IT’S gone unreported in Scotland but over in New York, Human Rights Watch has just called out our national police force for propping up the Sri Lankan government – a regime accused of extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detention.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Sri Lankan police are “increasingly killing and abusing people”. Scotland, says HRW, “provides police training” to the Sri Lankan force.

HRW robustly said: “Police Scotland should suspend assistance programmes until there is progress on accountability and reform”. Sri Lanka is being urged to “restore independent oversight of the police and meaningfully investigate and prosecute alleged police abuses”.

Police Scotland’s activities are causing big concerns among international human rights organisations like HRW. Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, said that nations and organisations “working with Sri Lankan law enforcement should recognise that without the political will to reform on Sri Lanka’s part, their engagement risks appearing to endorse abusive agencies”.

There have been chilling events of late in Sri Lanka. On June 3, for example, Chandran Vidushan, 22, died in police custody shortly after being arrested, according to HRW. “His family alleged that police tied him to a tree outside their house and severely beat him with poles, then took him away. The authorities said that he died of a drug overdose.”

Three days later, Mohamed Ali, 42, died after been arrested for an alleged Covid quarantine violation. “Police reported that he was fatally injured jumping from a moving police jeep,” HRW said. “Ali’s wife alleged that the police beat him to death.”

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Police fatally shot Melon Mabula on May 11, and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera, on May 12. Both were in police custody for alleged involvement in organised crime. Lawyers and others “warned that their lives were in danger”, HRW said. The Sri Lankan Bar Association claimed both cases “have all the hallmarks of extra-judicial killings”.

HRW says killings and abuses are being carried out “under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic measures and an anti-drug campaign”. In 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa established a task force of senior military and police officers to create a “disciplined, virtuous, and lawful society”, and placed the police and National Dangerous Drugs Control Board under the Defence Ministry.

In February 2020, the chief of defence staff, General Shavendra Silva said: “The security forces, which eradicated terrorism in the country ten years ago, have been given a new task – to combat drug trafficking.” America imposed sanctions on Silva for alleged war crimes during the late stages of the Sri Lankan Civil war, when up to 70,000 civilians were killed.

HRW said: “The police crackdown on drug dealers and users has allegedly involved planting drugs on suspects, torture and other ill-treatment in police custody … and invasive body searches of female suspects.”

Drug trafficking and possession can carry the death penalty – some 1500 prisoners are on Death Row. Drug users can be arbitrarily detained without charge or trial for ‘rehabilitation' in facilities run by the state. One of the world’s leading international drug NGOs, Harm Reduction International, said treatment at these facilities “includes near-daily beatings and other physical abuse amounting to torture”.

Ganguly, of HRW, said: “The Rajapaksa government needs to demonstrate that alleged police abuses will be properly investigated and prosecuted, and the law should promote accountability, not weaken it. Until that happens, international partners should be under no illusions about human rights in Sri Lanka, and they should withhold assistance to abusive law enforcement agencies.”

Few media outlets have investigated the role of British police in overseas regimes. One exception is the investigative website Declassified which probes UK foreign, military, intelligence and economic policies. Its chief reporter Phil Miller told me that Scottish police have “trained Sri Lankan officers for over a decade but I cannot find any evidence their conduct has improved as a result – if anything it has got worse.

"Sri Lanka's president, who supported the bombing of hospitals in his war against the island's Tamil independence movement, has appointed an admirer of Adolf Hitler to run the community policing ministry – the very department Police Scotland must deal with.

"Now HRW says the Scottish training should stop. It is time to see if the SNP will use their devolved powers to give Scotland a more ethical foreign policy or keep ignoring warnings from international experts.”

Although clearly the SNP, as a devolved administration, has no real foreign policy powers, the HRW revelations do raise significant questions about the kind of oversight which is being exercised by Nicola Sturgeon’s government in terms of the limited role Scotland does play independently in the world.

Many voters who see the SNP as a supposedly ‘progressive’ party will be undoubtedly perturbed by these allegations. Should there be any collaboration with police forces overseas which have serious questions to answer about human rights abuses? Police Scotland does risk being seen as propping up rather than reforming security forces in Sri Lanka.

On its website, Police Scotland boasts that its new International Academy, opened just a few weeks ago by Nicola Sturgeon, will “support human rights across the world”. At the end of July, the BBC ran a story headlined ‘Police Scotland exports its ‘human rights’ approach’, in which it was reported that “senior officers say the facility will export their ‘human rights based approach’ to policing”.

When I contacted Police Scotland about HRW’s findings, Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie sent this statement: "Police Scotland’s values of integrity, fairness, respect and a commitment to upholding human rights are at the heart of everything we do.

"This includes our work in Sri Lanka, which supports the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly gender equality, reduced inequality, peace and justice, strong institutions and partnerships to achieve the goals.

"All UK assistance is subject to robust Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) assessments to ensure that it supports our values and is consistent with our domestic and international human rights obligations.

"The OSJA relating to Police Scotland's current activity in Sri Lanka is currently under review and all our activity is paused for the time being. Officers have not travelled to Sri Lanka since the start of the coronavirus pandemic for public health reasons.”