SRI LANKA: Authorities complicit in widespread torture 

June 26, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Authorities complicit in widespread torture

The International Day in Support of Victims of Torture is recognised annually on the 26thJune. It is a day devoted to the promotion of the idea of a torture-free world. It is also a day on which the previous achievements in any particular country to eliminate torture can be evaluated. From that point of view for Sri Lanka the practice of torture, instead of being reduced has only increased.

Some may argue that the increase may have been due to the intensification of the conflict between the LTTE and the government and that, therefore, the end of the conflict and the victory by the government should now result in the reduction of torture. However, such a belief is naïve because the greater degree of torture practiced in Sri Lanka was not directly related to the conflict. The main cause of the widely spread practice of torture is the appalling policing system that exists in the country. Torture was and remains practiced in areas outside those that were the conflict zones, the safer zones of the south. On the other hand the end of the conflict, instead of easing the situation seems to be giving rise to more authoritarianism where freedom is equated with treachery.

The means of reducing torture is to investigate complaints of torture. However, there is a long established practice now where investigations are deliberately sabotaged. The main agents of this sabotage are the police themselves and the Attorney General’s Department which plays the role of the prosecutor. One case, which became famous in the 1990s, illustrates this issue. A well known film actor, author, journalist and a personality popular among the elite by the name of Richard de Soysa was abducted from his house and several days later his body was washed up on a beach. The speculation is that after the arrest and torture his body was dumped from a helicopter into the sea in the hope that it would never be recovered.

The news of the killing was one of the most shocking events that influenced politics at the time. Local and international media coverage was extensive and fingers were pointed at the security forces, which was at the time engaged in wiping out the insurgency by the JVP, a southern rebel group. According to government commissions that inquired into the disappearances the official figure of forced disappearances was over 30,000.

Even despite of enormous pressure the government of the day persisted in covering up de Soysa’s murder. On the first anniversary of his death, a political party named the Liberal Party (which virtually no longer exists), took up de Soysa’s case. A whole volume of the Liberal Review was devoted to this assassination. Among the documents produced in that volume was a long letter written by the party to the government, which analysed the manner in which the inquiry had been sabotaged. This letter blames the police and the Attorney General’s Department for the failure of the investigation. The Liberal Party called for the appointment of a commission to inquire into the murder. The reasons it gave are very revealing, “It is the significant possibility of the complicity of elements of the police in this crime and the apparent unwillingness of the Attorney General and his department to act impartially in this case which prompts us to suggest the appointment of a commission of inquiry.”

In essence the Liberal Party expressed the loss of confidence in the police and the AG’s Department to conduct a murder inquiry as required by law. The Liberal Party’s letter was written in February 1991. From then until now, nothing has happened to improve confidence in either the police or the AG’s Department about their roles to ensure independent and impartial inquiries into human rights abuses, which include the widespread practice of torture. As the Liberal Party pointed out then, the complicity of the police and the AG’s Department in preventing proper inquiries into such serious crimes remains the greatest obstacle to the administration of justice.

In the period since 1991 not only has the police and the AG’s Departments remained complicit in sabotaging justice but also the various commissions that have been appointed by several governments. For now there is no agency to trust when it comes to investigations into serious crimes and abuses of human rights.

Today the position of the police is very much worse than the late 90s. It is today an institution which is acknowledged by everyone, including high ranking police officers who have made public statements expressing bewilderment about the situation. Today even a person who is an accused in a murder trial can continue to work as a police officer. An accused in the murder case of Gerard Perera, a police sub Inspector, Suresh Gunaratne, is continuing to work as an investigator at the Gampaha Police Station. Many others accused of serious crimes are not even subjected to investigations. One of the known pastimes at many police stations is to intimidate witnesses who make complaints against the police officers.

The politicians find that this kind of policing system is useful to them. It is easy to attack political opponents when the patronage of the police is assured. The police seek political patronage and politicians seek police patronage.

What is very much more shocking is the way the AG’s Department is undermining its role regarding the prevention of torture. There were some positive developments in the early part of this century when a large number of torture indictments were filed against police officers by the department. From around 2006 this policy changed significantly. The discouragement of filing indictments took the form of either not filing them at all or advising the police not to file charges under the torture act but under the penal code for offenses such as simple hurt, which is a trivial offense. Even in cases where there are fundamental errors in the judgement of law and application of facts, the AG’s Department has refused to file appeals or revisions despite of appeals being made on behalf of aggrieved victims. The tacit policy today is not to eliminate torture but to protect persons who perpetrate it.

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka even in very recent cases have pointed out the negligence of the authorities to enforce discipline within the police and take meaningful action for the protection of the people.

Despite of the end of the conflict there is hardly any hope for the improvement of criminal justice in Sri Lanka; the government shows no political will in this regard. However, if the government had the political will, reforming the Sri Lankan police could be achieved within a short time. What is needed is the proper exercise of command responsibility.

This is also the situation of the AG’s Department. It is true that these departments also need resources to improve personnel and other materials. Allocation of funds for justice can bring far greater stability to the country than the allocation of funds to the military. However, in all likelihood, while the allocation of funds to the military will increase there will be no significant improvement in the allocation of funds for institutions that deal with the administration of justice.

In all likelihood Sri Lanka will remain a torture land, through and through in the coming year too.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-149-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Torture,