SRI LANKA: Between the blinds: Torture and the human reed

Dr Nalin Swaris, ALRC Associate Member, Sri Lanka

The College of Anaesthesiologists of Sri Lanka and the Ethics Committee of the Sri Lanka Medical Association held a symposium on Ethical Issues in Critical Care on June 26, 2002 in Colombo. The symposium addressed some of the challenges and ethical dilemmas that today’s advanced medical technologies pose to the medical profession. I was invited towards the end of May, to read a paper on the philosophico-ethical aspects of critical care. Experts in the field spoke on the sophisticated technologies available today, in particular, of life support systems that can take over the functions of the heart, the lungs and kidneys of critically ill patients.

I was aware of the issues and the medico-ethical dilemmas of critical care, as this is a subject discussed by students of social work in the Netherlands, whom I taught for 17 years. To get more up to date information I called a couple of Roman Catholic priest friends to inquire if they had any recent literature on the subject. None had. But one of them told me: “If you want to get first hand experience of the new technologies, you could visit a patient lying in the Intensive Care Unit of Private Hospital ‘X’. He is now on a life support system after having been savagely beaten and tortured by the police in my area.”

I went to the hospital, introduced myself and was allowed a brief visit to see this victim of police torture. There were tubes in just about every orifice of his body. A ventilator kept his lungs working. He was fed nasally with liquids. He was given oxygen through a funnel attached to another tube. In the police station, his hands had been tied behind his back and he had been suspended by them from a roof beam, and beaten with rods for more than an hour. He had lost the use of both hands. The beatings had severely damaged his muscle tissue. Enzymes from the damaged tissue cells had flowed into the blood stream and clogged his kidneys, which were now only 10% functional. A dialysis machine was doing their work. Fluid was fillings his lung, making breathing impossible. They had to be drained regularly. A few days after he was admitted the victim became unconscious.

He was laid out on his side when I saw him, head turned to a side, eyes closed, unconscious-a vegetal adjunct to machines. The sight reminded me of those medieval paintings of the limp and twisted body of Jesus lying on the ground after having been brought down from the cross. Jesus is history’s most famous victim of torture. He was whipped, crowned with thorns and crucified to death. He was innocent.

The paper on medical ethics I was preparing ceased being an abstract disquisition. The patient-object is a 38-year-old person with dreams and hopes like you and me. He is a loving husband and father of two little children aged five and three. He had clocked in for work at the Colombo Dockyard using his bar code card at 12noon on June 2. Around 2:30pm that day, there had been a gangland killing in the village where he had grown up. He finished his shift and clocked out at 9am the next morning. This is known, as the arrivals and departures of Colombo Dockyard workers are computer registered. If the criminals in khaki had asked him where he was the previous afternoon, he had a watertight alibi: a bar code registration and the testimony of several workmates who did the shift with him. But most of these ‘investigators’ are unintelligent beef-heads who have their own methods.

Meanwhile, the police had received information that one of the murderers was a notorious hired killer called Jeyraj. When the police asked the brother of one of the murdered men, whether he knew a Jeyraj, the man had heard ‘Gerard’, the name of the torture victim, and said he knew the person as he grew up in the village but that he had married and moved to the Gampaha area. The police obtained his address and went in a civilian jeep, which was in police custody in relation to an earlier murder case. They took the suspect’s 32-year-old wife and three year old son hostage, locked them in the jeep and waited for him to come home, just as predatory beasts wait for their prey.

The morning after the goons in uniform had battered and wrecked an innocent man, the officer in charge of the station told him: “Samaavende kollo baduwa maattu (Sorry boy, we trapped the culprit). Your people are here. You can go home.” The victim was brought to an Ayurvedic hospital, because he complained of unbearable pain throughout his body. The doctor, shocked by his condition, said he must be admitted without delay to a hospital with good emergency care. The Colombo Dockyard provides up to Rs.50,000 medical coverage for their minor employees. So his workmates had him admitted to one of the best-equipped private hospitals in Colombo.

On Saturday June 29, 2002, the day of the Symposium on Critical Care, the torture victim was still on life support. The team of doctors, full of compassion and concern for the tragic waste of a life were doing their best to save the victim of police brutality. Today is July 9. The victim was taken off the life support system five days ago. Yesterday he was moved to a ward in the National Hospital. The dark and dreadful side of human nature produces tragedies like this. They sometimes also bring out its fine and noble side. Whether the hospital security guards, nurses, doctors in attendance, or specialists, each in their own way battled to protect and save a poor working class man, even though they knew his family would never be able to meet the medical costs. When the victim was moved to the National Hospital and the final tally was made, the costs had soared to above one million and two hundred thousand. The team of specialists waived their fees for more than a month of treatment. This brought the costs down by a couple of lakhs. A poor man was ‘wasted’ by agents of the state. In any decent nation the state would pay the medical bills. The victim’s lawyer has written to the President, the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, requesting such an act of decency. Appeals have also been made to the ambassadors of Western countries.

