Introduction: Endemic torture and the collapse of policing in Sri Lanka

— Editorial Board, article 2

This is the second special report released by the Asian Legal Resource Centre in article 2on torture and policing in Sri Lanka. ‘Torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka’, released in August 2001 (vol. 1, no. 4), was the first serious attempt at recording the routine use of torture by police there. It was widely received and publicised within the country and internationally. At that time, there was no public discussion on torture in Sri Lanka. The situation has since changed dramatically. Torture by the police is now almost daily reported in newspapers, television, radio, and other media. Public actions have been held against torturers. Heavy pressure has been placed upon defective state institutions. The judiciary is under attack for its failure to deal effectively with the problem. Internationally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and Human Rights Committee, among others, have all commented on the practice and made recommendations for change. The government of Sri Lanka has come under global criticism.

Despite these intense efforts, torture by the police continues to be endemic in Sri Lanka. In fact, that it has now received such widespread attention and yet continues unabated speaks to an immense crisis of policing in the country. The police force in Sri Lanka as it now exists is in no position to protect the rule of law and citizens’ rights; on the contrary, it is a profound threat to the security of both.

The contents of this report

All of the 31 cases-involving 46 victims of 29 police stations and two other state institutions-contained in this report indicate a collapse of disciplinary control and basic procedures in the Sri Lankan police force. Among them, two recent stories are particularly disturbing. In one, an officer at Matale police station poured boiling water on his victim (case no. 28). In the other, an officer at Welipenna ordered a detainee believed to be suffering from tuberculosis to spit into the mouth of another detainee (case no. 29). These officers are obviously psychologically unbalanced, and yet they are allowed to function as criminal investigators, exercising enormous power over the people they arrest. That such officers retain their posts even after their cases have been reported to the highest authorities suggests a degree of tolerance of such behaviour that is difficult to comprehend.

Apart from the cases of torture, this report contains a number of important sections and appendices. It opens with the first part of a detailed report on state-sponsored violence in Sri Lanka submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). Then, following the cases, Basil Fernando comments on aspects of the current situation. After his remarks are the general recommendations ALRC and OMCT submitted to the Human Rights Committee in their report on state-sponsored violence in Sri Lanka. Five appendices follow. The first consists of the draft complaint procedure for implementation of article 155G(2) of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka submitted by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to the National Police Commission. The second contains extracts from the concluding observations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the periodic report of Sri Lanka in 2003. The third describes a public hearing about the torture of children held in December 2003. The fourth reproduces a pamphlet by local human rights organisation, Janasansadaya, on the rights of victims of crime. The fifth, on guarantees for individuals deprived of their liberty, is drawn from the most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on torture.

The purpose of this report

The contents of this report are not controversial. The Attorney General of Sri Lanka has himself publicly accepted that the lack of proper law enforcement in the country is due to institutional problems. He has admitted that his department is understaffed and the cause of delays. He has also pointed to the shortage of courts as a cause for delays. In fact, no one would deny that these delays have become intolerable. There is also a consensus, even in the police force, that forensic and police training facilities are grossly inadequate, bordering on primitive. Likewise, there is general agreement that torture serves no legitimate purpose, and must be eliminated.

Despite all this, there are at present no ideas on how to make the necessary changes. The purpose of this report is to argue that those responsible for bringing about changes, among them the NPC, National Human Rights Commission and civil society organisations, must now put their energy into making a strategy for effective police reforms and elimination of torture. This must include putting serious pressure on the government, and all political parties, to provide adequate resources for this task.

Under international law, torture is considered one of the most heinous of crimes. In some countries, perpetrators are punished with life imprisonment, and victims receive huge compensation payments. By these standards, both on paper and in terms of judicial precedent, the law in Sri Lanka falls far behind. Although the Convention against Torture Act (No. 22 of 1994) prescribes a mandatory seven-year sentence, there is undue hesitation about applying the law. This must end. Judicial attitudes about torture can have a strong effect on the wider society. It follows that efforts by the Sri Lankan judiciary to bring domestic law into line with international developments in this area are long overdue.

Acknowledgments

As previously, this publication is the result of hard work by many local organisations and concerned persons, some of whom can be mentioned as follows: Centre for Rule of Law, Families of the Disappeared (Kalape Api), Human Rights and Development Centre (SETIK), Janasansadaya (People’s Forum), and People against Torture (PAT). Our appreciation also goes to ALRC’s partner organisation in Europe, OMCT, for its assistance in bringing these issues to the international community. Finally, thanks to Anju Srivastava for her assistance during initial preparation of the material in this report.

It is the willingness of the victims and their loved ones that has made all this work possible. The government of Sri Lanka, and even the Department of the Attorney General, has in the past claimed that victims of torture have been unwilling to come forward and fight for their rights. This has not been the experience of ALRC and its partners in Sri Lanka. As manifest by this and the previous report, victims are not only coming forward to reveal their stories; they are also enduring intense harassment-even risking life and limb-in their struggles for justice. The sheer determination of these persons makes this report possible and gives rise to the hope that change can be brought about to end the torture and attendant abuses persisting in Sri Lankan police stations. Our highest appreciation goes to all these persons who, despite suffering so badly, have asserted their dignity by demanding that justice be done.

 

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