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Government Gazette

‘Stemming the crime wave: The role of law and society’

How safe is the society we live in today? The question is surely one of the questions that would have crossed your mind whether you are going through the morning newspapers or watching the news on TV full of reports of crime from all parts of the country.

Islandwide, the number of homicides, rapes, robberies and other crimes have increased at an alarming rate causing fear among the people as to the safety and security of the society they live in.

In addition, the past few years have also seen an unprecedented increase in organised crime like underworld killings and contract murders, culminating in a blow at the judicial system itself with the killing of Justice Sarath Ambepitiya in 2004.

On the part of the public, the finger is often pointed at loopholes in the law, weaknesses in the criminal justice system and the inefficiency of the law enforcement authorities coupled with corruption, chicanery and other malpractice.

It is argued that certain legal provisions in the existing system including those relating to punishment are inadequate to deal with challenges posed by the present crime wave, while the police are also constantly blamed for being in league with prominent underworld figures and liaising with hard-core criminals.

It is also contended that the functioning of our law enforcement mechanism sometimes gives the impression that the law is applicable only to the poor and the underprivileged, while it is easily manipulated by the rich and powerful for their benefit.

On the other hand, the lack of co-operation by the ordinary public in the prevention of and investigation into crime is a frequent complaint made by law enforcement authorities in response to their inability to bring criminals to justice.

Whatever said and done, it is clear that time has arrived for more stringent measures for combating the increasing crime rate. It is also clear that in achieving this objective, the roles of the law makers, the police, the judiciary and the public are equally important.

What should really be the role and responsibility of the law and society in stemming the crime wave? Write to us (in 750-1,000 words) to ‘Daily News Debate’, Daily News, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, PO Box 1217, Colombo, or via e-mail to debate@dailynews.lk before June 30, 2007.


Inculcate moral values

corporate effort: In curbing crime two aspects; punitive and preventive have to be considered. Lately there has been an increase in crime as well as in the cruelty and employment of ingenious methods in committing these acts.

In preventing crime various sections of the society have to put in a corporate effort. It is the duty of the Police and other authorities to channel the assistance of the public in this regard. All efforts should be made to find out the root causes of crime and to address these issues forthwith. Police have to employ new modern technology in preventing and solving crime.

Legal system should be geared to dispense justice without un due delays as in the present. We have to review the whole prison set up to rehabilitate criminals and not to breed more hardened ones inside them.

Corruption among the Police and Prison officials should be dealt with meticulously at whatever cost. Police should be relieved of such duties as providing security to politicians at numerous functions.

These extra burdens hinder the efficiency of the Police force. It is sad to note that some criminal elements receive the patronage of some politicians in return for their support in election campaigns etc. Army deserters are involved in certain criminal activities.

One cannot overstress the need to solve the ethnic problem and the ongoing violence in this regard. Schools have to play an important part in inculcating moral and religious ideals to the very young children. The children should be made aware of their duties and rights in a civil society.

I personally feel that moral education and awareness of law and its implementation should be made subjects in the school curricula. Early detection of children with psychological disturbances should be done in schools. Unfortunately, such children are only given corporal punishments but not curative therapy.

Co-operation of parents or elders should be obtained in treating problematic children. It is not a waste of money to utilize more funds to treat these children who might become criminals in the future and cause great harm to the society.

More active participation of the clergy is a vital need. The monks in the temples should not confine themselves to compulsory religious activities only, but venture out into the village visiting the households of the Dayakas or lay benefactors.

Even in Daham pasalas in temples undue stress is given to passing exams rather than inculcating moral values. Constant rapport between the clergy and the laity is a vital contributory factor in stemming crime.

The sight of monks in yellow robes walking serenely on village paths would have a sobering effect. Unfortunately even for the short distance to an alms-giving or to perform the last rites monks have to be provided with vehicles.

Voluntary social organizations can also play an active role in preventing crime. They should channel the energies of the youth in organising their activities. More sports and healthy entertainment programmes should be conducted. It is regrettable that many welfare societies confine their activities to collecting annual membership and holding annual general meetings only. More vigilant societies should be activated.

Within a small area such vigilant societies can deter would be criminals. Whenever there is a spate of criminal activities such societies become active and then relax without consistent efforts. Police support and assistance is required to activate such societies. Services of healthy elders such as retired government officers can be obtained.

They should be entrusted with responsibilities and given due regard and appreciation. It is sad indeed to note that there are numerous active elders who just waste away their years. Even their advice is not heeded by those in authority. Even terrorist activities in cities could be curbed by such vigilant societies.

Massive scale corporate frauds have to dealt with stringently and promptly. Sadly many of the big fish perpetrators to such crimes have escaped to foreign lands. Investigations in this regard should be done efficiently and quickly. Even Interpol assistance should be obtained in nabbing such culprits.

Their properties should be confiscated so as to recover at least part of the losses. We cannot certainly overlook rampant bribery and corruption loopholes in law which enable corrupt individuals to escape, should be covered forthwith legislatively.

