Police officers per 100,000 people: 424 (2012, compared to in 1068 in Brunei, 284 in the United States and 38 in Mali). There were a total of 89,000 police in 2012 [Source: Wikipedia ]

The Sri Lankan National Police is an integral part of the nation's security forces, with primary responsibility for internal security. Specially trained commando units of the police are regularly deployed in joint operations with the armed forces, and the police command structure in Northern and Eastern provinces is closely integrated with the other security organizations under the authority of the Joint Operations Command. The police is headed by an inspector general of police who reports to the minister of defense. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By late 1987, the police had an estimated total strength of 21,000 personnel, with plans to increase to 28,000. The force expanded most rapidly in the years following the 1971 uprising, an event that constituted the nation's first major challenge to internal security; between 1969 and 1974, the police grew from 11,300 to 16,100, an increase of over 42 percent. According to the United States Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the force was less than 5 percent Tamil.

Law Enforcement in Sri Lanka

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Although crime rates are rising, Sri Lanka's citizens are generally respectful of both formal and informal laws, as well as of each other. Throughout the nation's history, however, there have been periodic explosions of violence and lawlessness. Since the 1980s, there have been massive riots, bombings, and insurrections that have effectively challenged the authority of the state and resulted in massive bloodletting. Large portions of the island are not under the control of the state but are in the hands of the LTTE rebels. In response to these challenges, the government has periodically declared states of "emergency rule" that extend its constitutional authority. [Source:Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The police, the military, and the judiciary system are in place to maintain government control. Imprisonment is the main legal sanction for those who are convicted of violations of the law. The death penalty, suspended for many years, is being considered for re-introduction in response to the perceived rise in crime and violence.

“Informal sanctions also provide strong deterrents against socially unacceptable behavior. Rumor and gossip are particularly feared, whether these take the form of village talk, anonymous petitions to the newspapers, or posters mounted in public spaces. Acceptance in the family and other important social groups to which one belongs and how one's behavior reflects on the reputation of these groups are among the most powerful motivators of social compliance. The threat of sorcery or divine retribution on an injured party's behalf, as well as more earthly threats of violence and revenge, also act to ensure good behavior.

Organization of the Sri Lankan National Police

In 1988 the police force was divided into three geographic commands — known as ranges — covering the northern, central, and southern sectors of the island. The ranges were subdivided into divisions, districts, and stations, and Colombo was designated as a special division. In 1974 there were a total of 260 police stations throughout the country. In more remote rural areas beyond the immediate range of existing police stations, law enforcement functions are carried out by locally elected village headmen (grama seva niladhari, literally "village service officers"). In addition to its regular forces, the national police operated a small reserve contingent and a number of specialized units responsible for investigative and paramilitary functions. Routine criminal activity was handled by the [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Criminal Investigation Department under the command of an assistant superintendent of police. More coordinated threats to internal security, such as that posed by the radical Sinhalese Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were the responsibility of the Countersubversive Division, which was primarily an investigative division. Special operational units included the Commando Squad of the Colombo police and the Special Task Force. The former, a 200-strong riot control force, was established following the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. The Special Task Force is a police field force. It was set up in 1984 with the assistance of foreign advisers (primarily former British Special Air Service personnel under the auspices of Keeny Meeny Services, see Foreign Military Relations , this ch.). Its 1,100-member force was organized into 7 companies and trained in counterinsurgency techniques. It played a major role in the government's combined force operations against the Tamil Tigers in Eastern Province before July 1987. Following the signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, the Special Task Force was redesignated the Police Special Force, and deployed in Southern Province, where it immediately went into action against the JVP terrorists. Companies of the force also served in rotation as part of the presidential security guard.*

Until 1984 the police were responsible for national intelligence functions, first under the Special Branch, and later under the Intelligence Services Division. The perceived failure of the Intelligence Services Division during the riots of July 1983 led the Jayewardene government to reevaluate the nation's intelligence network, and in 1984 the president set up a National Intelligence Bureau. The new organization combined intelligence units from the army, navy, air force, and police. It was headed by a deputy inspector general of police who reported directly to the Ministry of Defence.*

