What made Police fire live rounds at unarmed protesters?

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The mid-size, single-storey house in the hillside, painted green with asbestos roof in front of us was just like a house of any middle class family in Sri Lanka. On a normal day, you would hear laughter of children and you would be invited for a cup of tea while having a conversation about living difficulties owing to the present crisis in the country. However, Wednesday (20 April) was different. A large number of mourners sat around the house, inside white tents.

Inside the house, there was a group of adults who were pleading with a young woman to eat something.

“She has not eaten anything since last evening (19),” they told us.

Piyumi Udeshika Lakshani (19) was inconsolable, with tears streaming down her face, as she sat down on a chair outside the house to greet us. As she was speaking about her great loss and uncertain future of her family with the breadwinner of the family gone, sitting about two metres away was a dog with beaming eyes, under a flower tree, that appeared unconcerned about the sorrows or the miserable plight of those around it, much like the rulers who continue to remain oblivious to the woes of the citizens. He was just observing and enjoying the movements of the crowd at the house with a merry face. Next to her, Thanusha (15), Lakshani’s baby brother was staring at his palms with a blank gaze.

“My father did not go to the protest. He left the house to get petrol for the motorbike. When I heard there were clashes in the evening I repeatedly rang his phone, but he did not answer,” her voice trembled.

Kuruwitage Don Chaminda Lakshan (42) was probably fighting for his life when Lakshani desperately wanted to hear his voice, to make sure that he would be home for dinner, unharmed, breathing and smiling. When he was rushed to hospital after being hit by live ammunition, which Police said they used to disperse demonstrators who were demanding for fuel in Rambukkana on 19 April, he was unconscious according to eyewitnesses.

Police fired live ammunition to disperse protesters on Tuesday (18) in Rambukkana, killing Lakshan and wounding a dozen. The people who were desperately waiting for fuel bowsers to arrive at the filling station for two days, started to protest on Tuesday, demanding fuel for previous prices, following the price hike at midnight on Monday (18).

Director of the Kegalle Teaching Hospital, Mihiri Priyangani, said 14 people were brought in and one died of his injuries. Three were in Intensive Care after surgery. Twenty Police Officers were also brought in, but had been transferred to Kandy, she said.

What happened on the fateful day?

According to the youth who participated in the protest, they were in the fuel queue from the previous day.

“The stations did not have fuel for four days. We lined up on Monday because we heard bowsers would arrive. We waited and waited for hours.”

However, no bowser arrived even in the night. When CEYPETCO announced a price hike from midnight, the people who had been queuing for hours got extremely agitated.

Another youth said it was the three-wheeler drivers, including him who started the protest.

“The protest was held peacefully until 19 April afternoon. The Police did not interfere. We did not have any political influence. Our demand was to give fuel for previous prices. We had a reason. We stood in line from 17 April. In the morning, we went to the manager of the station and asked if a bowser was coming. He told us that one would arrive at about 10:00-10:30 a.m. A bowser actually arrived at that time, but it was not for this station. The protest started after a few minutes. The people blocked both the carpeted road and railway track.”

Five high-ranking Police Officers from Kegalle had arrived at the scene and they spoke to the Rambukkana OIC for a long time, inside the shed. One of the officers said many things to us, threateningly.

The same officer assured us that he would make sure fuel would arrive before 12:00 p.m. At about 11:30 a.m. one bowser arrived, but it only had 6,600 litres of petrol and 13,200 litres of diesel. We stopped the bowser, blocking the railway track. We complained to the Rambukkana OIC and asked whether they were going to sell the fuel for an increased price. We said we want petrol for the old price, which was Rs 254. The OIC said he could not control it according to our wishes. He said Minister Kanchana Wijesekera was in Parliament and now answering the phone. He told us he would discuss it with the minister and get back to us. He said another bowser came after a while and the protesters demanded fuel for old prices.