Finally, stemming crime and maintaining law and order is a massive task which requires the co-operation of all sections of the society and political will.


Crime war rages in Nigeria

armed robbers: The battle between police and armed robbers for control of Nigerian streets is proving a costly one for both sides. Flipping through Nigerian newspapers one frequently comes across headlines like: “Police, Robbers in Bloody Gun Duel”, “Robbers on Rampage Kill Police Chief” and “Police, Robbers in Midday War - Five robbers Killed.”

Lagos, the country’s commercial capital, is the worst hit. Police statistics show that between August last year and May this year, criminals killed 273 civilians. Within the same period, they also killed 84 policemen and injured 133 others.

In the past couple of months, criminals have been operating with impunity, snatching cars on the highways, raiding banks and breaking into homes. Tough nut The police have been hitting back seeking to curb the crime wave, but in the first week of July, nine policemen were shot dead in Lagos alone.

The police are also inflicting serious casualties. There are daily reports of robbery suspects shot dead during gun battles with the police.

Those caught alive are paraded together with their weapons before journalists. But even though police authorities boast they will win the war against crime, they agree it is a hard nut to crack. This is partly because thieves often operate in large numbers. Some gangs have as many as 50 men in them. These gangs also carry sophisticated arms, like AK-47 rifles, and wear bullet proof vests.

It is suspected that some of the gangs that have inflicted the worst casualties on the police have soldiers in their ranks. This suspicion is borne out by the arrest of some soldiers and the recovery of military rifles. In an effort to reduce casualties among its men, police authorities have given policemen the authority to shoot robbers on sight.

Shoot to kill Lagos police spokesman, Victor Chilaka said: “Since the number of robbers is increasing like ants and they take joy in killing police officers, the police has decided to adopt this measure not only to drastically reduce the growing number of robbers but also to save the lives of policemen.”

The shoot on sight order is not without its problems for the police. On one occasion, police shot and killed five people who they thought were criminals. But the families of four of them said they were victims fleeing from robbers. For a police force with a reputation for extra judicial killings, this incident was one of several public relations nightmares.

But despite this, Nigerians are becoming more supportive of their law enforcers such is extent of the crime problem. Vigilantes This growing crime wave is partly a product of widespread unemployment and a rising cost of living. For many desperate and unemployed youths, robbery appears the only avenue left open to them to make a living.

The situation is worsened by the ready availability of small arms like rifles and pistols. In some neighbourhoods young men are teaming up with the police to help fight crime. Muri Adesanya, whose Bariga neighbourhood in Lagos has been subjected to repeated attacks, says: “The robbers are a common enemy.”

But in a worrying trend, others are taking the law into their own hands. Attacks by vigilantes on suspects with stones and sticks are common and some end with the “necklace treatment”. A tyre doused with petrol is put around the neck of the suspect who is subsequently set on fire. In one instance, five alleged bank robbers were burnt to death that way.


Breaking the criminal-police nexus in Sri Lanka

A crime scene investigation

criminals: In romantic notions where the world is divided between good guys and bad guys, the underworld is responsible for crimes, and the police are responsible for fighting back. A black world of criminals is pitted against a force of white angels. This notion of crime, brought to us through popular magazines and film, however does not exist.

The real cause of crime in Sri Lanka is the nexus between police officers and criminals. This nexus consists of simple and complex exchanges such as taking bribes to permit illegal trade in alcohol or other illicit goods, or desisting from investigating crimes and recording statements.

Others involve much greater profits, as when drugs are traded. Others still include joint operations between criminals and police officers bent on committing crimes.

Without this nexus, many crimes could not be committed, or if committed, would soon be exposed, while with this nexus, most crimes are readily committed, and become almost impossible to expose. Any real world discussion on how to prevent crime must address this nexus as its root cause.

Why does the nexus exist?

Police links offer criminals the opportunity to earn greater profits. Criminal links offer police officers access to financial gains and other resources far beyond their limited salaries. And the reward are shared across all ranks.

The few officers who decline to become involved may themselves be victimised by others who are cooperating closely with criminals. Such officers - even those holding high ranks - find it difficult to fight the nexus, attempts to impose discipline causing them serious trouble.

The overall effect of this nexus is anarchy, with lawlessness pervading many parts of Sri Lanka. And now even the middle and affluent classes, no longer just the poor, are feeling the effects of this ominous nexus. In fact, the country may well be on the brink of a catastrophe far beyond anything faced before.

Who polices the police?

Nobody. At present, the criminal justice system lacks the means to investigate police officers. Even relatively narrow inquiries into police wrongdoing cause strong backlashes by police, including threatened strike action.

During recent times, witnesses in criminal torture cases against policemen have been subjected to threats, attacks, and most recently, murder. The police officers allegedly involved have been able to use the unique combination of their authority and links to the underworld to obstruct investigations into their transgressions.

