SRI LANKA: The nattami who fought against police brutality 

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We wish to share with you the following article from Sri Lanka Guardian.

Asian Human Rights Commission
Hong Kong

An article from Sri Lanka Guardian forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: The nattami who fought against police brutality

Ugly Things and Beautiful People — Part 1

Basil Fernando

(June 01, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian)

AHRC-STM-062-2010.jpgHe was an old man, surely over the age of 70. He wore a sarong and an old shirt. By looking at him one could tell that he was obviously a very strong person. He was tall and dark in complexion. One day he went to talk to two lawyers; both were much younger than he and physically lesser in stature and he had no particular reason to trust either of them. However, he had come in search of help and knew that he needed to talk to them. He had already tried with a few others and failed but could not afford to give up.

He repeated his story to two lawyers. It was about his 17-year-old grandson who had been arrested by the police for no apparent reason. Having learned of the arrest he went to the police station and found the boy lying unconscious on the floor of a holding cell. Thinking that the boy was dead he cried out in anguish; a cry that came from the depths of his soul. He then shouted out at the top of his voice, “You have killed my grandson”.

This story about torture is now well known. It has been recorded in the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and also the United Nations Human Rights Committee. It is one of the most well known incidents of police brutality to have been recorded in Sri Lanka and brought to public notice. It was the efforts of this old man that brought this story to the notice of the public. However, at the time the old man was speaking to the lawyers he did not know what to expect.

After narrating his story which the two lawyers recorded meticulously he said the following words: “Sir, these things happen to us because we are poor”. He said these words softly. He was moderate in his speech and seemed to be careful not to say anything other than what he really knew of. He was not given to exaggeration and seemed to fear saying anything that might be untrue. But in the old man’s face, in his eyes and in his voice, there was defiance. There was also anger and indignation. It was this anger; indignation and his demeanor that made this man such a beautiful character. He had in his soul the fire of love for his grandson. He was angry about the injustice that had been done. But in this instance he felt totally powerless.

For most of his life the old man had been a nattami; a nattami is a person who carries heavy loads on his back at the harbor from the ships to the Lorries. Their livelihoods depended on their physical strength. Their work went on, day in and day out for many years. Such was the life of Elaris Fernando.

“He was a man who spoke softly. But he was capable of showing his indignation and outrage. That was the beauty of this simple man. Justice failed him. The case of his grandson is still before court. These thing never end when the contest is between the powerless and the powerful. But the old man knew he was not the loser. He knew that if he had not stood up he would have been the loser.”

Once Elaris retired from his job he devoted his life to another skill that he developed from the early years of his life. That was the felling of trees. That again was a job that required a great deal of physical strength and also the capacity for balance and climbing. He had to climb a high tree and arrange its felling in such as manner as would ensure that it caused no damage to anything around it. Elaris was a master of his craft and that is why he never went a day without work.

Elaris was a quiet man. He had no property of his own on which to build a house. Many years ago a person in the area who knew him gave him a small piece of land so that he could build a house for himself in return for looking after the property of the owner. For years Elaris did his job faithfully and earned the respect of his neighbours.

The latter years of Elaris’ life were barely noticed by anybody. He lived with his wife and for many years he also looked after his grandson after his daughter’s husband left her. He raised the young boy and tried to send him to school. After he reached the fifth grade the boy had no desire to continue schooling. The boy accompanied his grandfather in his work and became as strong as the old man. He learned to climb high trees and worked efficiently.

Elaris was conservative in his political views. He did not talk politics with anybody but for a long time was a faithful voter for one particular party. He never sought favours from any of the leaders of the party although many of them were known to him. However, all of them knew that the old man was faithful in his voting and that they could count on his vote.

When Elaris faced this problem of the torture of his grandson he did approach some of these politicians for help. From the police station, after seeing the boy lying on the floor of the holding cell, he walked to the house of one of them. That particular politician was not at home so he walked some distance further to the house of another politician who was a Member of Parliament. It was this politician that telephoned the police station and made inquiries about what had happened to Elaris’ grandson. The police informed him that the boy had been taken to a nearby hospital. Other than asking for this favour Elaris sought no other assistance from anyone else.

Elaris then went to the hospital and again found his grandson in an unconscious state lying on a hospital stretcher. There was a policeman standing nearby and having seen Elaris the policeman shrewdly enquired as to whether he was the grandfather and whether they could hand over the grandson to him but Elaris was quick in his response; he said, “You have killed my son, now you can bury him”. (Elaris’ believed his grandson to be near death if not already dead. In fact, he was in a coma and not expected to live. He remained in a coma for two weeks). Elaris left the hospital and went to tell what he had seen to his daughter and others.

