Why Deshabandu Tennakoon Must Not Continue as Acting Police Chief
Photo courtesy of Twitter
On December 14, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a historic judgement, holding Acting Inspector General of Police (IGP) Deshabandu Tennakoon personally responsible for torture. Before this judgement, there have been reports of Mr. Tennakoon being complicit in attacking peaceful protests, making death threats to a journalist, threatening and wrongfully arresting police officers, interfering with police officers carrying out their duties, obstructing investigations and abusing state resources and privileges associated with his position. Serious human rights violations and crimes have occurred under his watch as a senior police officer including Easter Sunday attacks, a series of custodial and encounter deaths involving the police and violations of COVID-19 regulations. Mr. Tennakoon has also been accused of failing to comply with orders of the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses, which amounts to contempt of the Authority and is be punishable by the Supreme Court as an offence against the authority of the court[i]. Below are 13 reasons why Mr. Tennakoon must resign or be dismissed by the National Police Commission.
- Supreme Court judgement holding him responsible for torture
In its judgement, the Supreme Court noted that Mr. Tennakoon had personally ordered the investigation that led to torture and other rights violations. Based on information in the emergency calls information book of the police, the court observed that Mr. Tennakoon had intimate knowledge of the investigation in the course of which police officers under Mr. Tennakoon had tortured several persons. The court found that Mr. Tennakoon had personally visited the persons detained in the “torture chamber” for “brief session of torture” and noted an affidavit from a victim that Mr. Tennakoon had “beat the Petitioner with a ‘three-wheel rubber band’ after stripping him naked and ordering him to rub Siddhalepa on his genitalia”. The court also found Mr. Tennakoon guilty of violating other constitutional rights such as equality before the law, equal protection of the law and arresting a person and holding him in custody without being produced before a judge as per legal procedures.
The court held that Mr. Tennakoon had “enabled, through his actions as well as inaction”, three other junior police officers to have violated constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. It emphasized the complicity of senior officials such as Mr. Tennakoon through the following words: “The big fish in the pond are seldom held duly accountable. Senior officers, under whose authority and direction their subordinates may act, have a special duty to ensure that they do not abuse such authority or go beyond such direction. Senior officers cannot merely give orders and thereafter sleep on this duty. They are to closely scrutinize the conduct of their subordinates. The stars that adorn their uniforms are not ornaments of power, but rather, reminders of the immense responsibility that comes with their authority. Gross neglect of this duty would render them complicit in the actions of their unruly subordinates”.
The court highlighted that the concept of commission by omission is well recognized in constitutional jurisprudence and that “supervising officers are to be directly held liable for the conduct of their subordinates in appropriate instances, even in the absence of direct participation. Supervising officers can be held liable where there is affirmatory participation or participatory presence on the part of such supervising officers; or, where they have, directly or indirectly, implemented or enabled unconstitutional policies by turning a blind eye towards unconstitutional practices directly under their authority”.
It is regrettable that an Attorney General (AG)’s representative appeared on behalf of Mr. Tennakoon in this case, which will lead to perceptions or real conflicts of interest, as it is the same AG’s office that may have to prosecute him based on findings of the Supreme Court and in other cases where Mr. Tennakoon is a suspect.
- Extrajudicial executions under his watch
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) noted 24 custodial deaths in three main districts in Western Province and 13 encounter deaths, the majority in Western Province and Galle District, involving the police. The period of these deaths is from January 2020 to August 2023 and Mr. Tennakoon has been the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) for the Western Province for this period until now.
- Death threats to journalist and human rights defender
In July 2021 Mr. Tennakoon, while being a SDIG, made death threats against prominent investigative journalist and human rights defender Tharindu Jayawardena through Facebook comments after a report about him was published by Tharindu. In his comments, Mr. Tennakoon had referred to Velupillai Prabakaran and criminals, implying same fate that befell them may happen to Tharindu. This amounts to a death threat, considering that Prabakaran was killed by the Army at the end of the war and several suspected criminals have been killed in custody of police and in encounters with the police, mostly in the Western Province under Mr. Tennakoon ’s watch, including two in May 2021. Mr. Tennakoon said Tharindu would be punished by “natural justice”. Despite a formal complaint to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) by Tharindu, only a statement from Mr. Tennakoon was recorded by the police and that too after more than a year. Afterwards, Tharindu was informed by the police that the AG had advised that there was no basis to continue a case against Mr. Tennakoon and it appears that he will never be held accountable despite the threatening comments still being available online. Complaints by Tharindu to the HRCSL and the National Police Commission had not yielded results.
