Yukthiya – Skewed Justice
The government’s ‘Operation Yukthiya’ (Operation Justice) to eradicate narcotics trafficking and underworld activities has come under heavy criticism both locally and internationally.
UN experts, echoing calls by local human rights and civil society organizations, have demanded the operation, which is being carried out jointly by the Sri Lankan Police and the Police Special Task Force (STF), be stopped immediately.
Allegations of human rights violations, indiscriminate arrests by the police and the STF, harassment and abuse of civilians during searches form the basis of the calls for the immediate cessation of the operation.
In the first month of operation, from December 17, 2023, to January 17, 2024, a total of 38,525 people were arrested, with the Ministry of Public Security claiming drugs worth Rs 4.7 billion had been seized during this period.
Since January 17, several hundreds have been arrested daily, creating a massive space crunch in the already overcrowded prisons. Conflicts have also increased in rehabilitation camps.
Human rights groups have for months drawn attention to the extreme overcrowding of prisons across the country. And it is to such an environment, where there is near to no space and facilities have deteriorated, that the thousands arrested under the ‘yukthiya’ operation are sent to, exacerbating an already dire situation.
Human rights groups have cited the overcrowding of prisons and the resultant deprivation of facilities as undermining the rights of prisoners.
Although the government has defended Operation Yukthiya as a strategic move to curb drug trafficking and underworld crime, allegations abound about the political motives behind it. Deshabandu Tennakoon, who currently holds the post of Acting Inspector General (DIG) of Police and is spearheading the operation, is a Rajapaksa family acolyte who turned a blind eye to the violence unleashed on the peaceful Aragalya protesters in May 2022. He did not take any action to stop the Rajapaksa loyalist from attacking unarmed protesters camped at the Galle Face, after a meeting at Temple Trees called by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Several charges have been levelled against Deshabandu in court. In December the Supreme Court held him, along with three other police officers, responsible for torture in a Fundamental Rights case filed by an individual detained at the Mirihana Police Station, under his supervision in 2011. The Court, while ordering him to pay Rs 500,000 to the victim also instructed the Police Commission to take disciplinary action against him. However, Deshabandu’s political influence has given him protective cover, emboldening him further.
Deshabandu, who is very close to Public Security Minister Tiran Alles, no doubt views Operation Yukthiya as his means to ditching the ‘Acting’ prefix and becoming Inspector General of Police.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed him as Acting Inspector General of Police for just three months. Deshabandu is determined to cement his suitability for the high post by somehow demonstrating he has restored law and order in the country within this short time frame. Minister Alles supports him in this endeavour, and it is their joint plan that is being presented as the ‘strategic move’. Hence, the widespread allegations of yukthiya being a politically motivated move.
The underlying goal of the operation is to appoint Deshabandu Tennakoon, who is close to the Rajapaksa family, as the Inspector General of Police.
Deshabandu’s ambitions aside, there is no gainsaying that drug addiction and trafficking have increased in the country in recent times and related crimes have also increased exponentially. People’s safety has become an issue of grave concern, and cause for serious grievances. It is in this backdrop that the government initiated the strategic action, believing that by cracking down on drug trafficking and drug use, and curbing the activities of underworld groups, it can create positive public opinion. And so Operation Yukthiya was planned and executed.
But, more than six weeks into the operation and over 40,000 arrests later, the question arises, has there been any progress in restoring law and order?
A few days into the operation Minister Alles was quoted as saying that the number of crimes has decreased by 17%. But in the past month, there have been several murders, occurring almost back to back. These include the gunning down of five people, including the leader of a ‘political party, on a busy highway in broad daylight in Beliatta, the shooting to death of a Buddhist monk inside a monastery in the Gampaha area and the murder of a 23-year-old man inside a mobile phone outlet in Matara. The government has blamed underworld groups for the killings.
Underworld groups and drug trafficking are closely linked. As drug traffickers grow, they form underworld groups to expand and protect their business. In the next step, they push away those who hinder their growth. And then group conflicts arise. Overall drug traffickers and underworld gangs have become the bane of society. There is no denying that both these are problems that need to be rooted out – completely eradicated.
But neither the government nor the police force is ready to eliminate either the underworld or drug trafficking gangs for the simple reason that they have political patronage and influence. Bribes are paid to politicians and people in positions of power by these groups. It is their money that is used by the politicians to win votes and retain their positions. So politicians and people in power are never willing to completely rid the country of drug traffickers and underworld gangs.
Testimony to this is the fact that Operation Yukthiya has only netted small-time dealers and drug addicts, leaving the big crocodiles and their trade intact. Even the few big guns who were arrested have managed to get out using political influence.
Purging the country of drug trafficking is only practical if it starts with the elimination of the big bosses and the underworld gangs that traffic narcotics into the country en masse. For, as long as the big-time drug dealers are allowed a free pass, new small-time dealers will continue to spring up.
The Minister of Public Security has said that drugs worth Rs 4.7 billion have been seized in a single month. But the question remains whether those who were found in possession of the drug haul will be punished. For, more often than not, once the drugs are seized they metamorphose to something else when in police or court custody, or when with the chemical analyst, becoming harmless in the process.
This was revealed by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, giving credence to the belief that the replacement of seized drugs with other substances can only be done with the support of the government and higher authorities.
Eradicating drug trafficking and underworld crimes is only possible if fraud and corruption at the level of authority are eliminated. Arresting petty criminals and drug addicts will only overcrowd the already overcrowded prisons.
Actions such as what’s being carried out under Yukthiya can only help politicians solidify their power and authority. That is what is happening now. And that’s why there is much opposition to it.