A top United Nations official has called on the Sri Lankan government to repeal the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which allows for prolonged arbitrary detention without trial, and allows police investigators to use torture and ill-treatment as a routine method of work against suspects. The most brutal forms of torture used by police to interrogate suspects include; beatings with sticks or wires on the soles of the feet (falanga); suspension for hours while being handcuffed, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene and hanging of the person upside down; application of chili powder to face and eyes; and sexual violations including mutilation of the genital area and rubbing of chili paste or onions on the genital area.
In his preliminary observations and recommendations at the conclusion of his official visit to Sri Lanka on Saturday, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez said that if the government was to replace the PTA (if necessary) with any other legislation, then a robust and transparent national debate should take place that provides for full participation of civil society.
“We understand that the Government is contemplating statutes on National Security, surveillance and intelligence services. Under any circumstance, those pieces of legislation should include protections against arbitrary arrest, absolute prohibitions on torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, provisions for access to legal counsel from the moment of deprivation of liberty, strong judicial controls over law enforcement or security agencies, and protections for the privacy rights of citizens. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights while Countering Terrorism has produced very useful guidelines to incorporate in legislation of this sort,” Méndez said.
He also disclosed that torture is a common practice carried out in relation to regular criminal investigations in large majority by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police.” In cases where there is a real or perceived threat to national security there is a corresponding increase in acts of torture and ill-treatment during detention and interrogation in Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) facilities,” he said.
While highlighting that fewer torture cases are reported today in comparison to the conflict period with torture methods used at present at times being less severe, Méndez noted that the practice of interrogation under physical and mental coercion still exists and severe forms of torture, albeit probably in less frequent instances, continues to be used.
“Both old and new cases continue to be surrounded by total impunity. In addition, procedural norms that entrust the police with investigative powers over all criminal cases and, in the case of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, allow for prolonged arbitrary detention without trial, are still very much in place and open the door to – almost invite – police investigators to use torture and ill-treatment as a routine method of work. I received many testimonies from victims and detainees who took the risk to speak out, despite concerns either for their own safety or their families. I was able to conduct thorough interviews and forensic examinations in a few cases, with the assistance of a forensic expert that accompanied me during my mission,” he said.
He noted that the testimonies provided to him were truthful and many were substantiated with physical evidence that is conclusive of torture. “The forensic expert conducted a number of medical examinations that confirmed physical injuries consistent with the testimonies received,” Méndez said.
According to the UN official, the nature of the acts of torture consists mainly of transitory physical injuries caused by blunt instruments (essentially punches, slapping and, occasionally, blows with objects such as batons or cricket bats) which heal by themselves without medical treatment and leave no physical scars. He also said that there were also several accounts of brutal methods of torture, including beatings with sticks or wires on the soles of the feet (falanga); suspension for hours while being handcuffed, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene and hanging of the person upside down; application of chili powder to face and eyes; and sexual violations including mutilation of the genital area and rubbing of chili paste or onions on the genital area. “While these methods of torture were in some cases of short duration, in other cases torture occurred over a period of days or even weeks during interrogation,” he said.
Speaking on the lack of accountability regarding investigations into disappearances, he said that based on the estimates the UN team heard, the numbers ranged from 16,000 to 22,000 pending cases of missing persons from the time of the conflict and its immediate aftermath. “Disappearances need to be resolved. Experience shows that disappearances are almost always the occasion for torture of the most horrifying kind, and the prolongation of uncertainty about the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for their next of kin. That is why we hope to see an operative Office of Missing Persons soon that will conduct serious and profound investigations into each case,” he said.
According to Méndez , the Torture Act depends on the discretion of the Attorney-General to file charges under it. “Since 1994 there have been only five or six prosecutions, but not a single conviction yet under the Torture Act,” he said. (By Munza Mushtaq © Colombo Telegraph)
*Click here to read Preliminary observations and recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Mendez