SRI LANKA: Bodies in the bag

(This is the second reply to a columnist of the Sunday Leader who wrote his column on May 11, 2008 referring to the Asian Human Rights Commission and its Executive Director, Mr. Basil Fernando).

May 12th 2008

Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga – The Editor
The Sunday Leader
Leader Publications (Pvt) Ltd.
24, Katukurunduwatte Road, Ratmalana 
Sri Lanka

Fax : +94-75-365891 
email :

Dear Mr. Wickramatunga,

We are sending the reply of the Asian Human Rights Commission to the column written by Pachoris on May 11, 2008. Since Pachoris refers to the AHRC and to me personally please be kind enough to publish this reply.

Bodies in the bag

Our first reply to Pachoris posed the following question:  Is Sri Lanka as the AHRC says: a country with an exceptional collapse of the rule of law or not. The columnist has made no reference to this question and instead has said, this amounts to, “Koheda yanne, malle pol” (where are you going? I have coconuts in the bag). The question was not Koheda yanne but Mokada wenne, meaning what is happening, which is what this whole discussion was about beginning with our letter relating to Sir Nigel Rodley. The question was not about coconuts it was about human lives. It was about at least over 100,000 innocent people who have been killed since 1971 in all parts of the country, the south, north and east and their families for whom there has been no justice done at all. If one takes a cynical attitude that these human beings are of no more value than coconuts then one can afford to be a pachoris (a colloquial Sinhala term used for anyone who is a habitual liar). Lying about gross human rights abuse is a common feature in all cultures where repression has become an integral part of life. Erasing of the memory of human rights abuse is now a highly professionalised field. Thus, being a pachoris has a symbolic meaning.

Now let us go back to the issue that the columnist considered irrelevant. Referring to the IIGEP and Sir Nigel Rodley we mentioned the following in our statement of reply to Rajiva Wijesinha of the Peace Secretariat. (It was our reply that angered Pachoris):

The questions raised by the IIGEP are not new questions at all to anyone who is familiar with the legal system of the country. To a person who has been writing books about ‘Declining Sri Lanka’ the questions that have been raised should not have caused any surprise. The entire criminal justice system of Sri Lanka has suffered a great fall, like the fall of Humpty Dumpty, and it is virtually impossible for this system to conduct credible investigations into crime in general and crimes by state officers in particular; and furthermore, the prosecutorial system has also failed the country. The questions of criminal justice are as important to a nation to stay together as any peace deals. The collapse of criminal justice makes life unbearable to all the citizens whatever their race or religion.

Rizana Nafeek

This is the crux of the dispute we have had with Pachoris. Now the columnist says that for him the more important question is where the AHRC obtains their funds. We can easily explain that. Let us take the case of Rizana Nafeek; a teenage girl who was sentenced to death by beheading in Saudi Arabia. By the time this news reached the outside world she only had about 20 days to file her appeal and if she were to fail she could have faced immediate execution. When the AHRC learned of this from the news broadcast by the BBC Sinhala Service we contacted the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry and told them that if the appeal is not filed she might be beheaded like the four other Sri Lankans executed in Saudi Arabia earlier. We wrote twice to the Foreign Ministry but did not get any reply and by then time was running out. We contacted the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Riyadh and there we found a very troubled man who was deeply convinced that Rizana was innocent but due to policy the government of Sri Lanka was not going to pay the lawyer’s fee which was about Sr. 150,000 the equivalent of about US$ 40,000. We discussed this with several persons and wrote to the Ambassador and told him that if the embassy was willing to liaise with the lawyers we would somehow find the legal fee.

We received a reply from the Ambassador stating that the Foreign Ministry had given him the green light for this. Then we immediately instructed the lawyers to file the appeal and that the AHRC would bear the responsibility for the fees. We circulated an appeal through our Urgent Appeal system and within a short time found the money. A Dutch organisation, the NONA Foundation promised around US$ 6,000 and then a Sri Lankan group associated with the Ceylinco Group of Companies agreed to pay around US$ 26,000.00. Many Sri Lankan migrant workers stationed in the Middle East sent in sums like US$ 100, $ 50 and the like. Even a retired Supreme Court judge made inquiries from us as to whether he could contribute in some way. Having reached our target we immediately called off our appeal. Rizana’s appeal was filed and the case is proceeding now and to the delight of her parents and other well-wishers she is still alive. The lawyers, Al Shammari, are very optimistic about the outcome of the case. That is how we raise funds.

Raising the funds is not all that we did for Rizana Nafeek. We initiated a global email campaign which drew millions of supporters. Due to our initiative many other organisations took up the issue. The case of Rizana Nafeek received attention in the leading newspapers in London, New York and almost all other cities in the world including the Arabic speaking countries in the Middle East. Sri Lankan civil society organisations and newspapers also became vocal and enormous pressure was brought on the Sri Lankan government which then began to show greater interest. Soon the issues discussed were not only about Rizana Nafeek but about others and migrant workers in general. There were many TV interviews in the world’s best known channels. Al Jazeera had a long television interview in which a Sri Lankan government minister and I participated. For these activities the AHRC did not need any money. We did it as voluntary work. With the enormous capacity available thanks to the internet there is a lot that can be done without money.

