SRI LANKA: Sri Lanka seeking to institutionalise torture in police stations and impunity for those who carry it out

There is much evidence that shows that in Sri Lanka, which already suffers from the endemic use of torture, the authorities are failing to take steps to eliminate this abhorrent practice, in line with the county’s obligations to its people and under international law. Instead, the authorities are taking measures that will facilitate the use of torture in police stations and that penalize any attempts by individuals or civil society to combat this phenomenon.

Complaining about torture can be a risky business

Sri Lanka already has a surplus of abuse. Torture is widespread and impunity is already enjoyed by its perpetrators. The recent case of Mr. Gerald Perera illustrates this all too clearly. Mr. Perera was tortured by policemen in 2002. In 2003 the Sri Lankan Supreme Court awarded him record damages for the treatment he sustained. On the eve of his testifying before the Negombo High Court in a criminal case against the afore-mentioned policemen – scheduled for December 2nd, 2004 – Mr. Perera was shot and died of his injuries three days later, on November 24th. To complain about torture in Sri Lanka can be deadly.

In other cases, victims that have complained about having been tortured have again been subjected to torture as punishment. In a separate case, a victim was reportedly forced to sign a suicide note as well as a statement in which he withdrew his complaint. The victim, S. Channa Prasanka Fernando, was then attacked and left for dead by his assailants. Further to this, NGOs that have been working to combat torture have also been confronted with increasing hostility from the police authorities.

Torture as an effective means of fighting crime?

Politicians in Sri Lanka have recently been making statements in favour of the use of torture, notably Member of Parliament Mr. Wijedasa Rajapakse, who has claimed that attempts to deter the practice of torture were harming efforts to combat crime. SLFP leader and former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake has attacked the National Police Commission for taking disciplinary action against police officers involved in perpetrating torture, supposedly because this may stop the police from functioning. Senior police officers, among them DIG Sirisena Herath, have complained about the fact that the protection against torture is hindering investigation into crimes and implying that police officers should be allowed to torture persons as a result.

Torture, by its very nature, does not produce credible information, as the victims will often admit to anything that is sought of them under such duress. More importantly, these arguments in favour of the use of torture run contrary to Sri Lanka’s commitments under international law. It is, of course, easier to come up with paltry excuses designed to cover up the failings of the State than to address these failings. It is easier to attempt to justify the use of torture than to eradicate it. However, AHRC recalls that the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which Sri Lanka acceded in 1994, states under Article 2. that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

A country that violates the international laws that it has voluntarily signed up to cannot be considered as an authority in combating crime: committing a crime in order to attempt to solve another crime is an illegal and ineffective strategy. 

The Inspector General of Police’s (IGP) internal circular

On September 27th, 2004, Sri Lanka’s IGP issued an internal circular (No. 1796/2004) which aims at restraining Human Rights Commission (HRC) officers from entering into police premises after having received complaints, in order to inspect them for the presence of torture victims,. The circular authorises a strategy to prevent such inspections, thus condoning torture and actively protecting the perpetrators of these acts. Inspecting officers are now obliged to inform the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) before entering police premises other than police detention facilities, such as police living quarters or barracks, giving time for the torture victims to be moved to avoid detection. This also means that HRC officers are powerless to intervene if they have not been able to contact the ASP, even if they are aware of ongoing acts of torture in such restricted premises. 

This circular therefore effectively allows for torture to be used in police premises other than police cells. However, the UN Convention Against Torture states under Article 2 that “an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture” and under Article 4 that “each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.” This circular must therefore be withdrawn immediately and full access to all police facilities must be granted without obstacle to investigating HRC officers.

How can Sri Lanka fight crime effectively?

The only way to fight crime effectively is to establish the rule of law. In Sri Lanka, the collapse of the rule of law has led to the widespread use of torture. To justify further torture is to move further away from the rule of law. This will only serve to alienate Sri Lanka from the international community and drive the country further into the lawlessness that the proponents of torture are claiming to oppose. The sad reality is that the police are operating in tandem with organized crime and that a working judicial system, based on the rule of law and the respect for human rights, would undermine the profitability of their criminal endeavours. The Sri Lankan people are therefore being held hostage by criminals in the name of the fight against crime.

The only way for this trend to be reversed is if the Sri Lankan authorities forgo these illegal practices, comply with the standards of humane treatment of the people of Sri Lanka, in full compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture. Furthermore, the perpetrators of torture must become the subjects of prompt, impartial and efficient investigations and be brought to trial. The victims of these abuses must be awarded adequate reparation. Only then will Sri Lanka be able to begin to re-establish the rule of law and to engage in an effective strategy for fighting crime. 

For more information concerning the best way to fight crime in Sri Lanka, please refer to AHRC’s statement on November 28th, entitled “Breaking the nexus between the Sri Lankan police and criminals.”

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-58-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Torture,