6 August, 2020

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A Book That Tells The Story Of Human Tragedy

By Eran Wickramaratne – 

Eran Wickramaratne MP

Basil Fernando’s well researched book documents state perpetrated torture reaching back to 1998 and tells a harrowing narrative of the willingness of state machinery to resort to the most egregious violations of personal security and dignity within remit of the criminal justice system. A large number of cases paint a gruesome picture of dismembered bodies, widespread sexual assault, forced starvation and a repeated denial of medical attention. Strikingly, although the documented cases are spread out over a duration of 15 years. Each story seems resoundingly familiar. Individuals are arrested on fictitious or flimsy charges and brutalized at the hand of the system. In the event that they make it out alive, accountability for the injustices committed are rarely forthcoming and challenges to police perpetrated abuse are often silenced either through unwarranted delays in the court system or the threat of further violence outside it.

Torture victims are almost entirely the poor and marginalized in society. The lack of education, wealth, or political connections makes the victim vulnerable. The victim’s ability to resist torture and fight back false charges are minimal, and makes them easy prey in an unjust system.

In effect, our criminal justice system is seen as failing its victims twice while protecting its perpetrators from being held guilty of violating all that is fundamental in our Constitution, leaving us with a traumatized society and shrinking spaces for democracy and deliberation to thrive. The right to be free from torture is fundamental and universal. The United Nations declaration, the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Sri Lanka’s own Act No. 22 of 1994 clearly recognizes the legal right of an individual to live in a secure environment as a free agent, free from torture. The right to be free from torture deserves our attention because its abrogation threatens to erode the very the fabric of our humanity. The fact that states engage in official torture cannot be doubted – we have heard numerous examples of state perpetrated torture in recent times (China, Nigeria, Pakistan etc.). However, it is important to stress that regardless of the circumstances, all states believe that it is wrong. All that engage in torture vehemently deny it. No state uses ‘sovereignty’ as a justification for the right to torture its own citizens.

It is perhaps unrealistic to assume that we can hope for a society completely free from individual police personnel committing acts of torture. Nevertheless, it is our duty to ensure that while the individual may fail the system. The system does not fail the individual.

As is demonstrated through the documentation of these cases, an unwillingness to implement a witness protection program; arbitrary arrests; disproportionate delays of complaints at court level; the distinct lack of power afforded to the National Human Rights Council to perform under its mandate, together with the ramifications of sweeping political patronage, leaves an already compromised system open for widespread abuse. Consequently, this results in a troubling narrative of (in)-justice that signals that official torture will be tolerated, and even encouraged. Indeed, it is a narrative that has, over time percolated beyond the walls of the prison complex, seeping deep into the mindset of Sri Lankan society at large. As such, since they represent the most visible pillar of the rule of law, the resort to widespread torture among the police force has contributed largely to the displacement of the law’s sanctity from the reality of the lives of ordinary people.

Reform then, lies in the ability to restore the public’s confidence in the law and its consequent ability to safeguard Sri Lankan citizens. A systemic change in how the police interact with individuals in custody, regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty, is likely to delineate and charter a new course for the progression of peace and justice in post-war Sri Lanka.

The narrative of justice told through stories of torture victims is not an academic story of a failing system. It is the story of a human tragedy unfolding in the daily lives of citizens in our country. Torture is a social evil. There cannot be any tolerance limit for its existence. We must embrace the idea of a world that is free of torture. Reading the narratives of victims causes both anger and sympathy. Basil Fernando’s analysis leads us to the absolute necessity for reforms.

We must delink the police from the military institutions. In Sri Lanka the cross cutting ties between the police and the military has resulted in the lines between internal order and external security becoming blurred. This leads to a situation where almost every instance of civil disobedience can be recast as an ‘external threat’ warranting disproportionate use of force. Re-civilize the police force. The recent military attack in Weliweriya on unarmed civilians who asked for clean drinking water could have been avoided if the distinction between policing and military combat was clearer. There must be a screening process of individual police officers on the basis of their ‘human rights record’ and dismissing those officers found to have committed acts of torture or inhuman/degrading treatment. A mere transfer for those found guilty indicates tolerance of wrong doing.

A more professional police force has to be better remunerated to resist the constant pressure to supplement poor incomes. Larger expenditures need to be made in training police personnel on the basis that they are protectors and promoters of the law and justice, as opposed to enforcers of security. Better training will have to be complemented with higher investments in technology and machinery to enhance the probability of prosecutions based on circumstantial evidence rather than confessions elicited by the use of torture.

