Introduction: Torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka – Editorial Board, article 2

The special report by the Asian Legal Resource Centre published in this edition of article 2, is on a central issue for the effective rule of law in Sri Lanka, and Asia-wide: policing. What it illustrates is that in Sri Lanka policing has so degenerated that it has become a manifest threat to the rule of law. What it calls for is a fundamental change in practices at all levels of policing in the country.

That the Sri Lankan police force is in trouble is no revelation. There is hardly anyone who would openly deny this. However, in spite of that, it has not become a topical issue. Why not? The underlying assumption is that there is no point in talking about it because nothing will come from it, as things have degenerated too far. A sense of helplessness has given rise to a sense of resignation. But for a great many people in Sri Lanka the situation has become unbearable, and it is in this condition that hope for a solution to the problem lies.

This report is the first serious attempt at recording the routine use of torture by police in Sri Lanka. Previous reports have dealt with torture as a weapon of civil war, and during emergency periods, but none have considered how the cumulative effects of these events has contributed to a culture of barbarity in policing at all levels throughout the entire country. The 22 case studies in this report involving 38 victims have been deliberately chosen because they all arose out of-at most-day-to-day criminal investigations. They depict a systemic crisis of immense proportions that is not confined to a particular part of policing or region. This is in spite of the fact that the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act, No 22 of 1994-which is reproduced in full in this edition-makes torture by a state officer a serious offence punishable for not less than a seven-year sentence. That such an endemic problem exists does not diminish the dangerous situation existing in ‘special’ situations. It only demonstrates that these are the standards of ‘normal’ policing in Sri Lanka from which the far worse conditions in exceptional circumstances arise. Although these case studies and the related systemic ills are specific to Sri Lanka, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) has ample reason to believe that they are-to one degree or another-of relevance to many, if not most, police systems in Asia.*

Apart from the abovementioned case studies and anti-torture legislation, this report contains a number of other relevant items. In a commentary on the police crisis in Sri Lanka, Basil Fernando, Executive Director of ALRC, traces the growth of the crisis and raises and challenges some popular misconceptions about the use of torture. Two letters by ALRC’s sister organisation, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to the Sri Lankan Minister of Interior follow: the first addresses the general problem of lawlessness in police stations, the second was written subsequent to a recent precedent-setting decision by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, instructing the Attorney General to consider proceedings against police perpetrators of torture under Act No 22 of 1994. Finally, it contains extensive recommendations for relevant parties to address the police crisis and concomitant widespread use of torture in Sri Lanka. It also has an appendix by Dwight Newman on the principles underlying prevention of torture and their implementation in Sri Lanka.

The contents of this report are the manifestation of work by a number of organisations that ALRC wishes to thank: Janasansadaya, which is devoted to the elimination of torture; People Against Torture, a coalition of several groups involved in advocacy work, and the Commission for Justice, Peace and Human Development, Human Rights Secretariat (SETIK), as well as a number of individuals who have enthusiastically collected information and demonstrated the possibilities of solidarity work to build one of the best publicity and media campaigns on human rights and the prevention of torture ever mounted in Sri Lanka. Finally, above all else, our gratitude goes to the victims themselves, who dared to transform their painful experiences and contribute to the prevention of similar experiences for others. Their courage to speak out demands a suitable response from the state and the community, to guarantee that no others will suffer as they have done.

End Note

* See article 2, vol. 1, no. 3 for a focus on policing in India.

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