By Basil Fernando –
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRC SL) marked the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture in a rather unusual and impressive way. It organized a demonstration with participants carrying placards that said, “Stop Torture”. The president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, was among the demonstrators. There were also other officials, including senior police officers, who wore armbands with the words “Stop Torture” on them. Schoolchildren were also among the participants.
Symbolically speaking, this demonstration is of great significance for many reasons. The struggle to eliminate torture in Sri Lanka was a protest movement started by a few civil society organisations about fifteen years ago. It was initially a small movement, but as time went by the demand for ending police torture in particular became widely discussed. A number of organisations collected the narratives of victims of torture and presented the narratives to all relevant authorities. These narratives were also sent to the relevant UN agencies and these agencies consistently intervened with the Sri Lankan government, emphasizing on the government’s obligation to stop torture. Now there is a large body of literature, available both on print media as well as on the internet, providing graphic details of torture taking place in almost all police stations in Sri Lanka.
With the mass pressure growing, HRC SL adopted a policy of zero tolerance for torture in around 2006. While the adoption of the policy was commendable, nothing practical was really done to achieve this goal. Dealing with police torture remains one of the most difficult tasks, not only for organisations like HRC SL, but also for the government itself. On many occasions, the government made many promises at the UN forums to bring torture to an end but they did almost nothing to achieve this.
The complaints of torture gradually grew as people were encouraged by the increased discussions on the elimination of torture. It was this improvement in the capacity of the victims to speak out that really made a difference in challenging one of the most entrenched practices of the state use of violence: the use of torture at police stations and other places. One of the results of the victims’ persistence in pursuing their complaints of torture was the prosecutions undertaken by the government against the perpetrators of torture. The records of these cases provide a vivid narrative of the manner in which torture is practiced and also the efforts undertaken to deny the practice of torture, not only by the perpetrators but also by the high-ranking police officers.
However, some police officers had to pay for their use of torture and one such case is that of the torture and subsequent assassination of Gerald Perera by a group of policemen attached to the Wattala police station. An Assistant Subinspector and one of his assistants was found guilty of killing Gerald Perera and were sentenced to death by the Negambo High Court. There are many other cases which have dragged on before the High Courts for many years.
Despite of all this, there was no significant reduction in the use of torture. At the demonstration mentioned above, it was stated that HRC SL has received over 400 complaints from victims of torture at various police stations in Sri Lanka. The National Police Commission has also received over a thousand complaints. The United Nations Rapporteur against Torture and Ill-Treatment, who visited Sri Lanka recently, stated in his preliminary report that torture is widely practiced at the police stations in Sri Lanka.
While it is a commendable gesture for the president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, to participate in this demonstration, and thereby publically showing his disapproval of the use of torture in criminal investigations, it also reveals a significant contradiction.
The President of Sri Lanka is the head of the state. The policemen working at police stations are directly under the control of the government. However, the police defy the government’s policy and instructions regarding the use of torture and ill-treatment. Under such circumstances, what would normally be expected of a government is to take firm actions against its own officers who refuse to carry out the government’s stated instructions. What a government is expected to do in such occasions is to ACT. What the Sri Lankan government has so far demonstrated is that it is either unwilling or incapable of acting to ensure that the officers who disobey its orders are punished.
The core of the issue of torture is the question as to why the government is unable to take effective action against those police officers and their superiors who refuse to obey the government’s order to stop the use of torture and ill-treatment. A closer study of the problem clearly demonstrates that the policing service is blatantly of the view that the use of torture and ill-treatment is an indispensable tool. Their argument seems to be that if the government wants us to stop the use of torture and ill-treatment then we don’t know of any other way to carry out our obligations in dealing with crimes. The government is aware of this strong resistance by the police to stop the use of torture and ill-treatment. The government is therefore afraid to enforce its own policy and instructions because there could be a conflict with its own law enforcement agency.
The police officers, for their part, express the view that they are not equipped with modern methods to deal with crime, such as scientific investigation capacities, as there has not been any attempt to modernize the police service in Sri Lanka. The improvement of education, skill-development, and also the availability of facilities, such as forensic laboratories and the like, are not made available to them. They also point out that, in the recent past, they had to obey orders of politicians who got them to do things which they were incapable of disobeying. In short, there is an accusation that the policing service has been corrupted by the misuse of it by politicians. There is a further complaint that, for the officers of the lower ranks below the office of the Officer-in-Charge of the police station, service conditions have been very poor, with rather low wages and stagnation at the same position without promotions for many long years. The high-ranking officers find that the mobilization of the lower ranks has become difficult because lower ranks suffer from an enormous sense of frustration, and therefore they could in various ways sabotage the functioning of the policing institution.
There certainly seems to be a crisis in the exercise of command responsibility within the policing system. The very fact that one Deputy Inspector General of Police has been sentenced to death for serious offences (for the death of the businessman Mohamed Siyam) and some others are facing serious charges before the courts shows that, among the very top ranks of the police, there is a crisis relating to their attitude to the law. One of the key officer ranks that could stop the use of torture and ill-treatment at police stations is the Assistant Superintendants of Police (ASPs).
There is an ASP in charge of every police station. According to the police orders and regulations, the supervision of police stations is directly under the charge of ASPs. Torture cannot take place at a police station without the approval of this practice by the relevant ASP. The admission that torture and ill-treatment are practiced widely means that these ASPs are failing to carry out their obligations. In a strategy to eliminate torture, it should be a primary goal to ensure that the ASPs carry out their obligations.
It is commendable for HRC SL to try to mobilize the support of the people towards the aim of eliminating torture. It is also good of the President of Sri Lanka to participate in that demonstration. However, both the HRC SL and the government must now face up to the task of ensuring that Sri Lanka’s premier law enforcement agency, the policing service, is made to obey the law of the land. The practice of torture is a violation of the Sri Lankan law, expressed in the CAT Act No 22 of 1994. Under this law, any government officer who is found guilty of committing the crime of torture should be punished with a prison term of not less than 7 years and a fine of Rs. 10,000. Anyone who disobeys the law should surely not be allowed to serve within the premier agency that is supposed to enforce the law. It is to be hoped that this demonstration will result in some practical soul-searching and a genuine effort to transform gestures into real actions and tangible change.