SRI LANKA: Global alert on rapidly degenerating security situation in Sri Lanka

Unidentified assailants shot dead a High Court judge in Colombo on Friday, 12 November 2004. This is the first such instance in recent times, despite the fact that High Courts in Sri Lanka hear the most serious of crimes. The killing of this judge had been preceded by numerous death threats, including threatening telephone calls. The judge and his family had even made complaints about these incidents. However, even the limited security that had been afforded the judge was removed three days prior to his shooting. The judge’s wife has questioned the link between this removal of security and his being shot. While the police have announced several inquiries to be taking place regarding his murder, to-date no headway has been made and no arrests have taken place.

Lawyers in Sri Lanka are today (22 November 2004) boycotting the courts as a form of protest, even as desperation is slowly taking hold: any security system for judges, lawyers and complainants has broken down. At present, anyone can be a target of assassination and there is no possible legal redress that can be expected. At the highest levels of law enforcement there is fear for their own lives. No serious intervention is expected by anyone under these circumstances.

Yesterday, (November 21) torture victim Gerald Perera, who was expected to give evidence before a High Court on December 2 against seven police officers accused of torture, was shot while he was traveling to work. He is now in hospital in a very critical condition. In the weeks prior to the shooting, this torture victim had been under pressure to not testify in court against the accused police officers: the pressure took the form of threats as well as bribes. Perera refused to comply and his family believes that these police officers are responsible for the attempted assassination. He is in an extremely critical condition and it has been commented that his survival will be difficult.

The Sri Lankan government and members of other political groups have used the death of the High Court judge to stir up publicity for a ‘campaign against crime’. What this means in effect, is the license to kill any person perceived as a ‘criminal’. The campaign does not however, address the well known link between certain sections of the police and the underworld. The attempted assassination of Gerald Perera is an extreme example of how the underworld and the police collaborate. The judge’s death would also not have been possible if proper security arrangements had been carried out by the police.

Under these circumstances the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) warns that in the days to come many innocent persons, particularly human rights activists and those who have made complaints regarding the police may become targets of assassinations.  The concern and awareness of the international human rights community is essential in the coming days if the lives of many persons are to be saved.

The AHRC has consistently pointed out that the criminal investigation system in Sri Lanka has been in serious trouble for many reasons, such as the decades-old manipulation of the police by political interests and for political purposes to conduct illegal activities, such as the causing of large scale disappearances and torture. The result has been a breakdown of discipline, with considerable sections of the police being involved in lucrative collaboration with persons engaged in illegal activities. Concomitantly, the police department admits it lacks a sufficient number of qualified criminal investigators as well as basic equipment, including proper fingerprint and communication facilities.

In the absence of effective investigations, fear has spread deep into the lives of the civilian population as well as government agencies. Several individuals who have attempted to conduct thorough investigations have been attacked. A custom officer who was investigating customs offenses has been killed, while another customs officer survived a murder attempt. There was an attempt on the life of a senior officer of the Auditor General’s Department who was investigating into some serious fraud issues and there was an attempted rape on a High Court judge. All these indicate that state officers who are engaged in serious investigations are not provided with the protection the state owes such persons.

Without dealing with the serious breakdown of its function as protector, the state is merely engaging in a propaganda campaign against crime. For instance, following the murder of the High Court judge, the death sentence in Sri Lanka has been re-introduced.  However, what should actually precede the punishment for a crime is an investigation.  Without restoring the investigation system in the country, the death sentence will be imposed upon the poor and defenseless, mostly on the basis of fabricated charges. The likelihood of perpetrators of grave crimes being given the death penalty is remote under the current defective investigation mechanism and the widespread atmosphere of fear.  In the days to come the prevailing atmosphere of uncertainty is very much likely to be used against any and everyone as has happened in similar situations in the past. In the late eighties over 30,000 persons disappeared in Sri Lanka after being arrested.  Scrutiny into their deaths shows that many of these deaths were due to private grievances.

We urgently appeal to all persons concerned with the saving of lives, the rule of law and the democratic development of the country, to exert pressure on the political leadership of Sri Lanka to rationally respond to the present situation.  It is only strong pressure that can bring the present situation of enormous confusion and fear into some form of rationality and provide space for basic institutions of the rule of law to function. If the situation degenerates further it may reach a point of no return as has happened in some countries.  Serious intervention by all concerned groups must be taken to prevent unnecessary deaths and safeguard the rule of law in Sri Lanka.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-49-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,