On the day of the symposium, I departed from my prepared script. I spoke of my confrontation with life-support systems and reflected on the irony of the day’s deliberations. Here we are, I said, discussing our moral scruples about a single patient whose life hangs on a wire. Are we not incongruities, I asked, in a moral wilderness? Our society has lost respect for the sanctity of life. We are living a frighteningly necrogenic and necrophilic culture, I said. Torture, sometimes unto death, is an integral part of our ‘system of justice’. Must the Attorney General’s Office wake up only when a crime of torture receives international notoriety and questions are asked? Sri Lanka has ratified the UN Convention Against Torture. Has any torturer been prosecuted and punished under Act 22 of 1994, which incorporated this Convention into Sri Lankan law? None has, so far as I am aware.

The Prophet Isaiah comforted his people with assurance of Yahweh’s immense compassion: “He shall not crush the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax”. Seeing the twisted frame of an innocent man on a life support system, I was reminded of this verse. We humans are like reeds – vulnerable, crushable and killable. Police torturers bruise and crush the fragile reed of life. Because of the fragility and preciousness of life, the Buddha urged humans to practise mutual self-care, “For in protecting oneself, one protects others and in protecting others, one protects oneself”. But what happens when the greatest threat to life and limb comes from the very custodians of the law? Our justice system is in a state of collapse. Class justice is endemic to it. It is cruel to the socially weak. The privileged have caviar and champagne in custody. The consciences of our politicians seem to be quickened or deadened depending on whether a victim of injustice happens to be ‘one of ours or one of theirs’. In such a social and political climate one must despairingly ask, with the ancient Roman philosopher Juvenal: “Who will guard the guardians of the law?”



In the above article Dr Nalin Swaris has made reference to the case of Gerard Perera. ALRC’s sister organization, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has made several interventions on this case, some of which are reproduced below. The following websites also contain further information on his case:

AHRC Urgent Appeals Programme [ ]
[Search for “Sri Lanka”]

World Organisation Against Torture [ ]
[Search for “Case LKA 170602”]



17 June 2002


SRI LANKA: A young man on life-support system after being tortured by eight police officers

Victim: Waragodamudalige Gerard Mervin Perera (39)

AHRC is alarmed by the torture of Waragodamudalige Gerard Mervin Perera, 39, father of two children, by eight police officers at the Wattala Police Station in Sri Lanka. The victim is presently on a life-support system in a hospital due to the injuries caused by the police.

Gerard Perera was arrested by officers of the Wattala Police Station at about 12:45pm on 3 June 2002, in the presence of his wife W P Padma Wickramaratne. Ten officers were present at the time of the arrest and none of them wore police uniforms. Then Gerard Perera was taken into the Wattala Police Station and was brutally assaulted by the officers attached to this station, namely, Sena Suraweera, the Officer In Charge (OIC) of the police station; Sub Inspector (SI) Kosala Navaratne, OIC Crimes; SI Suresh Gunaratne; SI Weerasinghe; SI Renuka; Police Constable (PC) Nalin Jayasinghe; PC Perera and another police personnel.

Gerard Perera’s hands were tied behind his back, his eyes were blindfolded and he was hung from a beam and brutally tortured for about one hour. He was questioned about a murder case of which he knew nothing. He was kept at the police station on the night of 3 June 2002 and was later told that it was due to some misinformation that he was arrested. On the morning of 4 June 2002 Ranjit Perera, brother of Gerard Perera, along with the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the Pradhesiya Sabha (Provincial Council), visited the police station and inquired about Gerard Perera from the OIC of the police station, who said that he had been taken to custody due to false information.

Gerard Perera was released from the police station on the morning of 4 June 2002. As he was complaining of severe pains he was taken to Yakkala Wickramarachchi Ayurvedic Hospital. The doctor who examined him advised that he should be taken to a good hospital as he was in serious condition. Gerard Perera was then taken to Navaloka Hospital in Colombo and has been there until now. While in the hospital Gerard Perera made a statement to an officer from Grandpass Police Station, Colombo, about the way he came to have the injuries. While all efforts have been made to save Gerard Perera’s life, the situation turned worse by 15 June 2002 and the doctors have advised the family that the situation is very critical and that he may not survive.

Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission said,

The government of Sri Lanka must guarantee that all medical care is supplied to this torture victim. It is quite likely that the life support system may be removed, as the cost of it is very high. As this is a disaster brought about by the state agents it is necessary for the state to take the responsibility for all the costs and do whatever it can to save the life of this unfortunate victim. Meanwhile it is also essential to immediately arrest all the perpetrators (eight police officers) of this crime. This crime falls under Act No.22 of 1994, which prescribes a mandatory seven-year imprisonment for torture by any state officer and if the victim does not survive, the crime will be one of murder.

Asian Human Rights Commission – AHRC

17 June 2002, Hong Kong



Update on Urgent Appeal 21 June 2002

UP-44-2002 (RE: UA/18 and 19/2002 – Torture by police, impunity, denial of proper rehabilitation


Gerard Perera continues to be on a life-support system The police, when asked by the BBC Sinhala Service, said that they used only minimum force on him. Meanwhile, the residents of the area where he used to live organised a protest from 4pm to 8pm yesterday. About 500 people participated in the protest meeting and the demonstrations. The BBC Sinhala service quoted an organiser of the demonstration who said that complaints have been made to the Prime Minister, Inspector General of Police, Chief Justice, and opposition party leaders, but no action has been taken yet. A fundamental rights violation application has been filed on his behalf with the assistance of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Pressure is being brought by some officers to have their names removed from this application.