Attempts at any serious action to counter the nexus often encounter obstacles. Apart from threatening to strike at attempts to impose discipline, even minor attempts at limited action by the National Police Commission (NPC) have been seriously resisted on the ground that these steps would hinder crime prevention. Such rhetoric barely conceals open defiance of discipline.

Some senior police officers are now talking of a ‘balance’, which means downplaying the importance of discipline. Business must be allowed to go on as usual they say, lest the minimally functioning police system collapses altogether.

Thus senior officers are frightened away from dealing with the nexus. They are even afraid to take disciplinary action in minor cases. In short, a systemic paralysis prevents the possibility of addressing the criminal-police nexus.

Can the death sentence prevent crime?

We could instead ask, would society agree to execute large numbers of its police? The same persons who readily say yes to the first question would stop short of replying ‘yes’ to the second. The reason is that in proposing the death sentence the objective is not in fact to prevent crime, but to avoid having to address the nexus that is its progenitor.

Increasing crime provokes social insecurity. But people need to feel safe. So the easy way out is to exaggerate the powers of the hangman to mythical proportions. The public is asked to believe that when the death sentence is reactivated, crime will magically disappear.

Such disingenuous solutions appear most often in response to dramatic crimes, such as the killing of a High Court Judge. However, no victim of crime will really believe that the hangman is a saviour, or a means to prevent further crime.

Is there another way to prevent crime?

The answer to this question depends largely upon the extent to which citizens are willing to speak openly. Among those issues that need to be addressed are the following:

1. The weaknesses of the police hierarchy, must be fully exposed. This effort should concentrate on how to establish the rule of law and provide a functioning and disciplined police service. Rhetorical commitment to people friendly policies and the like should be condemned as hypocrisy unless accompanied by strong measures to break the criminal-police nexus.

2. The management of criminal investigations through police stations should be abandoned in favour of special unit investigations. This will allow inquiries to be carried out by competent officers. It will also weaken the links between local police and criminals.

At present, some officers-in-charge of police stations have the status of petty warlords. Some, judging by their records, are habituated criminals; some can even be characterised as serial killers. Also, promotion to OIC seems an invitation to get rich quick. Therefore, breaking the nexus will require significant changes. Keeping police stations functioning as they are now will only encourage further crime.

3. The Attorney General must also be given greater control over criminal investigations. Currently the AG is heavily dependent on police investigators. Therefore, to successfully counteract the negative effects on investigations by the criminal-police nexus, the role of the AG must be enhanced.

And the best way to do this is to create a Prosecutor General’s office for criminal prosecutions. This requires a political decision. There are vast differences between political bluff and genuine political decisions to resolve serious problems. To talk of the hangman’s mythical powers and not to create an effective Prosecutor General’s office with strong powers and resources amounts to mere political bluff.

4. A strong witness protection programme with sufficient resources for its effective functioning is a must. In the absence of security, complainants and witnesses live in fear and are reluctant to cooperate to ensure the proper administration of justice. Such fear can only be laid to rest through a well-publicised and highly effective witness protection programme.

Thailand has recently taken the initiative to establish a witness protection office, and a number of victims of police abuse have been the first to benefit from it. It is hoped this will set a strong precedent.

The Sri Lankan authorities could study this model, particularly in light of the recent killings of complainants in criminal cases, like the killing of Gerald Perera, some customs officers and other state officers, and even the killing of a judge. All of these were made possible due to the lack of an adequate witness protection programme.

5. The judiciary must take a degree of responsibility in regulating itself. There had been too many unresolved question about the judiciary. The Bar Association is also beset by constant public scandals that it has been unable or unwilling to address.

Judges are now subjected to threats of death, rape or otherwise partly because of the low esteem in which the public holds the judiciary and the legal profession.

Hence these institutions must face up to this challenge. If the Bar Association proves incapable of doing so, and even goes to the extent of being a political stooge, then lawyers must take matters into their own hands.

In fact, public liberties in Sri Lanka to a large part now depend upon the willingness of lawyers to rebel against widespread maladministration of justice. Some self-interested lawyers in powerful positions will inevitably oppose efforts at serious reform; however, they and their cohorts must be overcome to break the restraints on reform from within. It is indeed sad that senior members of the bar have woefully failed the young.

6. The National Police Commission should strongly assert its prerogative to take disciplinary control of the police as required by the constitution. Recently, elements in the police hierarchy, some officers’ unions and politicians have severely pressured it not to strongly assert this role.

However, as the NPC was brought about by the public pressure that gave rise to the 17th Amendment it is duty-bount to speak frankly to the public regarding its problems.

7. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka can play an enormously important role in this regard. Unfortunately, it has not yet gone beyond expressing nice words about human rights protection.

It is time that civil society encouraged the HRC to critically examine itself and become a visible force in the battle for the rule of law. Indeed, the commission should be at pains to influence policy in the areas aforementioned, notably establishing and effectively managing a witness protection programme.

If there were a strong HRC in Sri Lanka undertaking such a role, Gerald Perera would not be dead today. And many others like him would not be facing severe harassment and intimidation.

The writer is Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service

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