The Asian Human Rights Commissions (AHRC) inquiries reveal that no progress has thus far been made by officials investigating the attempted arson of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka headquarters on October 12, 2005. Eight days have now passed and immediate and effective action is required as a matter of urgency. AHRC has revealed that the main aims of the attempted arson were the destruction of sensitive files kept by the HRC, as well as the destruction of the entire premises in which it is housed. Suspicion has been directed towards over a hundred police officers – mainly from the Western Province – including senior officers, who are currently under investigation by the HRC. The fact that some of the police officers may be linked with the arson attempt seems to be a major factor in explaining the lack of a serious attempt to investigate this incident. Special inquiries into gross human rights abuses by the police have now been launched by a committee chaired by former High Court Judge Farook.
The HRCs headquarters are housed in a five-storey building at 36 Kinsey Road, Borella, Colombo 08. When the staff came to work on October 12th, 2005, they found burned files on the buildings staircase. Documents and files had reportedly been strewn about the entire staircase leading up to the fifth floor and a substance, thought to be kerosene, had also been spread about. Two mattresses, doused with the substance, had been brought down from the fifth floor. Newspapers taken from another floor were put between the files and mattresses. These actions indicate that the arsonists were attempting to light a fire at the base of the building that would then spread to the fifth floor. Mosquito coils and several matchsticks appear to have been used to start the fire. However, the fire did not spread as intended, and went out half way up the staircase.
Upon discovering the partially-failed arson attack, the staff members complained to the authorities of the HRC, who then called the Cinnamon Garden Police. Upon inspection, the police discovered that the fire had not spread to the area in which the more sensitive files were stored. The Officer-in-Charge of the police station discussed the matter with the Director of Investigations of the HRC, revealing that someone had made an organised attempt to enter the storeroom where the more sensitive files were kept, in order to destroy them. However, the police as well as the HRC remain unable to identify the perpetrators of these acts.
The Officer-in-Charge of the Cinnamon Garden Police encountered difficulties in how to conduct an inquiry into acts potentially committed by other police officers, hampering progress, following which the Inspector General of Police handed over the inquiry to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). As part of the investigations, a security officer has stated that five HRC employees came to the office on the night of the arson. It has been revealed that the top floor of the building is been used at night as a dormitory by some of the HRC employees. These employees had reportedly claimed that they had come to take shelter from the rain. All of these employees continue to work with HRC. The CID has since questioned some employees. However, the officers conducting the questioning have taken the view that they are unable to engage in hard questioning, as they would themselves become the subjects of complaints of violations of human rights. This attitude can only be seen as a pretext by the investigators to avoid pursuing the investigation seriously. AHRC recalls that the HRC is for the most part conducting inquiries into acts allegedly committed by police officers, including high ranking officers and officers of the CID.
Due to these factors a serious crisis is occurring regarding the lack of progress in the criminal investigations into this incident, and the Human Rights Commission is now faced with the most serious threat that it has encountered to date with regard to its ability to function and conduct its work.
The Asian Human Rights Commission calls upon the Sri Lankan government, the relevant UN authorities, the Asia Pacific Forum of Human Rights Commissions and all international and local human rights organizations, to make a concerted effort to ensure that prompt, effective and impartial investigations are conducted into the attempt to burn down the entire premises of the Human Rights Commission. If no progress is made concerning this, the HRCs work will be seriously jeopardized in the future. Besides this, the lives of many victims who made complaints of human rights abuses to the HRC will also be in serious danger.
In November 2004, torture victim Gerald Perera was murdered in order to prevent him from giving evidence during criminal trial against the alleged perpetrators of the torture. Throughout the year, many victims who complained about torture and other human rights abuses by the police were tortured for the second time, threatened and intimidated with the aim of having them withdraw their cases. Meanwhile, at the higher levels of the police there was serious resistance to investigations into torture and extra judicial killings, with pressure having been exerted upon both the HRC and the National Police Commission in order to obstruct their attempts at investigations. This was accompanied by numerous direct and indirect acts of intimidation against lawyers and others who were assisting torture victims. Finally, there was open resistance against the interdiction of police officers facing trial at High Courts under the CAT Act (Act No. 22 of 1994). The attempted arson of the entire building of the HRC represents the most serious threat that any similar institution in the world has faced in recent times.
The proper investigation and prosecution of all those involved in this incident is of critical necessity, and the future of human rights work in Sri Lanka will depend much on their outcome. If appropriate action is taken at this time to protect the HRC, there will be a definite shift towards bringing the police impunity issue to the forefront. If such action is not taken or fails, intimidation will spread not only to the HRC, but also to society at large, engendering a climate of fear and paving the way for even crueler forms of torture, extra judicial killings and other forms of abuse by police officers than have been seen thus far.
A diagram showing the plan of the attempted arson of the headquarters of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka can be found on AHRCs website at: www.ahrchk.net/images/hrc-sl.pdf or www.ahrchk.net/images/hrc-sl.jpg