SRI LANKA: Burial at a place of choice by family members is a matter of justice 

A prisoner, Ganeshan Nimalarubin, died in prison custody. Allegedly he was a former LTTEr who had been prison custody for a long time undergoing rehabilitation. His death in the prison has given rise to an important controversy.

The BBC Sinhala Service reported yesterday (July 5) that the prisoner’s parents who are old and quite destitute were informed of their son’s death and they were asked to go to Colombo to sign for and take the body before the burial was conducted there. The parents refused on the basis that their son had been taken away and that they were not aware of his whereabouts for years and that they were unaware of what had happened to him and therefore they were not willing to come forward and sign anything before burial.  They also stated that they were destitute and that they had no money to go that distance to Colombo and requested the prison authorities to bring the body to Vavuniya so that he could be buried in the locality where they live.

The prison authorities and the police argued against this position stating that the burial was a matter of national security. The authorities argued against the body being taken to Vavuniya for burial. A group of lawyers went on behalf of the family and pleaded on their behalf. However, the authorities refused. Finally, the matter was brought before a magistrate. Both parties gave reasons for their stated positions; the lawyers arguing on behalf of the family’s right to bury the man in the locality he had come from and the police and prison authorities that as a matter of national security it could not be allowed.

The magistrate after listening to both sides stated that as the authorities were arguing on the basis of national security he would hold in their favour and that the burial would take place at a burial ground at Kadawatte. Between Kadawatte and Vavuniya is a great distance, about 200 kilometers. In Vavuniya there is a large concentration of Tamils and the prisoner was Tamil who had come from among them. Kadawatte is an area where the concentration of the population is mostly Sinhalese.

As a result of the objection on the basis of national security the parents and the relatives of the deceased prisoner lost their right to bury the person at a place of their choice.

The conflict with the LTTE ended in May, 2009 and therefore what national security issue is there to object to a burial at a place of choice by family members? Obviously, there is no rational foundation for this argument on the basis of national security and the issue of burial affects one of the most humane aspects of any society and the choice of burial as a matter of the rights of the family is an issue of justice.

In recent years there has been many instances where government authorities have intervened to prevent burials or to lay down conditions for burials on the basis of national security. The case of the assassination of Roshan Janatha, the young worker at the Free Trade Zone is one such example. The authorities interfered with the burial in many ways and even took the body from the house on the morning of the burial when, in fact, the burial was to take place in the late afternoon. Besides, criminal gangs were allowed to operate on the roads with poles in their hands to prevent anyone from participating in the funeral.

There are several other instances of similar sort including the burials of the two persons who were killed due to the attack on a JVP meeting recently.

The government owes the public an obligation to make a statement clarifying what public policy is involved in interfering with the rights of families for the place of burial of their choice and the manner of burial according to the customs of their choice. While the authorities who intervened claim that they are acting on the basis of national security the government has made no such public declaration. Anyway, there would be no justification on the basis of law and ethical considerations for the government to make such a statement.

The matters of public police have now become the prerogative of the Ministry of Defense. Therefore, it would not be wrong to assume that in each of these instances the authorities who have acted to obstruct the peoples’ rights to burial have done so on the instructions of this Ministry. If this is not the case the Ministry should openly disclaim any responsibility for the actions of these officers.

There is something fundamentally wrong in the manner the term national security is being used in Sri Lanka now. It violates law, moral and ethical principles. The present practice of interfering with funerals clearly violates the basic ethical norms and the principles of fairness which are, in fact, the principles of justice.

It is blatantly unfair to interfere with the rights of family members to perform the family rites for their loved ones in places of their choice and in the manner of the manner of their choice. It is also a violation of the rights of neighbours, relatives and others who usually participate in such funerals as a matter of religious and cultural sensitivities to pay their respects to a deceased person.

It is the duty of the parliament to raise this matter as one of justice and as a matter of decency. No political considerations will justify actions that interfere with funerals.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-140-2012
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Death in custody,