SRI LANKA: The Case of Angaline Roshana

We reproduce below the final in the series of five cases researched on the basis of the information collected by the Asian Human Rights Commission in the past years reflecting the type of issues faced by persons who, having become victims of crime or abuse of rights faced extraordinarily repressive conditions when they sought redress. The dysfunctional nature of the institution of justice and the problems of the mentalities of those who hold authority demonstrate the common problems that people who wish to assert their rights face particularly in the south Asian context. These five cases are from Sri Lanka and the AHRC has closely worked with the victims in their long struggle to seek justice.


“The laws of the country are too weak.”  This observation was not made by one of Sri Lanka’s uncounted victims of police abuse or official torture. Nor did a lawyer defending a victim in court articulate the thought. The remark belongs to a police officer who was, at the very moment he made it, in the act of torturing an ordinary citizen. Weak laws were the reason Angaline Roshana, who was twenty-five at the time, had to be assaulted in police custody and deprived of her legal rights. This was a police inspector’s reasoning on December 4, 2000, when Angaline was in police custody in the surburban town of Narahenpita, in the hub of central Colombo (zone 8). The law had to be broken to keep the law.

As it happened, in Angaline’s case the law did not prove to be too weak. She eventually won a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court and, much later, a High Court judgment against the officers charged with assaulting her. Her story, then, ends with justice being served. But it is a rare story, an exception in Sri Lanka that regrettably proves the rule.

Angaline was at home on the evening of December 3, 2000, when at around 7:30pm, a group of men in civilian clothes arrived in a private vehicle and forced her to accompany them to the police station. No reason was given. When Angaline’s family protested, questioning the identity of the men, one of them (a man who later turned out to be the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Narahenpita Police Station) threatened to break their teeth, and forced Angaline into the vehicle before speeding away.

The police station was not their immediate destination. Instead, Angaline was taken to the home of an affluent local woman for whom she had previously worked as a washerwoman. The woman had complained to the police that some jewelry had been stolen and had accused Angaline of the crime. Among the missing items was a watch, which the woman said was worth half a million rupees — about five thousand American dollars.

The woman accusing Angaline was a lawyer and appeared to be familiar with the police officers — perhaps by way of her legal work. While the woman, her family, and the police officers drank and socialized, Angaline was forced to search for the watch over a period of four to five hours.

Having denied any knowledge of the theft, and having failed to find the missing property, Angaline was then taken to the police station shortly after midnight. There she was detained overnight, severely tortured, and forced to sign a confession. Throughout the course of her detention, the police officers frequently threatened to hang her up and beat her; these threats were usually made when the Angaline’s former employer visited the police station.

Mr. Sanjeewa, a lawyer from the Human Rights Institute, and Dr. Nali Swaris visited Angeline while in detention, and demanded that Angaline’s legal rights be observed and that she be produced before the court without further delay. OIC Shelton Saley supposedly laughed sarcastically, and remarked; “the laws of the country are too weak. We are breaking the law to strengthen it.”

The act of taking a person into custody, without showing any police identification or wearing the police uniform, amounts to kidnapping. Moreover, Roshana was not informed about the reasons for her kidnapping or arrest. Furthermore, she was tortured to obtain a confession, and she is still being illegally detained.

Only on the following day, December 5th, did Angaline appear in the magistrate court. On the magistrate’s orders, the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) conducted an official medical examination of Angaline’s injuries. The JMO’s formal report identified seven contusions; the left shoulder, left upper arm (front and back), right shoulder, left and right buttocks, and upper left thigh. The report also indicates that Angaline’s injuries were two-four days old, and caused with a blunt object consistent with the assault. His report is dated 7th December 2000.

At the trial Roshana herself, and several other persons gave evidence. The police officer also gave evidence, accepting the arrest but denying that any torture had taken place. The trial was protracted and lasted for a period of almost six years. The High Court judge held that the charges were proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Having received legal assistance from the Asian Human Rights Commission from the time of her arrest onward, Angaline took her case to two courts. The Supreme Court ruled in June of 2002 that Saley, the OIC accused of her torture had violated Angaline’s fundamental rights by way of torture and illegal detention; compensation of 100,000 rupees was awarded.

In apparent retaliation, the police subsequently charged Angaline with theft in the magistrate’s court — a case that was dismissed for lack of any evidence. In July of 2007, the court found OIC Saley and police Constable, Stanley Tissera, guilty of committing a gross human rights violation against Angaline. It is believed to be only the third such conviction under the UN Convention against Torture (CAT) Act of 1994, to which Sri Lanka is a state party. The act calls for a mandatory sentence of seven years’ “rigorous imprisonment,” or hard labour. Both officers were so sentenced; an additional year was added for each officer in lieu of fines in the amount of ten thousand rupees.       

Angeline Roshana and those who supported her can count her long ordeal a victory. What is the truth at the core of this outcome?

Angaline triumphed, in effect, by subverting what must be recognized as the existing order. She did this by upholding the law, not by breaking it. So does her case lead us to the paradox at the heart of the Sri Lankan legal system — a paradox perfectly captured in the police inspector’s remark to Angalin’s family friend while she was in detention.

The paradox is very simply this: Those charged with enforcing the law in Sri Lanka are the very people who least respect it. Those who are supposed to uphold the law are the very people who often, and dangerously, break it. At the core of their reasoning is a distinction between law and order that is not valid.

The convictions Angaline won under the CAT Act are to be welcomed. But given the established record of the nation’s police and courts, three convictions under these laws over the period of thirteen years is simply not enough. The police inspector was wrong: Sri Lanka’s laws require strengthening, certainly, but as Angaline demonstrated, they are sufficient to deliver justice. It is their enforcement that is critically weak.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-267-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,