Equipment and Training of Sri Lankan Police

Following the British tradition, Sri Lankan police were customarily unarmed during routine patrol duty in the years following independence. With the growth of ethnic tensions in the late 1970s and the increasing tendency of both Sinhalese and Tamil extremist groups to target the police, the government decided in 1982 to issue handguns to all sergeants and constables. Chinese copies of Soviet pistols formed an important component of the police arsenal, and included the 7.62mm Type 54 (modeled on the Soviet TT-M1933) and the 9mm Type 59 (based on the Soviet PM). For emergencies, the police also used the British Lee Enfield .303 carbine. The Commando Squadron was equipped with Sterling submachineguns, repeater shotguns, revolvers, and tear gas. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Regular force training in the 1980s was conducted at the Police College in Katukurunda, Western Province. Separate training facilities for the Special Task Force have been established in Kalutara, 96 kilometers south of Colombo. Starting in 1984, foreign trainers affiliated with Keeny Meeny Services offered counterinsurgency pilot training in the use of Bell 212 and 412 helicopter gunships.*

Home Guard of Sri Lanka

As the Tamil insurgents accelerated their campaign for a separate state in the early 1980s, they turned increasingly against those Sinhalese settlers who, through governmentsponsored resettlement programs, had "infringed" on traditional Tamil areas in the north and east. In response, the government authorized the formation and arming of small militias for local self-defense. These armed groups, known as Home Guards, were generally composed of poorly educated Sinhalese villagers with little or no military training. Armed with shotguns that had been provided by the government, they frequently exceeded their original mandate of self-defense, avenging terrorist attacks with indiscriminate killings of Tamil civilians. This violence was an important factor in the increasing radicalization of the Tamil population. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By April 1987, there were reportedly 12,000 Home Guards throughout the country, and the National Security Council, a consultative body that meets on defense matters, had announced its intention of increasing the number to 20,000. With the successful negotiation of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in July, however, the government moved to dismantle this poorly disciplined paramilitary force. The Home Guards in Northern and Eastern provinces were ordered to surrender their weapons to the authorities, and by August the police claimed to have collected 8,000 of the more than 10,000 shotguns that had been issued 3 years earlier. When the Tamil terrorist attacks resumed in late 1987, however, the government reportedly reversed its decision and allowed a partial rearming of the force. At the same time that it was acting to limit the Home Guards in the north, the government authorized an expansion of local and private militias in the south. *

The signing of the accord had unleashed a wave of violence among militant Sinhalese groups who opposed both the accommodation with the Tamil separatists and the presence of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil. As Jayewardene moved to force passage of the provisions of the accord in Parliament, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna launched a campaign against members of the ruling United National Party who supported the pact. In the second half of 1987, the party chairman and more than seventy United National Party legislators were killed by Sinhalese extremists. The government responded by allocating 150 Home Guards to each Member of Parliament, leaving the legislators themselves responsible for the arming and training of these personal militias. At the same time, the press reported that progovernment gangs of thugs known as Green Tigers (named for the colors of the ruling party) had begun to attack opponents of the accord.*

Rules of Search, Arrest, and Detention in Sri Lanka

Despite the numerous protections of individual liberties embodied in the Constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure, the government has succeeded in greatly expanding the discretionary powers of the armed forces and police through a variety of regulations and temporary provisions. The legal basis for these provisions comes from the Constitution itself, which sets conditions under which the government may act to restrict fundamental rights. Article 15 states that freedom of speech, assembly, and association may be subject to restrictions "in the interests of racial and religious harmony." It also allows the government, for reasons of national security, to suspend the right of a suspect to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. In addition, Article 155 authorizes the Parliament and, in certain circumstances, the president, to make emergency regulations which override or amend existing legislation. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Under these special provisions, the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979. The act empowered a superintendent of police, or an officer at or above the rank of subinspector authorized by the superintendent, to enter and search any premises and to arrest without a warrant upon reasonable suspicion of a crime. Although this act was originally slated as a temporary provision to be in effect for three years, the parliament voted in March 1982 to continue it indefinitely. In addition, an amendment passed in 1983 extended the police powers detailed in the act to members of the armed forces, and provided legal immunity for arrests and deaths occurring in the course of security operations.*

