Human Rights Correspondence School, Asian Human Rights Commission
Footnote: This text is adapted from Lesson Series 32 of the Human Rights Correspondence School (Asian Human Rights Commission), ‘A public hearing on the torture of children, Sri Lanka’. The public hearing it describes reflects the growing outrage at torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka.
On 9 December 2003, eight children gave evidence at a public hearing held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The presiding panel consisted of two well-known lawyers and a torture victim. The purpose of this public hearing was to provide an opportunity for children and their families to express their grievances openly regarding torture. In previous months, many cases of children being tortured at Sri Lankan police stations have surfaced. This shocking phenomenon has not received the special attention it deserves; this hearing was an attempt to channel public attention towards this important problem.
At the hearing, the victims themselves together with their families expressed their grievances. The forum also provided an opportunity to other individuals, institutions and groups to express their views. After a four hour session, the panel gave its concluding observations, stating that all child victims were from poor families and were completely innocent. The police who had committed torture appeared to be acting on the instigation of influential persons. The victims were not treated as children by the police, but as criminals. The state agencies, including the National Human Rights Commission, have completely failed to provide any assistance to these children. The only assistance came from a number of committed civil society groups.
The event was organised by Janasansadaya, People against Torture, Families of the Disappeared, Setik, Rule of Law Centre, and Home for the Victims of Torture, as well as several other organisations, in collaboration with the Asian Human Rights Commission.
The panelists were Sunil Cooray, a Senior Attorney, former president of the Vigil Lanka Movement and author of a text on administrative law in Sri Lanka; J.C. Weliamuna, a Senior Attorney and the Chairperson of the Sri Lankan Chapter of Transparency International; and Grissha de Silva, a hotel manager and a torture victim who was subjected to torture out of mistaken identity.
The meeting hall was packed and the audience reacted strongly to the stories that were related by the child victims.
Mr. J.C. Weliamuna made the concluding observations after listenting to the victims, their mothers and also comments by the audience. The summary of his observations is as follows:
a) All the victims were from poor families.
b) All the children who gave evidence were arrested for no reason.
c) Even after torture, the police could not find any evidence against the children.
d) At the time of committing torture, none of the policemen involved were wearing their uniforms.
e) The higher-ranking officers of the police are quite aware that their subordinate officers engage in torture, but do not take any serious action to prevent such practices by junior officers.
f) There are third parties involved, including the wealthy, the Mudalali class, politicians and the like, who encourage the police to torture. In return the police receive power, money and support from these groups.
g) The service rendered to the victims by hospital authorities when they sought medical assistance is highly questionable. Those authorities failed to fulfil their professional obligations and often also failed to report the torture to the legal authorities. Instead, they appear to work hand in hand with the police.
h) The victims do not appear to trust state organisations such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Police Commission. The National Human Rights Commission takes months (and sometimes years) before addressing and acting upon human rights cases. It also frequently advises the victims to take their cases before the Supreme Court. This places the victims in a tight corner against the perpetrators. Additionally, the National Police Commission has failed to put into place the intended public complaint procedure for the entertaining of, inquiring into and providing of redress for complaints against the police.
i) People turn to NGOs for help, and in all these instances it was the NGOs that took the initiative to protect the rights of these persons.
The observations of the panel clearly point to the police implicating innocent children without any reason other than the fact that they come from poor families. The question then is why such a choice is made; for some reason, the police do not want to arrest the actual culprits and so try to find substitutes. The next question that arises is why would the police fear to arrest the actual culprits? It is not difficult to suggest some answers:
- The real culprits, if they are interfered with, may retaliate in a dangerous way against the police. There is no such danger if the victims are innocent and powerless persons.
- ¦³he real culprits may bribe the police, which the poorer victims are unable to do. Also, believing in their own innocence, the victims may feel that by stating their innocence they will be released. It is only later that the poor victims realise the cynical reality of what they have experienced.
- The actual culprits have social connections; it is commonly said that local politicians intervene on behalf of such persons, as they are supporters of various political parties.
- Within the social fabric of a Sri Lankan village, there is a close association between the police and ‘more important persons’, which can even include local monks or priests. None of these persons intervene on behalf of the poorest in their community. Often, the plight of the poor and their families is ignored.
- Even if the real culprits are actually caught, they are able to obtain legal services quite quickly. Lawyers and others with influence make representations to higher authorities quite efficiently. The poor do not have access to such services.
- In short, police officers feel assured that there are no repercussions if they harass the children of the poor. Thus there is nothing to restrain them from doing whatever they wish to these persons.