- Covering up abduction and torture of journalist and human rights defender
On June 1, 2009, senior journalist and human rights defender Poddala Jayantha was abducted and subjected to torture and cruel and inhumane treatment. According to Poddala, Mr. Tennakoon has been accused of concealing evidence in relation this incident. Poddala had stated that Mr. Tennakoon, as the then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), has been accused by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of not conducting investigations and reporting facts to the courts. Poddala also stated that Mr. Tennakoon had taken the unusual step of a SSP personally coming to the hospital with the Officer in Charge (OIC) of Mirihana police to record a statement. Poddala said that Mr. Tennakoon had strongly instructed the OIC not to include Poddala’s statement that he suspected then Secretary to Ministry of Defense, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of being involved in this incident. Poddala complained to the HRCSL about the police not recording his statement properly and handed over copy of a receipt for the complaint to the CID. In 2019, the media reported that the CID had taken a statement from Mr. Tennakoon in relation to the incident including why two persons not connected to the incident had been arrested and remanded.
- Complicity in attack on protesters at Galle Face on May 9, 2022
When supporters of then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa attacked a protest site outside the prime minister’s residence on May 9, 2022 and started marching to attack the bigger protest site at Galle Face, Mr. Tennakoon assured the peaceful protesters at Galle Face that he would stop the mobs and asked the protesters to go inside to the protest site. But media reports clearly indicate police under Mr. Tennakoon not making much effort to stop the mobs from marching to and attacking the protest site despite having enough time and resources including riot police, water cannons and tear gas. During the attack, Mr. Tennakoon was seen conversing with SLPP MP Sanath Nishantha, a prominent suspect into the attacks who was later arrested. On June 1, 2022, a senior lawyer appearing for the Colombo High Court Lawyer’s Association pointed out at the Magistrate’s Court hearing that the IGP had sent a letter to Mr. Tennakoon on the previous day (May 8) about a conflicting situation at Galle Face but that Mr. Tennakoon had not taken adequate measures. Within two weeks of the attacks, the AG instructed to have Mr. Tennakoon transferred to prevent undue interventions into the May 9 2022 but this never happened. Later, the AG requested to make Mr. Tennakoon a suspect in court proceedings in relation to the attack. Mr. Tennakoon challenged this in court and the Appeal Court quashed the AG’s action. However, the AG has filed an appeal in Supreme Court challenging the legality of the Court of Appeal judgment and this is still pending. If the Supreme Court dismisses Court of Appeal judgement, Mr. Tennakoon could be made a suspect in court proceedings.
- Interfering in investigations into money found at president’s residence
One hundred and fifteen organizations and individuals wrote to the President and Constitutional Council on November 2 this year urging them not to consider Mr. Tennakoon and another SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena being appointed as IGP. In this letter, they referred to Rs. 17,850,000 having being found in President’s official residence on July 9, 2022, the day the then president was compelled to vacate the residence in the face of massive public protests. The money had been handed over to the police. The letter pointed out that the OIC of the Fort police stated in routine information book of the police of July 9 that Mr. Tennakoon had called him and ordered him to hand over the money to Minister Tiran Alles instead of presenting the money to court. Several media have reported on this incident.
- Threatening the Director of Police’s Special Investigations Unit
On January 13, 2023 the Director of the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Wickramasinghe, informed the Fort Magistrate that he was threatened by Mr. Tennakoon for reporting facts to the court regarding the investigations into Rs. 17,850,000 recovered from the presidential residence on July 9, 2022. The SSP said the threat was in relation to him reporting facts to the court over an allegation that Mr. Tennakoon had used undue influence on the OIC of the Fort police to hand over the money found inside the President’s House to a minister without keeping it under court custody. SSP Wickramasinghe had said Mr. Tennakoon had called and threatened him saying “I will take care of you in the future”. SSP Wickramasinghe had informed the magistrate he had brought the incident to the attention of the IGP, put notes regarding these threats and that he is expecting to file a complaint with the HRCSL. On July 26, 2023, the media reported that SSP Wickramasinghe had been transferred to the Research and Development Division of the police.
