By Basil Fernando
On the universal day for torture victims, this year, a book will be launched by The Right to Life organization working in collaboration with the AHRC on a long standing case, which is continuing in courts, regarding a man who was killed extra-judicially, inside a Police station. The author of the book is Amitha Priyanthi, the younger sister of the deceased. When the death took place after her brother was kept at a police station for five days, she was just a school going girl. However, the shock of this death and the events that followed made her main life mission to fight for justice in this case. Already, that journey has taken over 20 years and it is likely to continue for an indefinite period of time.
In the process of being fully involved in this work, Priyanthi learned about the way the justice system in Sri Lanka works in almost all its facets. It was experience gained through day to day attendance in court houses, at the national HRCSL inquiries, various visits to the offices of courts in order to collect documents and things like that and above all dealing with the lawyers of all sorts who were trying to defend the Police as well as those who were sympathetic enough to help in her cause. In the midst of this, her greatest support came from a particular human rights group known as the Janasansadaya which took a serious interest in supporting her. At the time, Janasansadaya was an organization working in partnership with the AHRC.
The matter was taken up in many courts. Under the Sri Lankan law, there is a possibility of bringing before the Supreme Court, matters relating to the violation of fundamental rights. This case was taken up as it was a custodial killing under the jurisdiction of this Court. The lawyers appearing for the Police took the objection that under the fundamental rights law in Sri Lanka, the right to life has not been included. Therefore, the deprivation of the right to life cannot be taken up under the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. This matter was replied to by the lawyers for the deceased and the Court made a historical judgement. The judgment stated that although the right to life has not been specifically mentioned in the Constitution, it is impliedly admitted as a basic right because all other rights depend on the acceptance of the principle of the right to life.
The second issue that was taken as an objection was that since the victim himself is dead, it is not possible to pursue a case before the Supreme Court under the fundamental rights jurisdiction because according to the Constitution, only the victims can file such applications. About this matter also, the Supreme Court gave a judgment which has thereafter helped many other cases. The Court held that it would be an absurdity to say that if a man is tortured and survives, he has a right to remedy but that if he dies, then the remedy is not available. The Court held that the immediate closest relative of the deceased, in this case the surviving wife of the deceased has the right to pursue this application.
However, the problems came in relation to getting a criminal investigation conducted regarding a murder. As the Police themselves were conducting the inquiry, every possible thing was done to delay as much as possible the conduct of the inquiry. Much pressure had to be brought particularly by way of public appeals and also the intervention of local and international human rights organizations to get an inquiry into the matter. However, it took 13 years before an indictment was filed in terms of the Sri Lankan law by the Attorney General against the Officer In Charge of the Police station where the death had happened.
Since the indictment has been filed, now seven years has passed. However, the hearing of the trial has been obstructed by various tactics adopted by the Police including the Police at the top level. The high Court having found that the accused was absconding and not coming to Court, issued an open warrant for the arrest of the accused. At first, the Police claimed that the officer has left the Island and that there was no way to serve the warrant. However, when the lawyers for the deceased moved that the Court should order the Immigration and Emigration Department to provide all the materials regarding the travels of the accused outside the country, it was found that only for few weeks had he been out of the country and that for the rest of the time, he had been in Sri Lanka. The Police, though aware of this, did not want to arrest him.
The Court also ordered the Inspector General of Police to execute the warrant for the arrest of the accused. So far, this order by the Court has also not been complied with. However, the human rights organizations are continuing to support Priyanthi and their family to pursue this case further in the Courts and this case is continuing.
The publication of the book is also to reveal to the readers the nature of the criminal justice system in Sri Lanka when it comes to the issue of the protection of people who have been subjected to torture and also extra judicial killings at Police stations. It gives a vivid picture of the system at work or the manner in which the system in fact does not work. Thus, while pursuing justice, this case has also provided ample opportunities for public education about the nature of the problems that are faced by the people in their search for justice.