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Justice minister accused of misleading MSP over why Police Scotland training programme in Sri Lanka was suspended

© CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE/EPA-EFE/ShutterstockSri Lankan police officers detain a protester in Colombo, Sri Lanka in June 2020
Sri Lankan police officers detain a protester in Colombo, Sri Lanka in June 2020

The justice minister has been accused of misleading an MSP over the reason why a controversial Police Scotland training programme was suspended.

Keith Brown told Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba the national force’s work with the Sri Lankan Special Task Force – which has been linked to torture, abduction and killings – had been suspended due to the pandemic.

However, reports a month earlier had revealed the programme, called Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA), had been paused since May while it was reviewed by the Foreign Office. The reason for the suspension, and that it happened in May, was confirmed in a letter sent to Villalba by Police Scotland in August.

But in September, in a written answer to a question by Villalba over what discussions had taken place over human rights concerns, Brown did not mention the Foreign Office review, instead saying: “Scottish Government officials regularly discuss overseas deployments with Police Scotland’s International Development and Innovation Unit, who have confirmed that training in Sri Lanka has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Keith Brown MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)
Keith Brown MSP (Pic: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament)

Villalba said: “This has now become an issue of transparency. We need to know what Keith Brown knew and when he knew it.”

There have been concerns expressed about Sri Lanka’s record of human rights abuses and repression, including the use of torture and state-sanctioned surveillance of human rights defenders.

“Questions must be answered, particularly as we have been repeatedly assured that Scottish Government officials regularly discuss overseas deployments with Police Scotland’s International Development and Innovation Unit,” said Villalba.

“I wish to know if the Minister or Scottish Government officials had discussions with Police Scotland or the British High Commission about the review of the OSJA assessment and if so, were concerns touched upon which have been raised publicly relating to Sri Lanka’s records on human rights abuses and repression?”

© DCT Media
Mercedes Villalba (Pic: Kenny Elrick / DCT Media)

Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie said Scottish officers had not travelled to Sri Lanka since February 2020 due to the pandemic and confirmed the training programme had been halted in May due to an ongoing investigation being carried out by the British High Commission in Colombo: “Since May 2021, Police Scotland has paused all activity in relation to our work in Sri Lanka as the British High Commission is leading a review of the OSJA.”

Ritchie said that once the review was completed a decision would be taken about Police Scotland’s future work in Sri Lanka and assured Villalba there would be no further engagement with police there until then.

He added: “There is a high level of governance and scrutiny to all our international activity, with human rights and the values of Police Scotland at the heart of what we do in order to reach out and support others towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

The Special Task Force was condemned by Amnesty International over the killing of five Tamil schoolchildren in 2006. The following year, 48 Sri Lankan police officers visited the Scottish police college at Tulliallan, Stirlingshire.

The UN has also warned of “overwhelming evidence torture is routine” among Sri Lankan police. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been thrown into detention camps, and up to 70,000 have been killed.

In May 2016, former Chief Constable Phil Gormley was accused of “​hypocrisy​” by a member of the Home Affairs Committee at Westminster when it was revealed the force received almost £750,000 in a three-year period.

Marian Pallister, chair of the campaigning charity Pax Christi Scotland, said: “While we cannot doubt that Police Scotland intended to promote human rights and gender equality when it undertook to train officers from the Sri Lankan security forces, sadly, the Sri Lankans have not followed through and human rights violations are escalating, according to UN and Human Rights Watch sources.

“We have joined forces with the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, with Freedom From Torture, and with Human Rights Watch. We have involved MSPs, including Mercedes Villalba, who has asked a number of questions on our behalf.”

The Scottish Government said: “We understand that the work in Sri Lanka was paused due to coronavirus, and that Police Scotland has taken this opportunity to review their delivery of the programme.”