The protesters then told the driver of the bowser that was on the railway track to get off. The people took him away on their shoulders, cheering. The protest continued until 4:00 p.m. after that.

The Police started to fire tear gas after 4:00 p.m. According to another witness, the protesters threw tear gas canisters back at the Police. The protesters were dispersed.  Then a group started pelting stones and shooting came afterwards. The bowser caught fire. This is between 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday (19).

How was Lakshan killed?

Fondly known as ‘Sudda’ in the town, Lakshan bid farewell to the family on Tuesday (18) when he went to the town to refuel the motorbike.

“He did not even have a stone in his hand. He wasn’t among the protesters either. He just wanted to protect the motorbike. That was why he came to the lane where he was shot,” a resident said.

“A Police Officer aimed at him. We screamed and pleaded not to shoot. The Police did it anyway,” they alleged.

According to video footage obtained by Ceylon Today, Lakshan was lying on the lane near the fuel station, with his t-shirt soaked in blood, while the people were running and screaming, “The Police shot him, bastards!, Sir, please don’t shoot.”

It should be noted that there is about 100 metres between the fuel bowser and the spot where Lakshan was shot. If the Police wanted to protect the bowser, it is questionable as to why they shot a civilian who was on the other side of the road, 100 metres away, on his abdomen.

The video footage showed the people begging two Police Officers to let them take Lakshan to hospital. Later, they placed the unconscious Lakshan on a pallet and rushed him to hospital.

Magisterial Inquest

The Magisterial Inquest into the Police shooting was conducted on Wednesday (20).

Magistrate Wasana Navaratne arrived at the scene where the shooting took place for the Magisterial Inquest.

The driver of the three-wheeler that was set on fire during the clash came forward as a witness to the incident, when eyewitnesses of the shooting testified before the Magistrate.

The driver alleged that he witnessed a group of Police Officers setting fire to his vehicle. He also said the vehicle was set ablaze after the Police opened fire at the protesters.

“I was in the front line of the protests for many hours along with a group of my friends. The protest was peaceful. As I was exhausted, I decided to take a nap inside the vehicle. One of my friends was with me. Also, there was a group who were the worse for liquor near the railway crossing. So we decided to stay away. We woke up to the first gunshot sound. We heard the sound of gunshots and clashes. I ran towards the railway line and then came back and hid behind a jack tree. The tree was behind where the three-wheeler was parked,” the witness said.

He alleged that then three Police personnel who were in black uniform, wearing helmets came towards the three-wheeler and one of them set the vehicle on fire using a lighter. The tent of the vehicle was completely burned down and he ran and escaped the site after that. He was advised not to return to the site, as a Police Officer was allegedly behind the wall with a gun. The witness had another story to tell.

“While the protest was going on, the Rambukkana Police OIC threatened me. He was the one who directed the Police Officers towards the three-wheeler. I saw that with my own eyes,” the witness claimed and added, “Earlier, the OIC threatened me near the fuel station. At that time, I complained to high-ranking Police Officers there who came from Kegalle and asked them whether the OIC can threaten me like that. One of the officers then scolded the OIC for several minutes. Out of fear, I met my brother and changed clothes. After everything, I went home. But again I was advised not to stay there because the Police could be searching for me. I then went to the home of my relative and spent the night there.”

The witness claimed that he believes the three-wheeler was set ablaze as a result of the dispute with the Rambukkana OIC.

Another eyewitness claimed he could identify the officers who fired at protesters. He however, refused to reveal their names fearing reprisal.

However, he said officers who were not attached to the Rambukkana Police were also among those who opened fire.

He claimed that he was ‘arrested’ at about 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday (19). “I was thrown into the jeep and the officers held my head down, so I could not see anything going on around me. I heard people screaming and running. But I did not see anything. After that, the vehicle sped up and after a while I was asked to get off. I thought they were going to shoot me. I got off from the jeep and ran. I came home after that,” he alleged.

The Magistrate also visited the fuel station, the lane beside the station where the victim was shot, the railway track and the spots where there were blood patches.