- Stopping the checking of lorry that may have carried explosives for Easter Sunday attacks
The letter of November 2, 2023 also referred to an incident on April 5, 2019 at the Gelanigama entrance of the Southern Expressway. Mr. Tennakoon had called a police officer on duty and instructed him not to check a suspicious lorry. The officer recorded this incident in the routine information book of the police of April 5, 2019 at 3.10 am. The letter referred to public opinion that the lorry may have been carrying explosives used for Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, 2019 and if the checking of the lorry was not obstructed, the Easter Sunday attacks could have been prevented.
- Complicity in not preventing Easter Sunday attacks
According to a media report, the SIU had recommended to present charge sheets against Mr. Tennakoon and several other senior police officers in relation negligence of their duties to prevent Easter Sunday attacks. The report stated that the then minister in charge of the police, Sarath Weerasekara, stated at a press conference that the charge sheets had been approved by the Public Service Commission. However, in reply to a Right to Information request, the Ministry of Public Security stated on September 15, 2023 that the Public Service Commission had not sent the Ministry of Public Security any charge sheets against police officers in relation to Easter Sunday attacks. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry concluded that Mr. Tennakoon had failed to call for reports from junior officers before the attacks in the light of information received, acted merely as messenger and failed his duties. The Commission recommended a disciplinary inquiry against Mr. Tennakoon but the National Police Commission found that there was insufficient evidence presented to prove charges against him beyond reasonable doubt.
- Abusing state resources and violating COVID-19 travel restrictions
In August 2021, Mr. Tennakoon and several other senior police officers visited influential senior Buddhist monks in Kandy,appealing to save them from legal action arising from their negligence in relation to Easter Sunday attacks. Mr. Tennakoon and others had broken COVID-19 travel restrictions to travel to the Central Province using official vehicles and in their uniforms.
- Allowing violations of COVID-19 regulations
On June 9, 2020 journalist Tharindu Jayawardena posted on Facebook about a large gathering of people including the then prime minister at a funeral of a family member of a prominent Buddhist monk during a time when there were COVID-19 related restrictions on traveling and gatherings. Mr. Tennakoon’s Facebook page was tagged with a series of questions posed to him as the SDIG in charge of the Western Province. In a comment to the post Mr. Tennakoon had asked the journalist to call him, providing a mobile number. Tharindu had tried to call that number as well as a personal number of Mr. Tennakoon several times but there has been no answer. There was no response from Mr. Tennakoon to the questions posed.
- Not obeying orders to provide protection to retired senior police officer at risk
Mr. Tennakoon has been accused of not providing adequate security to former Director of the CID, retired SSP Shani Abeysekara, in compliance with the orders of the IGP and the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses. This is an observation made by the director of the division for protection and support to victims and witnesses in a letter dated September 20, 2022, addressed to the director general of the authority. In June 2023, Mr. Abeysekara had filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal in relation to this, stating that Mr. Tennakoon had been acting with vested interest and has intentionally and deliberately failed to comply with the directions given by the authority and the IGP. Mr. Abeysekara stated that failure to comply with the orders of the authority amounted to contempt of the authority and was punishable by the Supreme Court as an offence against the authority of the court[ii]. The media also reported on the incident. Mr. Tennakoon rejected the allegation.
- Case against involvement in wrongful arrest of senior police officer
In November 2023 Mr. Abeysekara is filed a case at the Colombo District Court seeking compensation from four senior police officers including Mr. Tennakoon for his wrongful arrest and prosecution, claiming that the investigation had been conducted under the instructions of the IGP and Mr. Tennakoon.
Mr. Tennakoon should have never been appointed by the president and the Constitutional Council as the Acting IGP when so many allegations and cases are pending. In view of last week’s Supreme Court judgement, Mr. Tennakoon should resign immediately. If he doesn’t resign, the National Police Commission should dismiss him from the police service using powers the Commission has, in addition to implementing the Supreme Court judgement for them to take disciplinary actions against policemen found guilty of rights violations, which includes Mr. Tennakoon. Without his resignation or dismissal by the National Police Commission, the independence of any further actions against Mr. Tennakoon in pending allegations and cases will be severely compromised as all police units and police officers are under him in his capacity of Acting IGP. The AG should also prosecute him under the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading treatment or Punishment Act. No. 22 of 1994 and other relevant laws.
[i] Based on the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of
2015, which was in force when the alleged offence took place and when the writ application was filed.