Santa was questioned so much after the pregnant suicide bomber exploded that he decided to go on a diet.
Recently, checkpoints in Colombo manned by the Sri Lanka armed forces and police have become stricter and more regular. Everybody gets checked at these checkpoints; everybody finds it a pain.
However, Tamil Sri Lankans who get stopped undergo more extensive questioning than any other group. This is due to profiling, an arguably discriminatory practice, which in my opinion is understandable, and perhaps inevitable, when the overwhelming number of targeted terrorists belong to a particular group.
Sometimes, however, the questioning gets a bit absurd, like when my colleague’s brother was asked to produce the receipt of the 6-year-old computer he was transporting to a new address. At other times, it gets provocative, like when an acquaintance who shares the same name as the Tiger leader was asked whether Prabhakaran was her uncle. Worse is when it gets frustrating, like when the same colleague’s cousin from Jaffna was questioned for a day at the police station because he was still staying in student quarters while awaiting graduation. All these people happen to be Tamil Sri Lankans.
At the best of times, checkpoints are a hassle that the public has to put up with as an added security measure against terrorist attacks. They wont prevent two bombs going off in Colombo, but they might stop two hundred. However, at the worst of times, checkpoints make Tamil Sri Lankan civilians feel that the main threat to their own security comes from the personnel manning the checkpoint itself, and not from the danger of being caught up in a bomb explosion.
The Sri Lankan police are not the politest people in the world. Neither are they always the most restrained (as is glaringly obvious in the recent case of the brutal interrogation and death of the Balloonman). I find their manner less than desirable when I commit minor traffic offences. I can imagine I would find a fair bit worse if they suspected me of terrorism, and I could not express myself very well in a language they understood.
The number of Tamil Sri Lankan civilians who get this treatment from the police and the armed forces must be huge. What it results in is a feeling of alienation in the Tamil Sri Lankan community – “Why am I being treated like this when I have done nothing wrong? Why am I being treated as a second class citizen? Am I not Sri Lankan?”
The end result is a community who feels unprotected, discriminated against, and alienated by the government. To some extent, this cannot be helped. The government is fighting an enemy who uses civilians as shields, and whose political position improves every time a Tamil Sri Lankan is discriminated against. For this very reason, however, it is in the interest of all Sri Lankans to treat detainees with respect. A little politeness goes a long way.
On Wednesday the 5th of July, the Daily Mirror carried an article on the front page entitled, “Respect Fundamental Rights of People: President Tells Armed Forces, Police”. The body of the article contains an outline of the presidential directive on how civilians should be treated when they are being detained. I am reproducing the relevant parts of the article, in point form, below. According to the article, your rights in this situation are as follows:
1. Under the directives [given by the President], no person shall be arrested or detained under any Emergency Regulation or the Prevention of Terrorism Act unless they are in accordance with the law.
2. Arrests should be made by a person who is authorized by law to make such an arrest or order such detention.
3. The person making the arrest or detention should identify himself by name and rank, to the person or relative or friend of the person to be arrested.
4. The person to be arrested should be informed of the reason for the arrest.
5. All details of the arrest should be documented in the manner specified by the Ministry of Defence.
6. The person being arrested should be allowed to make contact with the family or friends to inform them of his whereabouts.
7. When a child under 12 years or a woman is being arrested or detained a person of their choice should be allowed to accompany them to the place of questioning.
8. As far as possible, any such child or woman arrested or detained should be placed in the custody of a Women’s Unit of the Armed or Police Force or in the custody of another woman military or police officer.
8. The person arrested or detained should be allowed to make a statement in the language of his choice and then asked to sign the statement.
9. If he wishes to make a statement in his own handwriting it should be permitted.
10. Members of the Human Rights Commission or anyone authorised by it must be given access to the arrested or detained person, and should be permitted to enter at any time any place or detention, police station or any other place in which such a person is confined.
11. The Human Rights Commission must be informed within 48 hours of any arrest or detention and the place the person is being detained.
Please share this information with people you think will benefit from it.
This post was inspired by the Moju meeting on Saturday.