The Police had failed to cover the spot where the shooting took place and the burnt three-wheeler had been removed from the spot, before the arrival of the Magistrate.

Mystery of man in green t-shirt

Suspicions arose when video footage emerged showing a man in a green t-shirt and camouflage three quarter shorts near the fuel bowser which was set on fire on the front side.

According to several clips obtained by Ceylon Today, a similar man was seen among Police Officers. At that time, the bowser appeared undamaged, but the three-wheeler was completely burnt.

One of the video clips shows a group pelting stones at those on the road. In response, the people on the road also threw stones that were on the railway track.

The person who recorded the video was heard asking the crowd whether the Police was pelting stones from the other side. One person says it was not the Police, but another group.

The person, who was filming, then crosses the railway track. He then starts running towards the road, screaming “no it was the Police, the Police are throwing stones.”

When he zooms his camera, it shows a group of Police Officers near a tree a few metres away from the three-wheeler.

Another video clip shows the same man in a green t-shirt, coming near the bowser and removing a placard tied to the bowser. He does not try to extinguish the fire and walks away.

A video clip shows him walking on the railway track after that, passing the burning three-wheeler.

According to the protesters, they are unaware of the identity of this particular person.

The Police have not arrested this person either. His identity remains a mystery, just like the one who set fire to the Army bus during protests in Mirihana against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Why did the Army go to the victim’s house?

In another curious note, a group of Army Officers had reportedly visited the victim’s house after reports of his death.

According to the villagers, there were about 20 Army personnel in mufti in that group.

They had provided food and helped to erect tents and arranged chairs outside the house for those who attended the funeral.

They had reportedly provided lunch for 300 persons.

However, in the afternoon, the youth in the village had asked them to leave, alleging that their presence was not necessary and suspicious.

“They had said the Police accepted that they shot him and since the Police can’t visit, they came.”

Ceylon Today could not independently verify this allegation.

Contradictions in Police statements

“I have already initiated an inquiry into the conduct of officers in Rambukkana,” IGP Chandana Wickramaratne said in a statement, as he ordered a curfew in the area.

According to an earlier statement by the Police, a crowd of people was about to set a diesel tanker alight when officers opened fire to disperse them.

The IGP justified the shooting, claiming that the Police had to use ‘minimum’ force to disperse the protesters who were about to set the bowser alight.

Senior Police Spokesman SDIG Ajith Rohana said a special team of 20 Police Officers has been appointed under the IGP’s instructions to conduct investigations into the shooting.

SDIG Rohana, who visited the scene, held a Media briefing at the Kegalle SSP’s office.

The Police team tasked with investigating the incident was appointed by the Sabaragamuwa Province SDIG, on the instructions of the IGP. The team consists of one SSP, three ASPs and in addition another 16 Police Officers. It will be headed by SSP Wasantha Kandewatte, SSP and Division-In- Charge of Seethawakapura-Avissawella Police division, SDIG Rohana said.

“The Police also submitted a report to the Kegalle Magistrate in terms of the provisions of Section 22 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to conduct an inquest in respect of the dead person according to the provisions of Chapter 30 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.”

According to the notes of the officers who were at the scene, they had been compelled to use ‘reasonable force’ under Sections 89 to 99 of the Penal Code. In addition, Section 107 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 56 of the Police Ordinance and in terms of Chapter 8 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, he said.

However, the residents refuted the Police statement, claiming that the protesters did not try to set the bowser alight.

“The bowser was there from morning. It they wanted to damage the bowser they could have done it much earlier. We even heard the protesters warning the people not to light a cigarette even. No property or vehicle was damaged by the protesters. Everything was fine around here, until the Police started shooting people.”

One of the residents said he witnessed people kneeling in front of the Police Officers, begging them not to shoot.

“The Police did not listen, of course. They even ran after the people who were escaping from the bullets and shot.”

