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‘Use your weapon without fear’ - Sri Lankan minister tells Special Task Force

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles told officers from the notorious Special Task Force (STF) that it is “not a sin to eliminate” those accused of drug trafficking, as he urged troops to “use your weapon without fear”.

"We will stand for you," he told the officers, as Sri Lanka’s police force introduced a new motorcycle squadron to purportedly tackle the trade of narcotics.

His remarks follow on from Sri Lanka’s Inspector General of Police Deshabandu Tennakoon who last week told reporters that troops were being trained in how to shoot from their seats. 

“They are being trained to aim while riding,” Tennakoon told the private media broadcaster Sirasa TV. A team of 100 officers from the STD were being trained at the camp in Katukurunda, Tennakoon said.

At least 20 special teams from the paramilitary STF are being trained to pursue and arrest “criminal gangs” in the western and southern areas, Sri Lanka police said in a statement. The Sri Lankan police and the STF in particular, have a history of human rights abuses, including rape, abductions and executions.

Tennakoon however reiterated that the controversial Operation Yukthiya, a military backed anti-narcotics crackdown that has seen tens of thousands arrested, will be further strengthened after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

“This year is a decisive one,” he told reporters. “We will create a nation where people can live without fear of crimes and drugs.”

“The police are a very strong institution,” Tennakoon added. “We are using only a few resources to fight against the crimes and drugs. If required, I will double or triple the strength and will terminate some divisions in the police that are less productive and efficient. I will divert those officers and resources to fight against drugs and crimes.”

Whilst the Sri Lankan government maintains that it aims to reduce crime, Operation Yukthiya has come under heavy criticism for its heavy-handed tactics which resulted in the arrest of over 30,000 individuals. Security forces have reportedly conducted raids without search warrants, detaining suspected drug sellers and users, with hundreds sent to military-run rehabilitation centres.

During and after these operations, people are reported to have been subjected to several violations, including unauthorised searches, arbitrary arrests and detention, ill-treatment, torture, and strip searches in public. In one instance, a 17-year-old boy was reportedly forced to strip completely naked on the Galle road, merely for carrying a pair of scissors. Lawyers acting for those detained have alleged that they have faced intimidation from police officers.

UN experts who are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council have expressed alarm at the heavy security-driven approach of Sri Lanka’s anti-narcotics operation which has seen tens of thousands of people arrested do far. In a statement released on the UNOHCHR website, the experts called on Sri Lankan authorities to immediately suspend and review the so-called Operation ‘Yukthiya’ and to focus on policies based on health and human rights.

“Drug users have human rights,” the experts said. “They deserve to live a life with dignity without facing further discrimination and stigmatization. The current context of severe repression against suspected drug offenders is deeply worrying.

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