SRI LANKA: Sri Lankan lawyer under grave threats amid growing efforts to intimidate human rights workers and institutions
A Sri Lankan lawyer who has appeared for the complainants in many well-known human rights cases is facing grave threats to his security. Rasika Sanjeewa Weerawickrama has been receiving telephone calls and other forms of pressure to withdraw from some of these cases. In recent weeks the pressures have increased, giving reasonable grounds to believe that he may be in imminent danger.
These threats come at a time of rapidly growing resistance to complaints of torture and extrajudicial killing by police officers. Efforts by the National Police Commission to implement the law and interdict over one hundred police officers who have been charged before the high courts have been fought by all ranks, most recently by the Inspector General of Police himself. Most recently, an attempt was made to burn down the head office of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, which in recent times has referred many cases of torture for prosecution.
Sanjeewa appeared on behalf of Gerald Perera, the victim of torture due to mistaken identity by some officers of the Wattala Police, who was killed shortly before giving evidence to the Negombo High Court. The Supreme Court earlier held in a fundamental rights application that the claims of torture were true. The case in the high court has been lodged by the Attorney Generals Department under the Convention against Torture Act (Act No. 22 of 1994). Five police officers and another person have been charged with Perera's murder. Both the torture and murder cases are pending trial.
Then there is the case of Palitha Tissa Kumara, in which a police sub-inspector is alleged to have committed heinous torture, and which is awaiting a final order at the Supreme Court and is under trial at the Kaluthera High Court. Sanjeewa has also appeared in young Chamila Bandara's case against the former officer-in-charge and several other officers of the Ankumbura Police. That case is pending before the Supreme Court as a fundamental rights application and under the Convention against Torture Act before the Kandy High Court. Several retaliatory cases have also been filed by the police against the victim in the Kandy Magistrates Court. And there is the case of Duwandage Pushpa Kumara, allegedly tortured by several officers of the Saliyawera Police, in which a former officer-in-charge is facing prosecution under the Convention against Torture Act at the Chilaw High Court. Besides these, the lawyer has filed several dozen other cases before the Supreme Court and assisted numerous victims in the high courts and magistrates courts.
On the night of October 12 there was an attempt to burn down the Human Rights Commissions headquarters in Colombo. Some persons are known to have gone to the first floor, where all the files of cases relating to human rights violations and ongoing inquiries had been kept, and doused them with kerosene. Many files were taken out and placed in the stair case of the five-storey building. Two mattresses were brought down from the fifth floor and also doused. Newspapers taken from another floor were put between the files and mattresses, and then mosquito coils and several matchsticks were placed to start the fire. However, it did not spread as intended.
The Asian Human Rights Commission is of the view that there are serious moves underway in Sri Lanka to oppose all attempts at dealing with impunity. These are manifest in the growing attacks on--and threats against--institutions and individuals who are keenly pursuing the interests of victims of human rights violations. We are especially concerned for the security of WR Sanjeewa, and seek protection for him and investigations into the efforts to stop him from continuing his work. We also urge all human rights defenders and victims who have made complaints to take extra precautions, particularly during the ongoing election campaign period.