SRI LANKA: Foreign Minister’s condemnation of torture needs to be backed by action in Sri Lanka

“The Government of Sri Lanka, taking serious note of recent allegations regarding torture while in police custody, has introduced short and long-term preventive mechanisms to address the issue, in line with the recommendations of treaty bodies.  The Government of Sri Lanka condemns torture without any reservation.  The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has also adopted a zero tolerance policy on torture.  Under domestic legislation, torture is considered a serious crime, which carried a minimum mandatory sentence of seven years rigorous imprisonment.  The Government looks forward to having a constructive dialogue with the Committee Against Torture when Sri Lankas’ second periodic report is taken up consideration.”
An extract from the address of the Hon. Lakshman Kadirgama P.C., M.P.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka 
to the 61st Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The Sri Lankan government’s acknowledgement of the allegations of custodial torture in its statement to the UN condemning torture without any reservation, is effectively a declaration of the official policy against torture. However, such a declaration must be considered within the context in which it is applied. Is such a declaration achievable or realistic when it must be applied and adopted by Sri Lanka’s law enforcement agencies, the Attorney General’s Department and the judiciary?

Within law enforcement agencies there is an apparent problem of maintaining a dual policy in relation to torture.  On the one hand there are public statements condemning torture without reservation, while on the other, there is a strongly stated position that without torture it is not possible to conduct criminal investigations.  The government of Sri Lanka, which has often declared before international bodies the policy of condemning torture unreservedly, has not attempted to resolve this problem of dual policies that exist within law enforcement agencies.  The government has at no stage properly recognised the institutional practices relating to torture at police stations, nor has it given any specific guidelines regarding this to the police or other law enforcement agencies.  Thus, in the actual area of implementation the government continues to apply a policy that is the very much the opposite of the one that that is declared to the public.

As the Sri Lankan government takes serious note of recent allegations regarding torture, it should, within the shortest time possible, establish principles that must be applied at all police stations in order to avoid torture.  To do this the government needs to conduct a serious study into the current conduct of police stations. To assist in this, and to ensure that the study is done as promptly as possible, the government could rely on persons with experience within the policing establishment, from the many commissions which went into various types of investigations of police conduct relating to extra judicial killings, from custodial torture victims themselves and from the many concerned persons and groups that have expressed opinions on this issue.  To properly address the issue of custodial torture, and to find solutions to its eradication, the government must be willing to take the matter seriously and provide the necessary financial allocations for the purpose of achieving this.

Duality also exists in the approach taken by the Attorney General’s Department.  While there have been many serious allegations of torture made against persons holding the positions of ASP or OIC, the department has shown very little interest in prosecuting such officers. This is despite the fact that special units have investigated these allegations and have filed their reports to the AG’s department.  On the cases which have been filed, the department has not shown sufficient interest in the protection of witnesses nor guaranteed speedy trials.  While there are many cases that demonstrate this, the most glaring instance is that of the murder of Gerald Perera which happened only one week after the murder of Judge Ambepitiya.  Judge Ambepitiya’s case is already before the courts and the trial dates are also fixed.  In the case of Gerald Perera, however, not even the Non-Summary Proceedings at the Magistrate’s courts have yet begun.  One could predict, based on the practice of earlier cases, that it may take two to three years after the Magistrate’s Courts inquiry is complete for the indictment to be filed and a further three to four years before the case is heard.  During that time the witnesses will be exposed to harassment by the alleged perpetrators.  While the department argues that the delays are due to inadequate staffing numbers, it has simultaneously failed to try and raise the necessary resources to resolve this.

The issue of delays also concerns the courts.  There are cases at the Supreme Court that were filed some five years back yet have not been adjudicated up to now.  It is the duty of the summit court to hold their position of command by asserting themselves in order to deal with the issue of delays.  Occasional complaints regarding delays are insufficient to adequately address the root causes of the problem.  Strong positions taken by the judiciary are required if the issue of delays is to be dealt with properly. Achieving this would capture popular support among the people and would help to enhance the reputation and standing of the courts.

Thus, the Sri Lankan government’s declaration of a policy of “condemnation of torture without reservation” must accompany short and long term preventative mechanisms to address the underlying issues of custodial torture. This is the challenge for the Sri Lankan government and one that it must overcome if torture is to be eradicated.  Much of what can be achieved in this area will also depend on the Sri Lankan media.  It must be said that hardly any newspaper in the country has taken a firm view on the issue of torture and in fact, even editorial policies have the same aura of dualism as previously noted.  The policy of condemning torture without reservation has not yet become an accepted media policy in Sri Lanka.  This dualistic approach by the media makes it unable to have a decisive influence on government policy in this area.  In fact, the Foreign Minister’s statement should also be an occasion for the media to examine its own conscience in this matter.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges all the parties mentioned above and the Sri Lankan public to respond to the positive statement made by the Foreign Minister on behalf of the Sri Lankan government so that the declared policy can become a reality by next year when the government will make another statement before the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-33-2005
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Torture,