SRI LANKA: No effort to investigate the murder of Nishanta Fernando but more effort to eliminate the witnesses (An interview with the widow)

Surangi Sandamali Padmini Peiris is the wife of Sugath Nishanta Fernando who was assassinated on September 20 in broad daylight by two unidentified gunmen who the family believes were working on the instructions of several police officers against whom Nishanta Fernando had filed a complaint which lead to a bribery case and a fundamental rights case relating to torture. On the 26th June he started receiving threats demanding that he withdraw his cases or he and his family would be killed within 24 hours. The family made immediate complaints to the Inspector General of Police, the Human Rights Commission and the National Police Commission. He also took the precaution of going into hiding. However after a while when Nishanta Fernando reappeared to continue with his family he was assassinated. The wife and children told the magistrate at the inquest inquiry that the long harassments Nishanta Fernando and the family has suffered at the hands of several police officers including senior police officer was over a long period of time. The family stated that they suspect these police officers and no one else for the murder. However, to date no police officers have been arrested and most of them are still working in the same area, some holding important positions.

On November 12, 2007 a large number of policemen entered the house of Sugath Nishanta Fernando and beat up the whole family threatening them not to go to court to give evidence. The wife who was an important witness was beaten more severely and suffered serious injuries. As complaints were made about this matter inquiries were conducted. Under the CAT Act, Act No. 22 of 1994, torture, cruel and other inhuman treatment and punishment is recognised as a crime. However, the Attorney General’s Department has not taken action to prosecute the perpetrators of torture. Instead, a few weeks ago some minor charges have been filed in the Magistrate s Court against some police officers for the intimidation of witnesses. Many of the officers mentioned in the assault have not been included in the list of accused. The family fears that some ploy has been used to exculpate the police officers while giving some appearance that some action has been taken.

The newspapers report that the Deputy Inspector General of Police for the Negombo area has been called by the National Police Commission to question as to why no action has been taken to transfer the police officers in the area when such serious charges are levelled against them. However, there is no indication to show that this is being done.

In this interview to the AHRC Nishanta’s widow explains the plight of her children and herself in trying to live in hiding in order to avoid being assassinated by the policemen who murdered her husband.

The following is the interview with Surangi Sandamali Padmini Peiris — wife of Sugath Nishanta Fernando from Dalupotha, Negombo, who was killed for daring to complain against the Sri Lankan police:

AHRC: Tell me about your children? 
SSPP: I have two children. My daughter Dilukshi is 16; my son Anjana is 11. They were studying at schools in Negombo. 
AHRC: What events led you to come here (undisclosed place far away from her hometown in Negombo)?
SSPP: After the funeral of my husband, I gave a statement in court. In it, I gave the names of all the police officers I suspected to be involved in my husband’s killing. I am the main witness in almost all the court cases filed by us, up to now. In the bribery case, he had already given his statement and my statement was due to be recorded when they (the police) came to our home and demanded that I refrain from giving evidence. It was then that they tortured all of us. Actually they tortured me more than my husband; this is also according to the medical reports. My nose was fractured and I was told a case against the police could be filed for my torture. 
(She shows several official documents and photographs pertaining to her torture; she said that 6 policemen surrounded her; one hit her on the face with his gun; the others pushed her to the ground and assaulted and kicked her viciously. She was then hospitalised; and chained to the bed after the magistrate remanded her)
I accompanied my husband everywhere he went — especially after the police torture incident. But from Friday morning he told me not to. On Saturday morning I even walked up to the vehicle, but he left with our son. Maybe they (the police) thought I was also in the vehicle and wanted to eliminate me also.  
The main reason for the torture was the delay by the bribery commission to file the case against the police. This is what a lawyer friend told me. Yesterday a case has been filed in the magistrate’s court regarding the torture. Earlier when both Sugath and I visited the bribery commission we were told that our injuries warranted a High Court case (under the Anti-torture Act) and our lawyers also agreed. Now after all this time, only a case in the lower court has been filed. The (torture) incident occurred last November 12. But the filing of the case has been delayed until yesterday though there was ample evidence. 
AHRC: So do you think the filing of the case was intentionally delayed?
SSPP: Yes.
AHRC: Why do you think so?
SSPP: It is obvious. We had implicated senior police officials in our torture case including SSPs, HQI and IPs. They were angry and frowned at us when they saw us on the road. Also, there had always been traffic policemen on their bikes; but a few days before the shooting of my husband, the cops and their bikes were missing from the vicinity. At the time we did not take much notice, but now we know why. According to my son (eye-witness to the shooting incident) the killers came on a motor bicycle wearing no helmets. They seemed so confident, they won’t be recognised.
AHRC: After the funeral, did you return to your home in Negombo?
SSPP: The funeral was held in that house and thereafter we remained there. 
AHRC: Did you face any threats?
SSPP: On the day, my husband was killed; the bribery official investigating our case visited the mortuary and told me that now my life was also in danger. Hence, I should leave the area. This officer, had previously also received threats. Thereafter several suspicious incidents occurred that led us to go into hiding. 
AHRC: Can you detail these suspicious incidents?
SSPP: When my father was returning home, he noticed two motor bicycles following him. My younger sister also suspected being followed and did not like us living in that area. Then a human rights activist assisted us to find alternate places to live until we arrived at our present place of abode. Even thereafter my younger sister said two unknown persons on motor bicycles followed her and were seen loitering around. My father also said two men, with their faces masked, had also followed him. I believe that this is because our relatives lived around the same area and maybe they (the police) suspected that we were hiding in one of their houses. They were looking for us. 
AHRC: From when are you in hiding?
SSPP: My husband was shot to death on September 20; since about September 25 my children and I have been hiding in different places. We have been changing places.
I now feel that even my children’s lives are in danger. Yesterday a reliable source telephoned me again. He said the Negombo police were searching for me. He advised me not to reveal my whereabouts to anyone; nor step outside my house. The bribery case is fixed in court for December 1, but he told me not to attend court unless I had sufficient security.
AHRC: Why do you feel that your children are in danger?
SSPP: If they (the police) wanted to shoot someone, they should have killed me. I was in the forefront and the main witness in all the cases filed except the fundamental rights case—which was filed in my husband’s name. They might have killed him to prevent me from testifying. They said they will kill me. This is when they came to our home and tortured me. My son witnessed my husband being shot and I worry for his life; as well as that of my daughter’s. 
AHRC: Since the incident, have your children resumed their schooling?
SSPP: No. they have not gone to school one single day. 
AHRC: So how is this affecting them?
SSPP: Of course they are not taking it well. They do not like to stay away from school. My son was so happy that he had been chosen for the school band on the 19th. The next day, he saw his father being killed. Now both children are adamant to return to school. They want to take their school exams—especially my daughter who is due to sit for her O/L examination at the end of this year. I see her looking through her school books and she says she will do her exams, but I don’t think she will fare well under these circumstances. Soon after the incident (killing) my son fainted often when he remembered what happened. Later, after coming here, he is much better. 
After leaving our home but before coming here, we were separated. While we were in a convent, my son was in another place. We visited him during the day, but he cried every night. That is why we came here. Now he snuggles next to me and falls asleep. None of us like to return to our home in Dalupatha (Negombo). As a family we were very close and we were always together. I have still not thought about their schooling but the children keep in touch with their friends via telephone. 
With the filing of the case yesterday, the danger to their lives has increased. Even the Derana TV reporter who reported our case had received a threatening phone call. He has filed a police complaint. Now the bribery commission has said that at least 4 more court cases could be brought against the police regarding the torture and assault on my husband, two children and myself.
AHRC: How do you feel to have left your hometown?
SSPP: Dalupatha is my birthplace. It has been about 8 years since we built and moved into our own home. Many of our relatives also live in the village. So it is very difficult for us to leave. However now I do not wish to return to my Dalupatha home. There will always be threats. But mostly, we cannot face the bitter memories of what happened. 
AHRC: What about your economic situation? 
SSPP: I have to depend on help of others. My husband had a heavy vehicle (cantor) which he hired out. He also had a three-wheeler. Both these vehicles had been purchased on lease and several instalments still remain to be paid. I told my sister (whose husband is working overseas) to pay the balance instalments, sell the vehicle and give us any balance. Whatever money received will be deposited in the bank accounts of my children. The house will be written to my son. Actually we had planned to give the house to our daughter and build another house for our son, but that was not to be.