The Code of Criminal Procedure allows the police to detain suspects without a hearing for a maximum of twenty-four hours. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, however, this period has been extended to seventy-two hours, and if the subsequent hearing leads to an indictment, the magistrate is required to order continued detention until the conclusion of the trial. The act further provides that the minister of internal security may, upon reasonable suspicion, order a suspect to be detained for a period of three months, extendable by three-month intervals up to a total of eighteen months. These provisions have been supplemented by the state of emergency regulations, first put into effect in May 1983 and renewed on a monthly basis thereafter. Under these regulations, police are given broad powers of preventive detention. In addition, a suspect may be detained for up to ninety days by order of the attorney general. At the end of this period, the suspect must appear before a magistrate's court which, with or without an indictment, is required by law to remand the suspect to prison. Subsequent detention may continue for an indefinite period of time.*

Problems with Sri Lankan Police

Critics of Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system say it is brutal and corrupt. ucanews.com reported: According to monitors, the factors driving these trends run much deeper than the country’s police force. “The whole criminal justice system is corrupt,” said Perera. The reason torture is allowed to continue unchecked is “because of the corrupt criminal justice system, because of the lawyers, judges and the medical officers.” [Source: ucanews.com reporters, January 13, 2014]

“Police reforms are definitely required, he said, adding that they would “aim towards” carrying out educational programs to address the issue of torture. “Sri Lanka does not have a commitment to eradicate torture,” said Weliamuna. “Political will and re-establishment of Rule of Law are key” to putting an end to it, he said. “It is important to have a coordinated approach jointly with lawyers, judges, medical officers and law enforcement officers including the Attorney General." Meanwhile, Kumara has been sacked from his job at the hospital due to the allegations against him. He has been unable to find work since.

Torture: in Sri Lankan Police Interrogations

Critics of Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system say it brutal and corrupt and torture is a common part of police interrogations From Kalutara, about 20 kilometers south of Colombo, ucanews.com reported: “Chaminda Priyantha Kumara, a 32-year-old amputee, was about to begin a 130 kilometers journey to deliver heart medication to his wife when he was surrounded by men at a bus stop in Kalutara, accused of theft, attacked and then arrested by police. Kumara, who was initially accused of stealing a mobile phone and 680 rupees (about US$5.20), says that on the night of May 21 last year and the following day he was brutally tortured, publicly shamed and accused of additional crimes including petty theft, burglary and murder. [Source: ucanews.com reporters, January 13, 2014]

“At the Kalutara South Police Station, he was stripped and chained to a wooden table. “One policeman choked me with a wooden pole and another policeman beat me on the soles of the feet. While I was laying on the bench, they used a carpenter’s mallet to repeatedly smash my testicles,” said Kumara, who lost his left arm below the elbow after an electrical accident in 2008. “Already I am missing an arm, so they threatened to cut off another piece of my arm.” Kumara repeatedly denied the allegations leveled against him, prompting investigators to experiment with various other tactics. “Someone tied a cloth over my face, covering my mouth, nose and eyes. Another policeman attached a hose to a tap and then put it at my mouth. I couldn’t breathe because of the pressure of the water,” he said. “I was struggling so much the table fell over twice.” As the day wore on he was beaten on the stump of his amputated arm, dragged around the room with a hose tied around his neck and beaten savagely with wooden clubs. At one point, Kumara says that a high ranking police official jumped from a windowsill and landed on his chest.

