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Meeting a torturer - Canadian police chief’s controversial Sri Lankan visit

Duraiappah receives a guard of honour from the Sri Lankan police.

A senior Canadian police chief sparked controversy with a visit to Sri Lanka last month, where he discussed “cooperation” with its notorious police force and visited the office of a senior official who the Supreme Court found had personally participated in torture.

Nishan Duraiappah, the Chief of Peel Regional Police, was given a guard of honour by Sri Lanka’s police force and met with Acting Police Chief Deshabandu Tennakoon in his Colombo office. His visit comes just weeks after Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court delivered a judgement holding Tennakoon personally responsible for torture and detailed how he had taken part in beating a man in custody.

Yet Duraiappah seemed undeterred by Tennakoon’s record, as he dressed in his full police uniform for his meeting and even held a press conference directly after, telling reporters that “I am very happy to be a Sri Lankan”.

Duraiappah with Sabry in Colombo.

Duraiappah went on to meet other senior government officials, including foreign minister Ali Sabry who recently lashed out at Canada’s Prime Minister and has repeatedly defended Sri Lanka’s tainted human rights record.

“Pleased to meet the Chief of Peel Regional Police of Canada Nishan Duraiappah,” tweeted Sabry, alongside photographs of Duraiappah and Canada’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Eric Walsh. “We also discussed cooperation in the area of community policing,” Sabry added. 

Stripped naked and beaten

Deshabandu Tennakoon

Amidst a host of military and police officials accused of egregious crimes, Tennakoon remains notorious. He stands accused of an array of crimes from issuing death threats to journalists, to covering up abductions and even having extrajudicial executions carried out under his watch.

On December 14, 2023, just days before Duraiappah arrived on the island, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court issued a rare ruling that found Tennakoon had personally tortured a man at the Mirihana Police Station in 2011.

According to the judgement, Tennakoon had personally visited the persons detained in a “torture chamber” for a “brief session of torture”. The court also noted an affidavit from a victim that Tennakoon had “beat the Petitioner with a ‘three-wheel rubber band’ after stripping him naked and ordering him to rub Siddhalepa on his genitalia”.

Read more on Tennakoon’s history of crimes by Ruki Fernando on Groundviews here.

See the full Supreme Court Judgement here.

‘Very happy to be a Sri Lankan’

“Sri Lanka has achieved a lot of development,” said Duraiappah, at a press conference held right after his meeting with Tennakoon.

Duraiappah was brought to the Police Headquarters in a horse-drawn procession amid police salutes, with a reception held for the police chief at the same venue.

Duraiappah with Alles.

He received a special plaque from Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles, a man accused of corruption and named in the Pandora Papers, emblazoned with both the Canadian and Sri Lankan flags.

The building, on York Street in the middle of Colombo’s glitzy business district, sits by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) whose offices on the fourth floor have long become synonymous with torture.

“I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka,” continued Duraiappah, the nephew of murdered Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarian Alfred Duraiappah. “I am very happy to be a Sri Lankan.”

Yet back in Canada, Sri Lanka has become a pariah state. Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement to commemorate Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of when Sri Lankan forces massacred tens of thousands of Tamils. The Canadian government has also placed sanctions on Sri Lankan leaders accused of war crimes, with two former presidents barred from entering the country.

Duraiappah was asked by Sri Lankan journalists about the sanctions. According to The Island, he “politely declined to comment”.

No collaboration insists Peel Police

Soldiers in Jaffna this week, as part of an anti-narcotics crackdown launched by Alles last month.

Whilst Sri Lanka’s foreign minister tweeted about “cooperation in the area of community policing”, further details of any collaboration between Canada’s and Sri Lanka’s police forces were not revealed.

According to The Leader, Duraiappah and Alles discussed a "programme aimed at strengthening community Police Units, implemented under advice and guidance of Minister Alles" which "received special appreciation from the Canadian Police Chief".

Last month, Sri Lanka's police announced the arrests of nearly 15,000 people during a week-long military-backed anti-narcotics drive, a crackdown denounced by rights activists. Alles instructed police to use "maximum force" against suspected criminals, stating the police would locate alleged drug dealers and "shoot them".

Nevertheless, "Nishan Duraiappah pledged the full support of the Canadian Police to further enhance the programme," The Leader added.

When questioned by the Tamil Guardian, Peel Regional Police denied that any such support or cooperation would take place.

“There is no ongoing initiative or collaboration between Peel Regional Police and any organization in Sri Lanka,” said the force in response to a request for comment.

Despite being dressed in full uniform, receiving a guard of honour, meeting senior government and police officials, and holding a press conference with journalists, Peel Police went on to claim that Duraiappah had only embarked “on a personal trip with his family”.

“Chief Duraiappah is proud to be born in Sri Lanka and to be the only Police Chief of Sri Lankan descent outside the country,” continued Peel Police. “During his vacation, he welcomed the request from senior police leaders to discuss his experience in advancing Community Policing and the concept of Community Safety and Wellbeing.”

"The Chief is internationally known for his progressive, innovative and inclusive model of policing, and always welcomes the opportunity to connect with international counterparts to share the work that Peel Regional Police is leading in efforts to advance and modernize policing," it added.

Tamil Canadians express their outrage

Duraiappah adresses a Tamil Heritage Month event in Brampton, 2020.

Back in Canada, Duraiappah is frequently seen at local community events, has thanked parliamentarians for the “advocacy of Tamil Heritage Month” and tweeted about how it is “great to see Tamil culture celebrated in this amazing country”.

But local Tamils told us that they are outraged by his visit.

“A Canadian regional police chief meeting with a convicted Sri Lankan deputy police chief and accepting his force's guard of honor is deeply disturbing,” said Thirumugaventhan of the Tamil Thai Mandram (Canadian Mothers Tamil Forum). “It goes against Canadian foreign policy, which firmly stands for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. We urge the Peel Police Board to address this issue urgently. It is concerning, especially as he is in our reputable police force uniform.”

“It is imperative that Tamils work collectively to ensure that those who committed atrocities against us are held to the highest levels of accountability admissible by international law,” added Katpana Nagendra, General Secretary & Spokesperson of the Tamil Rights Group.

“When engaging with the Sri Lankan government or its authorities, it's important to approach interactions thoughtfully to prevent any misinterpretation. We must ensure that these interactions are not misconstrued and used by the Sri Lankan regime as a propaganda tool to undermine our collective efforts for justice and accountability.”

The arrests continue

Sri Lankan police arrest an enforced disappearances activist last week.

Whilst Peel police insists no initiative is planned, any move to bring closer ties between the two, however, would see a reversal of recent international trends. In December 2021, Police Scotland announced it was to end its training work with police in Sri Lanka, after longstanding concerns of human rights abuses on the island. At the time, concerns had been raised about the surveillance and intimidation of human rights activists and the police use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), to arbitrarily arrest Tamils across the North-East.

Little has changed on the island. Several Tamils had been arrested under the PTA in recent months, whilst journalists, human rights activists and families of the disappeared continued to face harassment and intimidation. Just last week, the head of the Vavuniya chapter of the Families of the Disappeared was arrested by Sri Lankan police as she attempted to stage a protest.

In November last year, yet another Tamil youth was killed. 25-year-old Alex Nagarasa from Jaffna was arrested by police and tortured to death. A medical report ruled his death a murder, but like so many other crimes on the island, no one has been held responsible.

A few short weeks later, Duraiappah would arrive for his tour.

 

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Correction: Duraiappah's office did respond to requests for comment, as published above.

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