(Her phone rings: later she explains it was a relative who was worried after hearing over 2 TV channels that a case had been filed in court. The relative was worried whether the family was once again in jeopardy)
AHRC: What are your hopes for the future?
SSPP: First, I want to solve the problem of my children’s schooling. Thereafter I want to complete all the legal cases we began. 
AHRC: Are you certain about pursuing your legal cases?
SSPP: Yes. I am certain. Sugath was a person who has not harmed anyone during his lifetime. He has not assaulted, hit, killed, or defrauded anyone. He did not owe anyone anything. It is indeed a shame that such a person is killed. He went to court for the injustice caused to him. He did not seek to do anything else but took legal action. So I shall pursue all these legal cases; I will finish the journey towards justice we began together. If it means that I too will be killed, that cannot be helped. I will pursue to the end.
I prefer that my two children remain with me; this will be a great consolation to me. But if this is not possible, they could be boarded somewhere to pursue their education. But I have not thought about their education yet. A friend promised to look into this matter soon but the children are still in danger—especially after the case was filed in court yesterday. 
AHRC: Is there any other action you intend to take regarding the injustice caused to you?
SSPP: I will look around and take every action that can be taken. 
Right now what I want is for a proper investigation to be conducted into killing of my husband. I have heard that a senior police official in Negombo (who is implicated in the Supreme Court case) has connections to drug lords and the underworld. People have told me that this senior policeman in Negombo was responsible for the release of a terrorist suspect after obtaining a bribe of Rs. 5,000,000 (koti 50) and another inspector of police who assisted him is also implicated in our case. That is the reason the case is not receiving the attention it should (yata-gahanawa). These policemen are also known to obtain bribes from those who illegally mine sand. 
AHRC: If you are called again to make statements or give evidence will you do it?
SSPP: Yes. I gave the names of these policemen to the magistrate. I requested the magistrate to provide security for my family until the 7th day alms giving, but the police did not carryout the magistrate’s order. I was asked the names of the suspects and I gave them—from the SSP to the policemen, I afforded the names of all those I suspected. 
AHRC: Do you think you will receive justice?
SSPP: I will try my utmost to obtain justice. I will pursue to the end. 
AHRC: Why do you think this happened to you and your family?
SSPP: Because we filed a court case against the police for bribery. At first we did not want to; but later we did and we were summoned to court. At the time, a local government minister told my husband not to pursue the case. He did not threaten us but requested us not to. We agreed but attended court. In March Sugath’s evidence was recorded.
AHRC: Tell me about the fabricated charges filed against you by the police?
SSPP: From the time we complained to the bribery commission, to the time the case was filed and after, we were harassed by the police. The complaint was lodged in 2004. Thereafter several fabricated cases were filed against Sugath. It was when he went to make statements regarding these complaints that there was a confrontation with the SSP. The SSP wanted us to settle the cases but we insisted that our statements be recorded. It was then, Sugath was arrested on the roadside, allegedly for ‘obstructing duty’ — this was the first case. He was arrested and remanded for the very first time.  They also filed a case against me because I insisted on accompanying him to the police station. But this time they did not assault us; they also wanted to remand me but the lawyer fought on my behalf mentioning the fate of my two children. The second time the police came to our home and severely assaulted us. But despite that I was seriously injured; the magistrate visited the hospital and placed me in remand. 
I remember the first time Sugath was remanded; a local government official’s golaya (minion) came to me and said his boss had received word that the SSP had contracted a notorious gangster ‘Feroze’ inside prison to attack and kill Sugath. But the official had intervened and told the gangster not to do so because Sugath was his friend. Then an acquaintance had called another gangster in prison called ‘tinker’ who had also involved in many killings and this person had told gangster ‘Feroze’ not to harm Sugath intimating he belonged to tinker’s gang. It was only then Sugath was safe.
AHRC: Do you think their work is important; if so why? 
SSPP: If there were no such organisations, people like us would be rendered helpless. At least now because of them, we can pursue seeking justice through the legal process. Otherwise we too might face death. We did not know them, until they came in search of us. Thus, I believe they should publicise their services more–maybe via an advertisement or two–so that others in our position will also know how to find them.
When Sugath was alive, he informed the office whenever he heard of a human rights violation over television news for example. These activities should increase. Otherwise some people may, after their cases are filed, agree to a settlement to withdraw their cases under pressure. It is important to raise awareness among people of the importance of pursuing their cases without giving in. The main problem however, is court delay.
AHRC: So what is your opinion about these court delays?
SSPP: This is a big problem. For instance, I was assaulted on November 12. My husband was remanded for three months and released on bail on February 12. The case was postponed to June 3 and on this day the lawyer argued and obtained a postponement to September 3. On September 2 the lawyer had gone to the Appeal court requesting another judge to hear the case but their request had been denied. On September 3 the lawyer was absent and case was postponed to December 1. Meanwhile on September 20 my husband was killed. Court delay is the greatest shame in Sri Lanka. And this is the main reason witnesses get killed. (Adds Daughter Dilukshi: “maybe the reason for the postponement was to kill my father“).  Since they (the police) were aware that it was my husband who attended to matters pertaining the case, they might have thought, his elimination would induced me to withdraw the cases against them. 
The other big problem is lawyers. One or two lawyers do their work properly. But the other lawyers in Negombo are useless. In his first case, my husband could not find a lawyer to appear for him. One lawyer told Sugath that he did not appear for cases against the police but volunteered to recommend another who was willing. That lawyer did not speak more than two or three word on behalf of his client. Then 3 lawyers from Colombo had to come and obtain bail for my husband. They (lawyers) should be whacked for what they do to their clients. I have seen them take money from the accused persons and then say “settle your case or you will go to prison“. Sometimes the suspects might be innocent, but they don’t care. They work in collusion with the police. Some lawyers are even afraid of the police.
AHRC: How do you know all this?
SSPP: I have been going to court for some time. I have seen these incidents with my own eyes. 
AHRC: Do you have anything more to say?
SSPP: I will never stop pursuing the court cases. I will also never forgive those who killed my husband. So please help us in our pursuit. Also thank you for all the help you have given us. May goodness be with you always (pin-wewa).

The interview was conducted by Shyamali Puvimanasinghe of the AHRC on 29.10.2008.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-290-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,