The AHRC does not belong to any funding agencies. Depending on what we do we appeal to anyone for help and there are many that do help. No conditionality other than protection and promotion of human rights is accepted by us. And, in fact, no one has ever come and asked for such conditionality. Hong Kong has a strong rule of law system and keeps of the highest standards of financial accountability. We are accountable to the Hong Kong authorities and there has never been any problem on that score.

About the West and Quantanamo Bay Detention Centre

There was also the question about our policies regarding the west. We have the same positions as other major human rights organisations and here is what we wrote on the problems that have been created by detention centres like Quantanamo Bay and the so-called anti-terrorism thrust.


(Note: The following letter, dated 14 January 2003, was written to the Economist magazine in reply to its January 11 cover story, “Is torture ever justified?” The opinion column from that edition is currently available online at

In response to your January 11 cover story, “Is torture ever justified?”, we need only look to the situation in numerous modern states for the answer. As director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, I can say unequivocally that the argument favouring limited use of torture is contradicted by all of our experience.

For people of most countries in Asia, the prospective use of torture by state agents long ceased to be a matter for conjecture. It is no theoretical idea at all, but a widely practiced one. There is no Asian country known to us where its use, once admitted, has been limited. In fact, the very concept of limited torture is dangerously naive.

When torture is no longer absolutely prohibited, law enforcement attitudes change. Over time, the mentality that torture is acceptable comes to infect the entire system, and even persons accused of normal crimes get the same treatment as suspected terrorists. Years of great effort spent in training effective law enforcement officers are undermined. Habits of transparency diminish; falsification increases. Terrorists do not suffer in such an environment: rather, they thrive in it. As the system of law enforcement collapses, they obtain many practical advantages, and are also prepared for any consequences.

Some twenty years ago in my country, Sri Lanka, the use of torture by law enforcement agencies became accepted. Terrorists expected to be tortured if captured, and each carried a cyanide capsule to take as a last resort. The real targets of the practice evaded it, but meantime it has so permeated and decayed the law enforcement system that today children have been tortured by police officers on suspicion of theft from a school canteen. While easy to begin, the routine practice of torture has not been easy to stop. Those who advocate ‘limited’ torture would do well to study the consequences in countries such as my own, that advocated this view earlier.

The absolute prohibition of torture is the very core of all rational forms of criminal investigation. Today, many countries are trying hard to improve their law enforcement systems accordingly. If the West waivers on this principle the message will be devastating, not only for itself but also for the entire world. When the progress of the rule of law is set back, the result is not further security, but rather new breeding grounds for terrorism. The use of torture by state agencies reduces criminal investigation to mere farce, and society to sheer barbarism. From the standpoint of one who knows from personal experience, I urge the West to utterly reject the proposition that limited torture is ever possible: its consequences are vast and uncontrollable.”

We work mainly in 12 countries now but, in fact, by the later 90’s were only working in three countries. Both the number of countries and the extent of our work has improved. Of course this is just a drop of water in a region which is a sea of authoritarianism and human rights violations. Human rights activists are civilian volunteers who try to do whatever they can. The newspapers and the columnist can do much more than us if they wish to. Since many don’t wish to do this and the few that do are exposed to assassinations and other harassments, still the protest movements against the abuse of human rights can only achieve limited success. However, there is powerful repression funded by strong governments and there are those journalists and others who have no scruples in treating human beings like coconuts.

A pachoris that wishes to be a Satyapala

In my first reply I gave the benefit of the doubt to Pachoris saying that he was just writing a humorous column. But he objects to that and says that he is a person who writes about the lies of others. The simple meaning of a pachoris is a person who is so habitually a liar that he should never be relied upon. There are other terms like begal karaya or begal mamawhich also in colloquial Sinhalese means the type of person who tells lies for mischief. May be a person who would say that he had a fight with a lion or an elephant and won is such a person. There is also the concept of Kopi kade (Coffee Shop) about which the poets and short story writers have written with humorous delight. All such ‘lying’ is not considered as anything seriously bad but just something that people do for fun. But Pachoris does not want to belong to that category and wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be some sort of a defender of truth. In that case perhaps he should use a name similar to Satyapalameaning one who guards the truth. But whether a change of name will make a pachoris into a Satyapala is a different matter in to which we do not want to delve. Again we wish to give him the benefit of the doubt so that he may take the bold step to change the name of his column.

Basil Fernando
Sri Lanka Desk of the
Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-133-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Campaigns : Save Rizana Nafeek
Issues : Death penalty,