“According to rights monitors, such incidents are common in Sri Lanka even during investigations of minor offenses. “The police do not know how to investigate a crime,” said Kingsley Karunaratne, Administrative Secretary of the Rule of Law Forum, which is affiliated with the Asian Human Rights Commission. Consequently, he says, police officers often conduct investigations “backwards,” making arrests before looking for – or at – actual evidence. “So they will take these innocent people to the police station and hammer them until they confess,” he said. “Due to lack of time in policing and investigation of crimes, [police] resort to short cuts,” said J.C. Weliamuna, a prominent human rights lawyer in Sri Lanka.

“Police officials, however, flatly deny that torture takes place during investigations. “Sri Lanka police never practice torture,” said police spokesman Ajith Rohana. “They are taught to not torture under any circumstances.” He went on to claim that police training “incorporated all human rights concepts” into its curriculum, citing the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee Against Torture. “We use modern [investigative] techniques such as DNA evidence, telephone analyzing, video evidence,” he added.

“But Kumara’s story is not uncommon among those arrested for minor crimes. Over a period of several days ucanews.com spoke with a half dozen individuals who had experienced a range of torture and police brutality. On July 10 of last year Ukkuwattage Padmasiri, 38, and his stepfather. Karunaratne, 45, were taken by four policemen to a jungle area near their homes where they were tied to a rubber tree and beaten. “They accused us of making illegal arrack,” said Padmasiri. Padmasiri says that despite searching his family’s properties and finding nothing illicit, the police officers later presented he and his father-in-law with four buckets of arrack, a popular local liquor. The police then alleged that the alcohol had been produced illegally by the men. “We were beaten repeatedly and told to fess up to being the owners of the arrack,” said Padmasiri. The pair were arrested and forced to carry the buckets of arrack for about four kms, said Padmasiri, adding that he suspects the harassment is connected to a dispute between his family and a local businessman who wants to build a road through their property.

“Chitral Perera, of Janasansadaya, a local rights group that provides legal assistance and advice to victims of police torture, said that police frequently “fabricate” charges and plant evidence. “They might plant heroin or cannabis or illicit moonshine”, he said. “Sometimes they introduce firearms.” To clear additional unsolved cases, police will often try to pin multiple unrelated crimes on a single suspect, said Kingsley Karunaratne.

“In Kumara’s case, he was first accused of stealing a mobile phone and 680 rupees from a purse at the bus stop. Then, later at the police station, he was also accused of burgling local shops, stealing from his workplace and even accused of murder. After the torture ended, Kumara was escorted by police to several shops in Kalutara where officers informed the businesses’ owners that Kumara was the one who had burgled their shops. Then he was paraded around the Kalutara General Hospital where he worked as a substitute health assistant in the lab. Kumara’s co-workers were told by police that he was responsible for any thefts that had occurred in the hospital over the previous year and a half.

In separate interviews, Perera and Karunaratne explained the various loopholes that police exploit to avoid being accused of torturing suspects. Before a suspect can be remanded into custody he or she has to be examined by a medical officer and presented before a magistrate. “The police know the corrupt doctors,” said Perera and get them to sign legal forms indicating that a suspect is physically “fit to remand” even if the individual in question has been tortured and exhibits visible wounds. Karunaratne says that some medical officers are intimidated or coerced into acquiescing to such police demands. Police often wait until night when the magistrate has already gone home, then they will get the “acting magistrate” to sign off on remanding a suspect to jail for 14 days without actually ever physically seeing him or her, said Karunaratne.

Two weeks later, by the time a torture victim is examined by an impartial physician, most of the “bruises or contusions” have healed, said Perera. Nimal Punchihewa, spokesman for the government formed Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, described torture as a “cultural problem”. “We see it not [only] as a problem of the government but also with society,” he said. “If some criminal is assaulted even the people justify [it] and so we have to change the people's attitude as well.”