Video footage shows that before the shooting started, someone had set fire to the fuel station. It was the group of protesters who extinguished the fire.

Video footage further shows flames erupting from the front side of the vehicle, where no protesters were present. It was a large number of Police Officers who were near the bowser with that mysterious man in a green t-shirt.

The eyewitnesses claim that the fire erupted after the shooting started.

Some footage shows Police Officers also throwing stones at protesters.

Also, another crucial video shows an official who appeared to be the Kegalle SSP Keeerthirathna ordering the Police Officers to fire at the protesters shouting, ‘Gahalapannanna.” According to Police sources, the SSP is said to have passed the order to shoot, violating public peace management.

There are several steps that Police should follow before shooting at a crowd. In this instance, protesters were taken unawares, with no loudspeaker announcements that there will be shooting. None of these steps had been followed in Rambukkana.

The Police are yet to make an official announcement with regard to who gave orders to shoot the protesters without following above protocols.

Also, Ceylon Today observed blood patches half a kilometre away from the bowser on by-lanes. If it was truly to save the bowser, why did the Police run after the people and open fire? How did several motorbikes parked on by-lanes, that appeared undamaged according to video footage, been damaged after the Police chased away the people?

When queried as to how a life was lost, if the Police used minimum power, SDIG Rohana did not give a straight answer. Instead, he advised to refer two Court cases, one in the US to understand the matter in depth.

The SDIG came under criticism of the public, when he said the victim had two Court cases related to homicide. The public questioned whether the Police Spokesman tried to claim it was okay to kill a person who has Court cases.

The investigations into the incident were handed over to the CID later and the Kegalle SSP, Rambukkana and Rambukkana Police OIC were transferred.

Why did the Police alter the ‘B’ Report?

The Kegalle Police on Wednesday (20) reported facts to Court over the Rambukkana shooting via an ‘A’ Report, and the Kegalle Magistrate had noted that facts cannot be presented to Court on a criminal matter via an ‘A’ Report.

The Magistrate suspended proceedings for a brief period and ordered Police to submit a ‘B’ Report to Court.

Accordingly, a ‘B’ report was submitted to Court and thereafter the Magistrate visited the site of the shooting for a site investigation and recorded statements from witnesses.

She ordered Police not to exert any influence on the witnesses, and ordered to investigate if any influence was exerted on the witnesses.

Attorneys-at-Law from the Bar Association of Sri Lanka were also present at the Kegalle Court on Wednesday (20) for the Court proceedings.

When the proceedings were resumed after the Magisterial Inquest, a Senior Police Officer apologised to the Magistrate, for repeatedly using correction fluid on several notes mentioned in the B report.

This was after counsel reported facts to the Court against the Police over the killing of Lakshan.

Counsel alleged that the Police had deliberately changed certain sections of the B report in a conniving manner, and raised their concerns to the Magistrate.

The Kegalle Magistrate had announced that the IGP would be informed of the matter.

Who removed CCTV cameras at the fuel station?

All the CCTV cameras at the fuel station had been removed. One of the CCTV cameras, was loosely hanging down from its socket, angled at the lane, where Lakshan was shot.

It is not clear who removed the cameras in the first place and where the DVR CCTV system is either. The Police are yet to make a statement on this.

Many questions remain unanswered about the shooting. The victim’s daughter, who spoke to reporters, said she seeks justice for the unnecessary death of her father. At the end of the day, a woman lost her husband and two children lost their father.

On the other hand, delivering justice for the killing of Lakshan would be delivering justice for each and every citizen of Sri Lanka, for we do not know when the same guns will be pointed at us.

Finally, a question must be asked from the Police. Dhammo Havē Rakkhathi Dhammachāri, the motto of the Police inspired by Lord Buddha’s saying implies ‘the one who lives by the Dhamma is protected by the Dhamma’. But whose Dhamma are the Police following?, definitely not Lord Buddha’s Dhamma.

(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)

By Methmalie Dissanayake in Rambukkana