Peel police chief met Sri Lankan officer a court says ‘participated’ in torture

Click to play video: '‘Disbelief’ about Ontario police chief’s controversial Sri Lankan visit'
‘Disbelief’ about Ontario police chief’s controversial Sri Lankan visit
WATCH: 'Disbelief' about Ontario police chief's controversial Sri Lankan visit – Apr 23, 2024

The head of one of Canada’s largest police forces met with a Sri Lankan inspector general of police who two weeks earlier had been found by the South Asian country’s highest court to have “participated in the torture” of an arrested man.

Photos published by Sri Lankan media, including the Ceylon Today, an English-language daily newspaper, show Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah in uniform posing alongside senior Sri Lankan officers on Dec. 29, 2023 at police headquarters in the capital Colombo – a visit a Peel police spokesperson says Global Affairs Canada and the RCMP had been made aware of ahead of time.

One of the law enforcement officials in the photos was the inspector-general of Sri Lankan police, Deshabandu Tennakoon, who earlier that month was ordered to pay compensation for taking part in “mercilessly” beating a man.

Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah signs a guestbook at Sri Lankan police headquarters in Colombo, as the country’s inspector general Deshabandu Tennakoon stands behind him. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court found he took part in the torture of an arrested man. (Credit: Ceylon Today). Ceylon Today

On Dec. 14, 2023, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled Tennakoon was involved in the brutal arrest of a man suspected of theft, holding him in what the court called the “torture chamber” of the police station for more than 24 hours, striking and suffocating him, and rubbing chili powder on his genitals.

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Dr. Thusiyan Nandakumar, a physician who also runs the London, U.K.-based outlet the Tamil Guardian, called it a “stain on Canada’s reputation.”

“To see someone of (Duraiappah’s) stature receive a guard of honour from that very same institution that’s responsible for so many abuses was shocking, to say the least,” Nandakumar said.

Duraiappah declined Global News’ request for an interview. In a statement, a Peel Regional Police spokesperson called his trip to Sri Lanka “personal” and said there is “no ongoing initiative or collaboration between Peel Regional Police and any organization in Sri Lanka.”

Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah wears his uniform and walks by Sri Lankan soldiers in a visit Peel police describe as a “personal” trip. (Credit: Ceylon Today). Ceylon Today

Duraippah was photographed multiple times during his visit wearing his Peel police uniform.

Rathika Sitsabaiesan – a former NDP MP and Canada’s first Tamil member of Parliament – says when someone wears a uniform, “you’re representing the organization for which you are the chief.”

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Duraippah is the only police chief of Sri Lankan descent outside the South Asian nation, according to Peel police, which operates in Mississauga and Brampton, Ont.

“(It’s) very harmful to me as a Canadian, as someone who grew up in the region of Peel, and all the people who continue to live in Peel and who identify as Tamil, in my opinion,” Sitsabaiesan said.

The Peel spokesperson said Duraiappah accepted an invitation from Sri Lankan police officers while he was on a family vacation to the country of his birth.

The spokesperson would not confirm when asked if Duraiappah had met directly with Tennakoon beyond the photos, which show them holding a plaque together and Tennakoon standing behind Duraiappah while he signed a guestbook.

It’s not clear whether the event photographed was the only meeting or whether any additional ones were held, including whether Duraiappah and Tennakoon met outside of the moment they were photographed together.

Another Peel spokesperson added that “the Chief discussed the requests for meetings received with Global Affairs Canada and the RCMP.”

The RCMP says the force provided information to Duraiappah about Tennakoon, including about the recent court ruling, ahead of time.

“The Government of Canada did not organize the visit, which was considered a personal visit. However, given the RCMP’s close working relationship with Peel Regional Police, the RCMP Liaison Officer for Sri Lanka offered to facilitate Chief Duraiappah with arrangements involving police agencies in Sri Lanka,” an RCMP spokesperson said in response to questions from Global News.

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“Information was provided to Chief Duraiappah for his situational awareness about recent developments in Sri Lanka, including the Sri Lankan Supreme Court’s ruling on Chief Tennakoon.”

Global Affairs Canada also said the visit was “personal.”

“The Government of Canada did not organize the visit” and “as is customary for meetings with high-level officials, staff from the High Commission of Canada to Sri Lanka accompanied the Chief as a courtesy,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Marilyn Guèvremont said.

Sitsabaiesan says “alarm bells should have gone off” given the country’s human rights record.

In October 2022, Canada adopted a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling on Sri Lanka to address the “human rights, economic and political crises” in the country.

The following year it sanctioned four government officials for “human rights violations on the island” and commemorated the Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day for the first time – marking the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamils during the country’s 26-year civil war.

“Canada is well-versed in the crimes that took place. It’s not something that Ottawa is blind to,” Nandakumar said.

While it’s not unusual for western officers to visit, collaborate or train police forces in developing countries, some have recently distanced themselves from Sri Lankan authorities.

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In 2021, Scotland ended its training program for officers in the country over allegations of human rights abuses.

In January of this year, the United Nations criticized Sri Lankan police for their “heavy handed” anti-drug crackdown, with reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and public strip searches.

Tennakoon’s recent appointment as police chief shows “much about how law enforcement authorities in the island operate with impunity,” Neil DeVotta, an expert on South Asia and politics professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, said in an e-mail to Global News.

Nandakumar says the Peel chief’s visit to the Sri Lankan police headquarters raises questions about judgement.

“When a senior Canadian official goes to meet with forces accused of such egregious crimes … to see something like that take place, it was very disconcerting.”

“I think an apology is needed,” he said.

–with files from Sophall Duch 

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