The matter was taken up by the lawyers and they filed a case in court. When the case received wide publicity a new chapter opened.

Now many persons approached Elaris seeking his favour on behalf of the Inspector of Police of the station where the torture had taken place. These persons included people from the political party he had supported all his life. They pleaded with Elaris to say that there had been a mistake and that he should try to settle this matter with the policeman. They also said that if he did not do so it could be dangerous for him, his grandson and his family. They received a reply that they would never have expected from this humble man from the village. He told them, “I have voted for your party all my life, and perhaps if there is another election it is quite likely that I will vote for you again, but about this, don’t come to talk to me. This is about my grandson and this is about a great injustice. On this I will not compromise. You can try to have my neck cut but even then you will not see me changing my mind”.

They were all surprised by the adamant stubbornness of this old man. Many tried these tricks but nobody succeeded. The police inspector in this case was Narin Attanayake. He was shrewd, successful and in charge of a police station. He also had the right connections with the politicians in the area and knew how to get things done.

This particular incident caused him a great deal of embarrassment. He was extremely angry with the sergeant who messed things up for him. Yet he never showed his anger or unhappiness. Now, faced by the adverse publicity brought about as a result of this case and the questions being asked in court it was his task to show his people that he was the master of the situation and that he was afraid of no one. He had to show that he could handle the matter smoothly.

He tried to send messengers to Elaris and was quite sure that an old man, an old villager like him would easily succumb at the end. He was surprised when these things did not happen but knew not to let his fears show and behaved confidently all the time. At the Magistrate’s Court the inspector behaved like a strong man. He did not care much about any of the lawyers in the court. He knew that many of them came to him for favours and knew how to manipulate the situation to his benefit. He had the least respect for the magistrate. He knew him to be an intelligent man who was also very rich. But he also knew that the magistrate was an ambitious man who had all kinds of secrete deals with the local politicians. He knew that the magistrate visited the local MP’s house with the view to get some kind of higher post in the government. He was trying to get the help of this politician but in return he had to do favours for the politician and resented doing this.

The policeman knew all this and he thought he would manipulate the situation to his advantage. At the court he brought a huge knife that he has obtained from somewhere, presented it before the court and said that his officers had beaten this young man up because he tried to stab them with this knife. That was the reason for the assault on the young man and the reasons as to how he came about his injuries.

At that time the inspector did not know that this case would last for many years and would receive national attention. He was unaware that it was going to be problem for a long time and would affect his career and a situation that he could not escape from either mentally or physically. But with the stubborn old man, supported by two lawyers and publicity that was to arise in this case, the police inspector was facing something unusual, something that he not forget for the rest of his life.

Elaris had to attend many courts to give evidence. On many days the case was postponed for no reason at all. It was a tedious job but the old man faithfully visited the courts whenever he was called upon to do so.

Finally the day came when he got into the witness box before the High Court of Negombo. Elaris had never participated in any public event and this was the first time he was to give evidence in a court. Highly paid lawyers of the defense were waiting to catch out this uneducated villager by all kinds of tricks. But Elaris stood in the witness box and gave his evidence firmly. He was very careful not to say anything except what he really knew to be true. He would not allow himself to be snared by tricks that the lawyers tried on him. He stuck to his story clearly and very faithfully relying only on his memory.

It was a beautiful day in court and even the High Court judge could not help but be impressed by an old man who was just narrating a story about a tragedy that happened to a 17-year-old boy, his grandson, as faithfully as he could. Elaris proved to be a witness par excellence. Eventually Elaris had to go through ten years pursuing this case, often having to help his grandson who escaped from the village and had to go to other places to live. This also meant that in his old age the old man lost the closest friend he had, his grandson who was not only a loving son but also a faithful worker who knew his job very well. But Elaris knew that something bigger was happening. He knew that the forces he was fighting against were very powerful and he feared for his grandson’s life and he helped in every possible way so that he could live far away and rebuild his life on his own. Meanwhile he managed things to the best of his ability at home.

Finally age caught up with Elaris; he suffered a stroke and was very ill for two years. Even then he was clear in his memory and in his mind. To the last he remained adamant, strong and never regretted the fact that he had taken a bold stand against the powerful in order to defend what he thought was his rights and the rights of his grandson. He had boldly put up a fight against injustice.

He was a man who spoke softly. But he was capable of showing his indignation and outrage. That was the beauty of this simple man. Justice failed him. The case of his grandson is still before court. These things never end when the contest is between the powerless and the powerful. But the old man knew he was not the loser. He knew that if he had not stood up he would have been the loser.

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Document Type : Forwarded Article
Document ID : AHRC-FAT-027-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Police violence,