During the last two weeks there were two occasions in which victims of very serious acts of torture sought protection from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka claiming that they were facing serious threats, including threats to their lives. We are glad to state that on both occasions a Commissioner took urgent steps that helped the victims while they were undergoing such threats.
While that is a positive aspect to be encouraged, the overall treatment of both victims in these two occasions is a matter for serious anxiety.
1. The case of Tissa Kumara
Tissa Kumaras case is known to the nation and an article in the Sunday Leader on 17 July 2004 catches a glimpse of a family fleeing from their home to escape alleged threats. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and its associates had informed the HRC of Sri Lanka about the situation. AHRC also took the trouble to bring the fleeing family–who were more worried about finding a safe haven–to the HRC to make a statement. They continued their journey to find a place of safety thereafter.
However it is sad to note that the entire discussion at the HRC was about a slight discrepancy or an omission in family’s statement, rather than about how to help the family in their hour of crisis. There seems to be a basic lack of understanding regarding the role of protection required during a time of crisis. This role is different from the general role of conducting inquiries with the ultimate aim of punishing perpetrators. During moments of imminent threat the duty of a human rights body is to basically verify whether there is a prima facie case of alleged threat and if so, to take whatever steps necessary to provide immediate protection to the victims, leaving aside inquiries into larger issues of liability for a later time. There were sufficient details given by Tissa Kumara about his situation for any human rights body to act upon. But even until the writing of this statement, discussions and verifications are ongoing and the victim has to fight his own battle for safety.
2. The case of Saman Priyankara
The second case is that of Saman Priyankara who was tortured for the second time by the Matale police. Even as he is trying to attend to his injuries and meeting with doctors he wrote an affidavit from the remand prison and sent a copy with a covering letter from a lawyer seeking help. He got an amazing reply from the HRC. The letter from the HRC requested him to report at the HRC office Colombo at 3:30 pm on 20 July 2004. The letter was sent on behalf of Mr. Nimal P. Punchiwa, the Director of Investigations. Surely if anyone read the statements by and on behalf of the victim the person should have known that Saman Priyankara is in remand prison. The lack of concern and insensitivity is beyond belief. The wife of this unfortunate victim who is running around to do whatever she can for her seriously injured husband had also to go around to remind the HRC that the person is still in the remand prison. This suggests the ineptitude and neglect a victim could face at the HRC, thereby undermining the very purpose of its establishment. Once again the issue is the duty of a human rights body for purposes of protection. What is required at such times is the willingness to at least use their telephones to find out what is wrong and to take whatever preliminary possible steps to help a person who is seeking protection.
Perhaps one way to solve the problem is to separate the task of protection from the investigating unit and to give the initiative to some one else to deal with such urgent matters. Protection and conduct of final inquiries are completely separate matters. Perhaps a human rights body like the HRC of Sri Lanka is more suited to attend to protection as its first priority. This also requires a change of attitude, as is evident from the above example.
AHRC wishes to record its serious concern over this matter and urges the Chairperson and the members of the HRC to give specific instructions on protection and its importance in the work of a human rights commission to its staff.