The recent incident where a young man in Embilipitiya died, allegedly after an altercation with the Police, brings into focus the question, what happens when the long arm of the law takes the law into its own hands?

A full scale inquiry is underway and the outcome of that is pending, so we mustn’t hasten to pass judgment but it is safe to say that this is not the first incident of this kind- and will most probably not be the last.

Remember the incident at Angulana where, in 2009, two young men who were taken in for questioning were found dead? Two years later, four policemen, including the police station’s officer- in-charge were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

If reports of the recent incident are anything to go by, what happened at Angulana does not seem to have had a deterred those allegedly responsible in Embilipitiya.

Police brutality is not an exclusively Sri Lankan phenomenon. It happens everywhere in the world, even in so-called ‘developed’ countries, the United States being the best (or worst, really) example.

It is, however, the aftermath of such brutality that is significant. Whenever there is an incident of alleged police violence, the consequences for the law enforcement agency should be prompt, proper and in proportion to the offence committed.

Having had, at least in the five years following the end of the Eelam war, a somewhat autocratic government, Sri Lankans were accustomed to regarding the Police as an extension of the ruling party, doing its bidding and safeguarding its interests.

After all, it was the government that decided on police transfers and promotions, so policemen knew that it paid to be on the government’s side. Eventually, your local police station came to be like the office of the ruling party’s local parliamentarian who could perform miracles with a mere telephone call.

Now, we are told, all that has changed. An independent Police Commission has been established and that government interference in police matters is at a minimum. That doesn’t mean that we all live happily ever after, as the events at Embilipitiya showed.
At the inquiry into the incident, the Police Spokesman attempted to act as a lawyer and that muddied the waters. To add insult to injury, media personnel covering the proceedings were barred from taking notes. The country may have elected a government that promised ‘yahapaalanaya’ (good governance) the message hasn’t reached the police yet, at least not to Embilipitiya, or so it seems.

On the positive side, we do not see government ministers rushing in to defend the police and its actions. Indeed, a couple of ministers have gone on record condemning that the manner in which the police acted both during and after the incident.

That though is not enough. A young man is dead and a family has been deprived of its breadwinner allegedly because the Police saw it fit to dispense instant justice. That is an extremely dangerous trend. A group of young men in the North adhered to the same principle and evolved in to a ruthless terrorist organisation. The country then paid a heavy price for that, losing thousands of lives.

We have a President who is also the Minister of Defence, a Prime Minister, a minister in charge of the police force and an Inspector General of Police all of whom are publicly committed to unearthing the truth about what really happened at Embilipitiya.

Let the culprits be brought to book and let them face the full force of the law. In this new culture of good governance, we hope there will not be any political meddling.

The government must know that in incidents such as this, justice must not only be done, it must also appear to be done. Stifling that process usually boomerangs on the government. If anyone has any doubt that, just ask those in the previous government about Rathupaswala, though it was the army that was implicated there.

This is the first major incident of alleged police brutality since this government took office. So, it is a test for the government as well. The country is waiting and watching. We hope we are not waiting in vain.