Statement to the UN Committee against Torture on torture in Sri Lanka

Danish Rehabilitation & Research Centre for Torture Victims

The Danish Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) has had close cooperation with the Family Rehabilitation Centre (FRC) in Sri Lanka since 1993. More recently in 2003 RCT has begun cooperation with the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in support of their work to prevent police torture in Sri Lanka. In the course of our work in Sri Lanka RCT has had the opportunity to follow the torture issue at close range both from the perspective of rehabilitation of torture survivors and the prevention and elimination of torture in Sri Lanka. RCT has only just returned from a longer mission to Sri Lanka, which provided an opportunity to meet with important stakeholders on the torture issue. Based on these concrete experiences RCT would like to comment on a number of issues that are of the utmost importance if Sri Lanka is to become a country free from police torture.

RCT is alarmed at the large number of reports of torture of persons in police custody. RCT has met with a number of torture victims from the Colombo and Kandy areas and in many of these cases the police torture was committed for the purpose of extracting confessions and as a result of the lack of proper investigation skills. The police torture is directed not only towards political prisoners, but also towards those accused of committing petty crimes. The victims are mainly men, but RCT is aware of a large number of cases of torture of children and sexual torture of women.  RCT urges the [UN] Committee [against Torture] to conduct an independent inquiry into these issues under article 20 of the [UN] Convention against Torture [and Other Cruel or Inhuman Degrading Treatment or Punishment].

RCT has witnessed a severe lack of protection for torture victims that have the courage to stand up for their rights and file cases against the perpetrators. Many of these victims have experienced serious threats to themselves and their families and have been urged to settle the cases outside the legal reach of the courts system. The death of torture victim Gerald Perera in 2004 is a shocking and horrific example of the lack of protection provided for the torture victims. RCT would strongly urge the Committee to underline the importance to enact a strong witness protection program in Sri Lanka to ensure that torture victims will continue to come forward with their testimonies, so that the perpetrators may be brought to justice. The victims need to be protected from the police and not by the police. Not providing for the protection of torture victims is in direct violation of the Convention against Torture, article 13.

RCT has worked with the rehabilitation of torture victims in Sri Lanka for over a decade and it is alarming that no state efforts have been made to enact national legislation or policy as regards the right to rehabilitation. Torture victims in Sri Lanka have no inherent right to rehabilitation which is in direct violation of the Convention against Torture article 14. RCT urges the Committee to underline the importance of and the state obligation to ensure the access to rehabilitation for all torture victims.

RCT would like to raise its concern as regards the expiration of the mandate of the National Police Commission (NPC) in Sri Lanka on 27 November 2005. This important body set up under the 17th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which may investigate public complaints against the police, has slowly and despite severe budgetary constraints taken up cases of police torture and police violence. Most recently the NPC has recommended the interdiction of more than 100 police officers due to allegations of torture. It is therefore extremely unfortunate and alarming that no efforts have been made to ensure the continuation of the mandate of the NPC. The President has the possibility of extending the mandate of the existing Commission, but the appointment of members for a new Commission rests in the hands of the Constitutional Council, which is not functioning. Thus, there is a real risk that the NPC will seize to function after the 27th of November 2005. This would be in direct violation of the Constitution of Sri Lanka and will represent a deterioration of the human rights situation in the country especially as regards the fight against impunity in cases of torture. RCT urges the Committee to raise this matter with the State Party [Sri Lanka] as a matter of the utmost urgency.

RCT has experienced the severe difficulties and flaws within the judicial system in Sri Lanka. RCT has been made aware of the particular difficulties experienced in the Magistrate Courts and RCT has learned that a suspect has no right to legal representation prior to appearance at the Magistrate Court and that the representation provided in the courts often are lawyers that work closely together with the police. Further, the suspect is often produced before the Magistrate outside regular working hours having the effect that they have no right to legal representation and in many instances the Magistrate does not even see the suspect. Despite the great lack of impartial lawyers, RCT has met with several independent lawyers, who have provided representation for torture victims. These lawyers have been faced with threats and intimidations towards themselves and their families. Further, the suspect should be produced before a medical officer within 24 hours of his/her arrest to ensure that their condition is suitable for remand. Such an examination is often falsified or the wrong person is brought to the examination as no identification is required prior to the examination.

RCT is deeply concerned about these issues and the apparent deterioration of the rule of law in Sri Lanka. RCT urges the Committee to take up these issues and recommend that suspects only be produced before the Magistrate Court during working hours and that the suspect be provided adequate and impartial legal representation. In particular, RCT wishes to stress the importance of the protection of lawyers, so as to ensure impartial representation for the torture victims. Further, the medical examination should be carried out properly ensuring the verification of the suspect and the preparation of truthful reports.

Victims of torture have the right under the Constitution to file Fundamental Rights Applications. However, the 30-day time limit imposed in the Constitution for the filing of such complaints reduces the possibilities for victims of torture to file such applications. Many victims have experienced severe mental and physical trauma and the injuries they have sustained make it difficult for them to make complaints within such a short time period. RCT urges the Committee to compel the State Party to abolish such a time. Further, the Attorney General’s department should be encouraged to file indictments against the perpetrators of torture in the shortest possible time and efforts should be made to end the delays in adjudication resulting in court trials that take many years.

RCT acknowledges that the Human Rights Commission (HRC) [of Sri Lanka] as of recently has stepped up its efforts on the torture issue. RCT is encouraged by the fast track approach to torture cases taken by the HRC, the staff upgrade which has recently taken place and the increased number of cases referred to the Attorney General’s office by the HRC. RCT has also learned that the HRC will step up its efforts to visit places of detention, including police detention facilities, prisons, psychiatric facilities and detention centers for women and juveniles. However, RCT wishes to underline that the HRC still needs to consider a number of issues. Therefore RCT urges the Committee to further encourage the HRC to continue its efforts at improving its staff and establish a clear policy statement on the torture issue. Further, the HRC should improve and develop its complaint procedure ensuring a more speedy consideration of torture complaints. The HRC should keep up the pressure on the police and the Attorney General’s Office. Finally, the mandate of the HRC will run out on 26 March 2006 and the HRC should take all appropriate steps to ensure the further existence of the HRC after this date.

RCT was alarmed to learn of the recent attack on the premises of the HRC and of the fact that the attack may have been perpetrated by staff members of the HRC. An independent and impartial inquiry into the attacks should be conducted and possible suspects within the HRC should be suspended and the suspects should be prosecuted. This attack has further underlined the importance and effect of the continued efforts of the HRC in cases of human rights abuses.

In general, RCT is alarmed by the situation of the policing system in Sri Lanka. The police lack a basic knowledge of human rights and the investigation methods are very inadequate. In many instances the police have expressed that they feel they have no other means of solving a case than resorting to the use of torture. Without a well-functioning, independent and non-corrupt policing system there is not much hope of eradicating torture in Sri Lanka. RCT encourages the Committee to raise this issue with the State Party and recommend better training for police officers, a higher level of discipline within the ranks of the police and a higher level of accountability.

Finally, RCT also wishes to stress the importance of the signature and ratification by the State Party of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). The adoption of the OPCAT was an important milestone for the prevention of torture in places of detention and after its entry it will be an important instrument in the ongoing fight to eradicate torture. The Committee should urge the State Party to without delay sign and ratify the OPCAT and to start the process of establishing a national preventive mechanism.

This is the text of a written statement prepared by the Danish Rehabilitation & Research Centre for Torture Victims to the 35th Session of the UN Committee against Torture, November 2005, in consideration of Sri Lanka.


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