as though the proposal has now been forgotten, leaving the Police to grapple with organised crime under existing archaic laws.

According to the seniorPolice official, other than a few newly implemented laws, a majority of the laws continue to be archaic. “They have not kept up with recent times” he points out. Although newer laws, to do with Money Laundering, and Computer Crimes for example, have been introduced, he calls them merely cosmetic. “These are knee jerk reactions to whatever that happens” he says.

For example, Police say they continue to face issues in proving charges levelled at those accused of being part of organized crimes, due to tough provisions needed on Evidence. “The courts anticipate strong evidence against the suspects of organised crime” Senior DIG Latiff noted during the seminar, claiming that this can be a daunting task.

As Criminologist and Senior Lecturer, University of Jayawardenepura, Udaya Kumara Amarasinghe points out, witnesses are often too afraid to come forward while professional criminals generally do not leave evidence trails that can be picked up by the Police. But, with the burden of proof falling on the Police, it leaves them at a disadvantage letting many criminals walk free even after being apprehended.

Under existing laws the subject of Admissibility of Evidence is yet another issue faced by the Police. According to Amarasinghe, often, gaps in recording statements, collecting evidence by the Police and its presentation, also add to the issues of admissibility. “Legal experts hired by these criminals often pick on these contradictions and lapses to secure the release of their clients” he points out. As Latiff noted, often the battle is between legal luminaries such as, President’s Counsels and merely O/L or A/L qualified Policemen.

Meanwhile, in an already cumbersome legal process, the method to forfeit the proceeds of criminal activity too is long drawn out and tedious, which often benefits criminals. The Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act 1999 on the other hand elaborates on forfeiture and goes into all aspects of it giving clear guidelines to Judges on blacklisting assets and their quick confiscation.

Many laws enacted around the world to fight Organized Crime defines what it is, lists the relevant crimes, while carrying tougher penalties and are often non bailable. “Here, however, we see members of gangs walking free, out on bail” the Officer pointed out adding that it can be disheartening to those who yearn for justice. “The families of victims get upset, but they do not understand the nitty-gritty of the laws” he says. Evidence Admissibility is also less tougher on the Police under these laws enacted around the world. “But, with Sri Lanka Police’s credibility and reputation for abusing certain laws there is perhaps a reluctance on the legislature to provide the new laws needed” he noted.

However, Amarasinghe says, he believes taking corrective measure to address issues such as, witness protection, admissibility of evidence, utilizing existing laws are sufficient. “I don’t think there is a lack of necessary laws” he says, adding that often Organized Crime laws in countries target major criminal organizations such as, the Yakuza in Japan or the Cosa Nostra in Italy. “We only have much smaller criminal gangs in Sri Lanka as opposed to Criminal Organizations” he points out, adding that therefore, the existing laws are sufficient.

But, the Police beg to differ. According to them enacting a Prevention of Organized Crime is paramount to combat organized crime within the country. While grave crimes have dropped, and case resolving rates have soared, nevertheless, the Police say legal developments are needed as they continue to be dependent on existing laws. As the Senior Police officer noted, Laws must evolve to meet contemporary socio economic needs.

“In a fast changing world, a decade on, are we still going to fight organised crimes under these archaic laws?” he questions.