SRI LANKA: International criticism of failed criminal investigations and absence of witness protection highlights urgent need for a detailed rescue plan

Several international experts have, in the recent week, focused on a number of very crucial issues regarding the criminal justice system of Sri Lanka. They have commented on the need for the government to “dispel serious concerns about whether the justice system is now able to carry out independent and credible investigations into who was responsible for these killings and to mount effective prosecutions’ (Comment by Mr. Michael Birnbaum QC on behalf of the ICJ after observing magistrate court proceedings on the case of the extrajudicial executions of the 17 aid workers in the town of Muttur).

He went on to say that, “The government should entrust the investigation to a national body that has the trust of all Sri Lankans, and if that is not possible, then the government should look elsewhere for assistance.”

“We need to set up the network of protection before asking the people to talk, otherwise we will face assassinations. This is more than important. Without that this is impossible. The number of people who have been assassinated is too high. We have to establish a way for the people to join this enquiry, this body of eminent persons, by all means. By video, by email, by internet.” (Comments made in an interview to reporters by Bernard Kouchner, former French minister, founder of the aide group, Medicines Sans Frontiers and the European Union appointee to an international panel of observers assisting a Sri Lankan commission of enquiry). Michael Birnbaum also said, “Fear is the enemy of justice. Unless the government of Sri Lanka implements a witness protection programme, witnesses will rarely come forward in any case where they feel themselves to be in peril.”

The Asian Human Rights Commission has for several years now highlighted the need for a complete overhaul of the criminal investigation system in Sri Lanka and has also consistently called for a witness protection programme. Despite of several years of intense campaigning on these issues there has been no positive response on the part of the government. Instead, the situation regarding criminal investigations and witness protection has deteriorated severely in recent times. Thus, the challenges posed by the two international experts cited above can only be realised if there is a serious determination to implement such suggestions. The failure to implement improvements to the investigations system and the witness protection programme will expose the country’s human rights record globally.

While such critical concerns were expressed by international experts the country’s policing system was facing even a more serious crisis. The Inspector General of Police and another high ranking police officer told the press about the criminal elements in the police, military and deserters being responsible for some of the gravest crimes that have been taking place in the country including abductions, disappearances and similar crimes. These top police officers expressed the need to examine this situation more closely and to look for solutions. Meanwhile the president of Sri Lanka, addressing the top ranking police officers asked them to come out with a plan to deal with this situation within five days. The president’s remark comes as an attempt to react to severe international criticism that is now widespread regarding the exceptional collapse of the rule of law in the country.

However, the president’s call for a plan to deal with this issue within five days cannot be given much weight as the problem has far deeper roots and requires a much closer study and planning if a credible solution is to be found for this issue.

We urge the international experts to probe the issue in much greater depth and to come out with more detailed comments in the manner in which the present deterioration of the criminal investigation system can be rescued and how a credible witness protection programme can be developed with the necessary resources and personnel within the shortest possible time. These are times at which the local discussions on these issues has been stifled due to various forms of pressure and the many decades of the misuse of the policing system to carry out repressive measures such as abductions, disappearances and torture.

Due to these reasons much help is needed from the international community including the international experts who are participating in various inquiries to come out with more detailed studies and detailed suggestions as to how the criminal investigation system can be recreated to be a credible instrument capable of investigating serious crimes and gross abuses of human rights. Obviously the government is not harnessing the local expert opinion in order to address these problems. Such institutions as the Attorney General’s Department and the Law Commission which should have addressed these matters have not been doing so. Perhaps a political ethos that does not encourage reform may be the reason for local expert opinions to have remained suppressed.

If the president is looking for a quick solution, as he has indicated in calling for proposals for change in five days is serious in his call, he should seek the advice of the international experts that are now available in the country and the local experts which are available in various government departments and also in civil society to come forward with detailed analysis and suggestions to deal with this issue. The top ranks of the police including the IGP and also the National Police Commission can join ranks in calling for a detailed plan to deal with the present crisis.

In evolving such a detailed plan perhaps the first step should be to remove all restrictions on media freedoms so that the people can participate in the discussion in this vital national issue without fear. There is no rationale at all to restrict debate and discussion on the crisis of the police investigation system and the failure of the witness protection programme.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-045-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,