Prisons in Sri Lanka

All correctional institutions were administered by the Department of Prisons under the Ministry of Justice. In 1980 the department had a reported staff of approximately 4,000 officers and a total of 28 prisons, including conventional prisons, open prison camps, and special training schools for youthful offenders. The facilities were regulated by the Prisons Ordinance of 1878, and each was headed by a superintendent or assistant superintendent of prisons. Departmental staff are trained at the Center for Research and Training in Corrections in Colombo. The center, which was established in 1975, provided new recruits a ten-week training course in law, human relations, unarmed combat, first aid, and the use of firearms. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Between 1977 and 1985, the prison population remained relatively stable, averaging 11,500 new admissions each year. More than 75 percent of the new inmates in 1985 had been convicted of minor crimes, and 62 percent were serving sentences of less than six months. Those convicted of serious crimes (including murder, culpable homicide, rape, and kidnaping) represented less than 2 percent of the prison population and, although the number of new convicts sentenced to death fluctuated over this period (between 33 and 81), no prisoners were executed. Men represented more than 95 percent of the prison population, and more than one-third of the nation's prisoners were being held in the Colombo District.*

In the 1980s, convicted offenders between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two were being housed at separate correctional facilities and open work camps. Many of them were eligible for admission to the Training School for Youthful Offenders, which provided a special program of rehabilitation. Offenders under sixteen were not accepted into the correctional system.*

Because of the small number of female prisoners at any one time, in the 1980s there were no separate institutions exclusively for women. Instead, each of the major prisons had a small women's section staffed by female attendants. All female convicts with terms longer than six weeks were transferred to Welikade Prison in Colombo. Mothers with infants were allowed to keep their children in prison, and a preschool program was established to provide child care during daytime hours.*

In the 1980s, all male and female prisoners with terms longer than six months received vocational training during their stay in prison. Training was offered in twenty-two trades, including agriculture, animal husbandry, rattan work, carpentry, and tailoring. Every convicted offender was required to work eight hours each day and received a wage calculated according to the level of skill.*

Apart from the correctional system maintained by the Department of Prisons, the armed forces and the police have operated a number of detention camps for suspects arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to the United States State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, "there have been persistent reports of torture or ill-treatment by military and police" at these camps, and detainees have been deprived of the legal rights and conditions of incarceration that apply to conventional detention facilities.*

Gunfight at Sri Lanka's Largest Prison Leaves 27 Dead

In November 2012, at least 27 people were killed and a senior police officer was seriously wounded in a gunfight in Sri Lanka’s biggest prison that began when police came under fire from inmates, officials and police said. Reuters reported: “The army brought the violence under control before dawn and freed staff held hostage at the Welikada prison in the capital Colombo, jail officials and military said. Twenty seven people have been confirmed dead, prisons minister Chandrasiri Gajadeera told parliament. The violence erupted when officers from the Special Task Force (STF), Sri Lanka’s elite police commandoes, were searching the jail for drugs and illegal mobile phones. “When they were coming out, prisoners started to attack them with stones. The STF used teargas and the prisoners fired at the STF,” Police Spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said. [Source: Ranga Sirilal, Reuters, November 10, 2012]

“Witnesses said they saw police shooting towards the jail, where armed prisoners were on the roof during the clash. Prisons Commissioner P. W. Kodippili told Reuters that the prisoners had obtained the weapons — some of them machineguns — by breaking into the prison armory. “The search operations are continuing to clear the place and recover the weapons and also to find the escapees,” he said,

“Army Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said a large number of weapons were found along with six bodies during the search operation. The commanding officer of the elite police force that had come under attack was in intensive care, the head of Colombo National hospital said. “We’ve got 59 injured and 51 are still taking treatments and 16 are dead bodies,” an official at the hospital told Reuters.

“The jail has about 4,500 inmates, including members of the former defeated Tamil rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) movement that fought a protracted war of independence, ending in 2009, but officials said it was unclear how many, if any, of them had been involved in the uprising. “We don’t know who is involved in this, I don’t think any LTTE suspects are involved but I don’t know,” Commissioner Kodippili told Reuters. Kodippili also said the officials are taking the count of inmates to find out how many escaped. “We don’t know exactly how many have escaped now we are taking the count,” Kodippili said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.