03/11/2023, 17.07
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Police used tear gas that expired 20 years ago to crack down on protests in Colombo

by Melani Manel Perera

An independent investigative report found that many people involved in last summer protest movement, which led to President Rajapaksa’s resignation, suffered from serious respiratory problems. According to the probe, tear gas should be used “to disperse crowds, not kill people”.

Colombo (Asia News) – In Sri Lanka, police used tear gas against demonstrators that expired 20 years and more ago.

More than 6,000 hand grenades and cartridges were fired at the height of the protest movement in spring and early summer 2022, three times as many than in the previous decade.

The findings are contained in “Tear gas: Tears of twenty million” (in Sinhala), a report released a few days ago at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

Based on work of an investigative team led by freelance journalist Tharindu Jayawardena, with the support of the Right to Information Commission, the report reveals disturbing facts about the tear gas used by police during the Galle Face Aragalaya (struggle) protest movement, the wave of popular demonstrations that led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Between 31 March and 20 July 2022, police used grenades and tear gas canister worth more than 26 million rupees (or around US$ 82,000) on 84 different occasions.

Law enforcement used tear gas “many a time, blatantly violating and disregarding safety instructions pertaining to the use of tear gas,” reads the report. They “even used tear gas past its expiry date and tried to cover up what they did when information was requested.” In some cases, the expiry date went back 10, even 20 years.

Mr Jayawardena explained that they began their work last September after victims of the repression reported serious physical ailments from inhaling the tear gas used to disperse crowds.

“As a journalist, I have covered many [. . .] student protest campaigns in the last decade,” he said. “I have followed many demonstrations dispersed with tear gas. But I had never seen such serious problems.”

In fact, some people have died from respiratory problems associated with the tear gas.

“We sought information from the Police Department on several occasions through the Right to Information Act, but the latter did not provide us with relevant and adequate information,” Jayawardena noted.

Only “after four appeal hearings by the Right to Information Commission was the police ordered to provide full details;” however, so far, that has not been fully done.

About “20,000 grenades and tear gas cartridges were purchased in 2021,” the report goes on to say. “Between 2012 and 2015, the police used only 2,306”.

“Although the remaining stocks expired in 2017, they were not destroyed.” The same is the case for “grenades and cartridges purchased in 2017 that expired in 2021.

Thus, "This is a clear violation of public health [regulations], as these gases are used to disperse crowds, not kill people with respiratory and other complications."

Meanwhile, a few days ago the police used tear gas in Colombo to disperse a protest organised by the Inter-University Student Union to highlight the country’s economic, social and political crises.

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