Comments on ‘Torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka?

Dr. Lyal S. Sunga, Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong

Almost every country, including Sri Lanka, recognizes that torture counts as one of the most pernicious violations of human dignity. Not only does the systematic and widespread use of torture traumatize the victim and his or her family, but it terrorizes the community as a whole and undermines the rule of law throughout the country.

Anyone concerned about human rights must welcome the release of the special report of the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) entitled ‘Torture by the Police in Sri Lanka’ as part of the Centre’s article 2 publication. The report details 22 recent case studies of torture perpetrated by the police in Sri Lanka, not in the context of the longstanding armed conflict that has raged there, but in the course of ‘regular’ business. Drawing on authoritative, publicly available sources, such as the reports of the Judicial Medical Officer, official Supreme Court applications, complaints, orders and judgements, and other judicial records and testimony, the ALRC report uncovers a shocking pattern of human rights abuse. Many of the cases involve severe abuse suffered at the hands of police, often in connection with petty or unwarranted accusations and property disputes, or seemingly without any reason at all. Once in detention, victims have suffered rape, severe beatings, and even murder. The pattern of abuse has come to the attention also of the British Broadcasting Corporation (Sinhala Service), the Geneva-based World Organization against Torture (OMCT), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among many other groups.

Various organs of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have also looked into the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, but mainly as regards the armed conflict (see Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Mr Bacre Waly Ndiaye submitted pursuant to Commission on Human Rights resolution 1997/61; UN Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/1998/68/Add.2 of 12 March 1998) and also E/CN.4/1998/38/Add.1; the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Mr Param Cumaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission resolution 1999/31 (E/CN.4/2000/61/Add.2 of 24 March 2000); the Report submitted by Ms Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders, pursuant to the Commission on Human Rights resolution 2000/61 (E/CN.4/2002/106 of 27 February 2002); the Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2000/49 (E/CN.4/2002/83/Add.1 of 28 January 2002); the Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (E/CN.4/2000/64 of 21 December 1999); and the Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on the visit to Sri Lanka by a member of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (25-29 October 1999) (E/CN.4/2000/64/Add.1 21 December 1999).

Now that peace seems to be at hand in Sri Lanka, the government must seize the opportunity to re-establish human rights and the rule of law, not only in former conflict zones, but throughout the country. The immediate challenge for the government is to show its seriousness actually to implement the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act, No. 22, it adopted in 1994, and to compensate victims for the immense suffering they have endured.

Perhaps most important, the ALRC report makes well-thought out and constructive recommendations to the government to eradicate torture in Sri Lanka in a feasible and sustained way. Now it is up to the government and all other responsible bodies and organs to seriously tackle the problem


Professor Michael C. Davis, Chinese University of Hong Kong

This report [‘Torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka’] is of great significance in the effort to close the gap between international commitments and action. Publicity is often the only instrument available to close this gap. But too often these kind of abuses are ignored when countries are off the front page of the international media. In this case we are talking not only about a gap between international standards and local practice but also a gap between local laws and local enforcement. This is precisely the kind of problem that Article 2 aims to address. In the absence of local and international enforcement, attention to this report is vital to progress in this important area.


Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum Asia), Bangkok

In response to the report on torture in Sri Lanka issued by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) calls on the Sri Lankan government to take action to stop the widespread use of torture by law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka.

The ALRC report, launched today, details case studies of torture committed by police during routine criminal investigations. Cases include:

• A pregnant woman who lost her child after being kicked repeatedly in the abdomen by police officers seeking to arrest her husband, who was not home.

• The case, which has received extensive media coverage, of a 10-year old and a 12-year-old who were tortured by police investigating a theft from a school canteen. The boys were hung upside-down and beaten on the soles of their feet, had sharp objects inserted under their fingernails, were beaten with clubs, had their hair pulled with pliers, and one had his testicles slammed in a drawer. The boys were admitted to hospital for several weeks and are still suffering from the psychological and physical effects of the torture.

• A man who was mistakenly arrested, without a warrant, in relation to a homicide case was blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back, hung from a beam and beaten with an iron bar for one hour before being laid on the floor and burnt with matches. The man remains in a critical condition in intensive care.

Forum-Asia welcomes the resumption of peace-talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and congratulates both sides on the success of recent talks held in Sattahip, Thailand. However, it notes that all cases of torture documented in the ALRC report are from police stations in non-conflict zones, indicating that the problem is independent of the internal armed conflict situation.

[With regards to the report,] Somchai Homlaor, Forum-Asia Secretary-General said, “The obvious disrespect for normal legal procedure on behalf of the police force and the culture of impunity which has allowed most perpetrators of torture to escape prosection is a serious threat to the rule of law in Sri Lanka.”

In 1994 Sri Lanka made torture by a state officer a serious offence punishable by not less than a seven-year jail sentence. However, to date, no-one has been charged under this legislation.

Forum-Asia urges the Sri Lankan government not to allow human rights violations such as torture to go unpunished, and to implement serious reforms of the police force and Attorney General’s Department in order to address the endemic and systemic use of torture by police in Sri Lanka.


World Organisation Against Torture, Geneva

The International Secretariat of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the world’s largest coalition of non-governmental organisations collaborating in the fight against torture, has the pleasure of announcing the release of a special report by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), entitled ‘Torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka’.

OMCT is gravely concerned by the practice of torture in Sri Lanka, which OMCT considers to be systematic as defined by the UN Committee Against Torture, and it is accompanied by near-total impunity for the perpetrators, despite the fact that Sri Lanka is a State Party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and has legislation at the national level designed, in theory, to make the act of torture illegal and punishable. OMCT also decries the lack of an effective and implemented mechanism that is able to ensure that adequate reparation is given to the victims and their families.

OMCT recalls that under Article 2.1 of the Convention Against Torture, “each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction”.

OMCT has denounced a number of cases of torture in Sri Lanka during 2002, with the information provided by ALRC’s sister-organisation, the Asian Human Rights Commission, a member of OMCT’s SOS-Torture network, and therefore welcomes and supports the release of this special report, containing as it does, both detailed case studies and important, highly relevant and far-reaching recommendations to a range of institutions and groups, which pave the way for much needed change to this very grave situation.

* These comments were received in response to the special report, ‘Torture committed by the police in Sri Lanka’, published in article 2, vol. 1, no. 4, August 2002.