My comment on the book will be incomplete if I do not comment on the author. I have met Basil Fernando only once. He certainly made an impression on me as a man with a mission. His life was consumed by his passion of fighting for the marginalized, the victims of injustice, and particularly those subject to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. His commitment to the task has certainly not made him wealthy but has deprived him of friends and relatives, since he has felt unwelcomed in the land of his birth – Sri Lanka. Our country is richer because of people like Basil Fernando, who are idealists pursuing a cause, rather than being paid hirelings working to the agendas of others. His philosophy, his ethics, and his lifestyle stand tall behind his new publication. I strongly recommend the book for those with an open mind in pursuit of an open society – a country where its government will fear its people rather than a people who will fear its government.

*Eran Wickramaratne is Member of Parliament, Sri Lanka

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Latest comments

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    Good points Eran!
    Indeed we need a country where the opposition leader will fear the people and resign after losing 27 elections!
    Sorry you too will need to go the – as Ranil’s stooge!

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    Chickens come home to roost!

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    Manfred Nowak,UN Rapporteur on Torture visited sri lanka in 2008 and reported that torture was widespread in sri lanka,especially in police stations and prisons.
    Since then,the situation has become worse.Killings of citizens held in custody by the state are common – various ‘excuses’ are advanced by the perpetraters.
    ‘Disappearances’ too have become common.
    The army has misappropriated ‘judicial powers’ by arresting students and others, after assaulting them – for protesting injustice & mourning ancesters – and “sentencing” them to a period of so-called ‘rehabilitation’ – a form of punishment not mentioned in the statue books.
    Recently,three students thus held were freed on orders of the president,to whom the parents appealed,on his visit to the north.
    The report on the Welikada Prison massacre is slowly being ‘buried’ – so is the Report on the Weliveriya shooting deaths.
    This book will be banned in sri lanka,especially as CHOGM is near.

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    Eran W. why don’t you start a new Political party to bring back racial,religious harmony.
    Bring back law and order; Media freedom; Anti-Corruption ; Economic upliftment; reduce the debt incurred by the current government.

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      Not a separate party , if you do that you will be marginalized because of your strong Christian background.

      Just stick around in the UNP and make a difference.

      Wigneswaran is showing us what can be done follow suit !

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    Mr Fernando should have gone back to the period before 1889 as most of the torture took place prior to 1998.
    May be Mr Fernando can write another book regarding the atrocities committed by the State before 1998.
    ..

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    Perhaps I’ve missed it but normal practice in book-reviews is to give not only the name of the author but the title of the book, the name of the publisher, the number of pages, cost, ISBN number and, if possible, where the book can be purchsed.

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      Mr Sarvan, that may well be the practice in other countries, but it seems to be disappearing here, when book reviews are carried in the local press, anyway. I know of at least 2 recent book reviews sent to the Sunday Times which carried all that data (except the ISBN), but the features editor saw fit to remove most of that information, inserting istead an absurd tiny box titled: BOOK FACTS, giving Author & Title only! It seems to be a new practice of the ST, thought up by some bright spark. In the case of many books published in Sri Lanka, the publisher’s name is essential in a book review as sometimes it is the only place tha book may be found!

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    Mr Wickremaratne has made a good review of a book by a tireless worker for human rights in Asia. He is a courageous man of honour. The question is what is to be done. The points he makes are fare but there is systemic failure in the country initiated by a group of power hungry leaders from the time of independence. They have progressively permitted the institutions that existed in the country to erode into anarchy. More serious solutions have to be attempted, the first of which would be to establish accountability for past misdeeds. This should include past and present heads of states who have used state machinery to ensure that power resides in them. Jayawardene, the great culprit, Sirimavo, who decimated several Sinhalese youth are no more. But, there are others. But, who is going to bell the cat? That will remain the question.

    With a pliant judiciary in the pocket of the president, with the police and the army enslaved with perks, with the international community in mute acceptance holding an important conference and shaking bloodied hands of a tyrant, the future for Sri Lanka from the point of view of human rights seems bleak.

    With CHOGM around the corner, we can see that the BBS and others held on the leash by the President are silent. We know now who holds the leash and when the dogs will be unleashed again.

    At the root of all this evil is the ethnic problem. If it is solved, the hatred that has led to the plight that affects all communities in Sri Lanka would be solved and a succession of ethnic entrepreneurs from Banardaranaike, Premadasa, Sirimavo, his daughter and MR will come to an end. Then, possibly, the institutions of democracy could be built up.

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    Who is going to tie the bell on the neck of the vultures Cat???.
    We the people or You?,the law makers representing people?.

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    Reading this timely review takes one to another in the same vein –
    community wise happenings in SL, as revealed in 43 pages here:

    http://tamilsforum.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/unspeakable_truth.pdf

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