SRI LANKA

Tamil man drowned during violent police attack

A 26-year-old man with mental health problems drowned during an attack by three policemen in October. The scene was caught on camera; resulting in the arrest of the officers involved. But two months later, and the men are yet to be sentenced.

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Photo posted by Journalists for Democracy.

A 26-year-old man with mental health problems drowned during an attack by three policemen in October. The scene was caught on camera; resulting in the arrest of the officers involved. But two months later, and the men are yet to be sentenced.

Police received a complaint about Balawarnam Sivakumar, a mechanic and ethnic Tamil from the town of Ratmalana, south of Colombo, on the morning of Oct. 30 2009. He was said to have been throwing stones at trains and dancing by the road, semi-naked, in a threatening manner in Bambalapitiya, a suburb of the capital.

The police say that when they tried to arrest him, he threw stones at them and then ran into the sea. The policemen were joined by two civilians in threatening Sivakumar with large sticks; one of them hitting him. Sivakumar is seen begging the officers to let him come ashore, but after continued attacks he retreats into the water and shortly afterwards is seen floating lifelessly. 

The footage, filmed by an off-duty cameraman who happened to be in a building on the coastline, also shows dozens of onlookers on the shore. On Nov. 1, after the video had been handed over to the local press, the three officers involved were arrested. The identification parade which would lead to their trial however has been repeatedly postponed, most recently after the death of one of the suspects on Jan. 1.

“It's only because of the video evidence that this story became an embarrassment for the police”

X, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a member of Europe-based activists "Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka". He says he spent 17 years working for Sinhalese publications before being exiled, along with dozens of others, for reporting "wrongly" on the war against the Tamils.

I don't think the police, who, incidentally, were Sinhalese [80% of police officers in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese] knew that Sivakumar was Tamil until he started shouting in the sea. At that point, they would have realised immediately - most Tamils have strong accent when speaking Sinhalese. We can't say that they were particularly brutal because he was Tamil. However, there are some observations which I find concerning.

Around three months ago there was another case of police brutality; two men were shot at point blank range in Colombo. When those youths, who were Sinhalese, were attacked by the police, the surrounding public responded very differently. They tried to attack the police and protect the youths. When Sivakumar was attacked however, the public not only stood and watched, but also helped the police; two of them joining the officers in the sea, and according to local news reports, others fetching the sticks with which the officers threatened him.

Even the compensation was different. The families of the Sinhalese boys shot by police received one million rupees [€6,000], whereas Sivakumar's family received only 100,000 rupees [€600].

You'd think that the police would have realised Sivakumar was mentally unstable. Seeing as he was trying to stop the traffic by dancing in his underwear, I find it unlikely that they perceived him sane.

It's only because of the video evidence that this story became an embarrassment for the police. Before the video emerged the local press reported that ‘a person jumped into the sea in trying to escape the police and drowned'. It would have ended there, save for the video, which couldn't be ignored. They are going to take their time in trying the policemen. One of them died of a heart attack at the beginning of January, leaving only two remaining.

At a preliminary hearing in December only one of the four or five eye witnesses called to bear witness said they believed the police were in the wrong. The others said that they would like to see them pardoned; that Sivakumar's death was inevitable; that the police weren't trying to hit him, but just scare him. I'm not optimistic. History proves that when it's the police against Tamil civilians, the police usually win. I'm pretty sure they'll get off scott free."  

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Images aired on local TV channel Dailymirror and posted by Journalists for Democracy.