Sri Lanka: Torture Elimination Day 04 February 2002

A Joint Statement By JanaSansadaya, Sri Lanka and the Asian Human Rights Commission AHRC

Sri Lanka will celebrate the 54th anniversary of its independence from the British Raj on 4th February 2002. It is appropriate that it also be celebrated as Torture Elimination Day, to highlight the problems that need to be eliminated if the freedoms implied in Independence Day are to have meaning to the people of the country. Torture is endemic in Sri Lanka, despite the laws that have been made against it. People who aspire for freedom and who want to assert their rights come under heavy police brutality in all areas of the Island, and face military assaults in areas where civil conflicts exist. For the ordinary people–and rural folk in particular–the law enforcement agencies themselves pose one a major security threat. In a recent Supreme Court judgement, the court asked, “It is a lamentable fact that the police who are supposed to protect the ordinary citizens of this country have become violators of the law, [and we] may ask with Juvenal, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who is to guard the guards themselves?” [Edussuriya J, Amerasinghe J and Wadugodapitiya J., agreeing, case number S.C.(F.R.) Application 343/99, 6 November 2001]

Two organizations have initiated the Torture Elimination Day: JanaSansadaya (People¡¦s Dialogue)–an organization specializing in monitoring of torture and advocacy to eliminate it–and the Asian Human Rights Commission. The theme for the day is “Implement Act 22 of 1994”, which was issued under the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This theme has been chosen to highlight the widespread practice of torture in the country, against Act 22 of 1994. Sadly, there is a fundamental flaw in the enforcement of this law. If there is to be a change, it has to take place in the area of enforcement. To bring about change it is necessary to expose how the failure to enforce takes place.

Failure to enforce Act 22 is due to the existence defective systems of investigation and prosecution regarding allegations of torture. While in particular instances there may be unique reasons for this failure, there is also a general breakdown of these functions in the country as a whole.

After years of independence the country has failed to establish credible and trustworthy criminal investigation and prosecution systems. Sadder still, even the limited achievements of the past have given way under heavy pressure to a political system that has unscrupulously interfered with the rule of law and destabilized the law enforcement agencies and prosecution system. The use of law enforcement officers directly to cause mass disappearances and other crimes, such as rape, has further contributed the degeneration of law enforcement agencies. The executive presidency has diminished the importance of the prosecutor, under the Attorney General’s department.

Under these circumstances a public debate on this issue has become essential. The public is well aware of what has happened and are also very frustrated about what is going on, but a large section of them also live in fear. Any accidental contact with some parts of the law enforcement agencies can bring great harm. People are often afraid to make complaints as worse can befall those seeking legal redress. Yet given the opportunity, the people have a lot to say on the issue of law enforcement, and they have a right to have their say it. It is also the duty of the government and the community to listen to them. Torture Elimination Day has been organized as one such occasion to speak out.

The organizers of Torture Elimination Day do not believe that suggestions to appoint a more powerful investigation unit to investigate torture and other crimes of law enforcement agencies will adequately address the problem that exists in Sri Lanka. Who will appoint such a unit? — The same politicians who use these officers for wrong purposes? Of whom will this special unit consist–special police officers? Given the tight connections built within the system as it exists now, this is most unlikely. Will the unit then consist of civilians? While civilian groups such as the Task Force have done considerable work on prevention of abuses by actions such as visiting places of detention, the likelihood of their being able to deal with detailed investigations into law enforcement agencies’ activities is most unlikely.

We believe that more realistic hope for change lies in reform of the prosecutorial functions, to enable the prosecutor to act independently from the Attorney General’s department. Suggestions to this effect have been made by every commission appointed to examine law enforcement issues since 1946. Heavy public intervention to achieve these recommendations will be hard to resist. The advantage of this approach is that the prosecutor’s office would have greater supervisory powers over investigations at the very outset. The prosecutors cannot then blame only the police for investigations that have not been properly conducted. There will be mutual responsibility. The higher professional capacity of the prosecutors can help in establishing more transparent investigations. It is been consistently observed that defective investigations begin in the early stages and lead to failed prosecutions. In Sri Lanka, curing this defect requires more sophisticated involvement by prosecutors in the investigations. One high court judge has even suggested the introduction of a French-style investigatory judges system, however it seems much more feasible to adopt the developed practices of common law countries.

There is public outcry against the failed system of justice administration in Sri Lanka. It is essential to cure this system of some of its serious defects. There is hardly any meaning to being a nation if the justice system is fundamentally flawed. Independence Day is a good occasion to resolve to deal with such serious flaws. The country cannot afford to allow such flaws to go unremedied. Torture Elimination Day is a reminder of this great national challenge.

Several activities commemorating Torture Elimination Day will take place at Panadura Town Hall premises on 4 February 2002. They will include a public gathering, hearing victims of torture, exhibitions and a video shows. All activities are open to the public.

30 January 2002

Asian Human Rights Commission AHRC, Hong Kong
JanSansadaya, Sri Lanka


Asian Human Rights Commission AHRC
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81/2 Arthur V. Dias Mawatha
Contact Chitral Perera – Tel: +94 383 5191

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-03-2002
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Torture,