SRI LANKA: Forensic science, mortuaries and the rights of victims of crime

As people read obituaries and find out about the death of someone they know, the first thing many think to do is visit the person and pay their last respects to the dead body. The body becomes a sacred thing, which family and friends venerate by keeping clean and tidy, and ensuring that it is disposed of with due care. A body kept in a mortuary before being handed over to the family should also be handled respectfully. 

For legal purposes, a dead body is the last and best evidence when foul play is suspected. The loss of evidence due to decay can dramatically affect the outcome of a court case. Usually, the law requires qualified and licensed judicial medical officers to undertake meticulous examination of dead bodies. If a doctor fails in this duty, it may mean that a criminal investigation cannot proceed. 

Sadly, in recent months many reports coming from Sri Lanka reveal careless neglect of bodies in mortuaries there. The latest, in the Sunday Observer of January 4, was that the freezers at the Anuradhapura Hospital mortuary do not work, and as a result bodies sent there are rotting. The article, by Athula Bandara, went on to indicate a litany of failures at the mortuary that have resulted in post mortems at the hospital being stopped, including that 

“Although one body should be placed in one drawer at a time, [staff] have no choice but to place two bodies in one drawer. Unidentified bodies as well as bodies awaiting court orders for post mortems have to kept outside in polythene bags, as new bodies brought to the morgue are given preference. The bodies left outside are decomposed, infested with maggots and flies swarm over them, posing a threat to the patients at the hospital.”

These days there is much campaigning about the rights of the victims of crime. One of the most important rights that a victim of murder has is for her dead body to be preserved in a manner that will permit proper medical examination. To allow bodies to rot is an act of deep inhumanity. In Anuradhapura this act is occurring within a hospital, which has a duty to protect and preserve the bodies in its care. To allow mortuary refrigerators to collapse is not just a technical matter but a serious violation of human rights. It is no excuse to claim that the financial and other resources necessary for proper maintenance have not been received. The state has an obligation to provide these resources. In this case, bodies are rotting due to both bureaucratic and political ineptitude.

But the ultimate duty lies with the public. It is shocking that reports of such neglect can spread without provoking angry mass protests. Why have inquiries not been publicly demanded? Why have officials not been forced to resign? Organisations claiming to protect the have not even murmured protest against this gross denial of human rights. While some newspapers have raised concern, victims’ families have themselves remained silent. 

These days it is also fashionable attribute low arrest and conviction rates to the poor state of forensic science in Sri Lanka. The Attorney General himself recently gave a lecture to this effect. The conditions of mortuaries are also a matter for forensic science. If a body cannot even be adequately preserved to allow for proper investigation to take place, then what hope is there for forensic science in the country? In the past, one of the few achievements in Sri Lanka was that competent doctors could hold proper postmortem inquiries. If even this has been lost, how can we expect any other advances? The conditions of mortuaries should be of concern to the health authorities as well as those who have a duty to ensure proper enforcement of the law. The Attorney General in fact has the authority to call for reports on the state of the country’s mortuaries, and take appropriate legal action to ensure that no further neglect occurs. 

The Government of Sri Lanka should act to normalise the situation at Anuradhapura Hospital without delay. It should then study all the mortuaries in the country with a view to bringing about widespread improvements. The government also must apologise to the families of the deceased whose bodies have been desecrated, and compensate them for their suffering. Finally, the National Human Rights Commission should take up the matter as a serious violation of human rights. A report from the Commission would be useful to awaken public opinion. 

– Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-01-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,