The Supreme Court on Thursday granted leave to proceed with petitions filed by 51 Jaffna Tamils who allege that the military and police assaulted them in the aftermath of the ‘grease yaka’ (devils) incidents in the peninsula last year.
The petitioners also say that their fundamental and language rights were violated by the police forcing them to sign statements in Sinhala, which they do not understand. The first respondent in this case is Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The others include the army commander, the security forces commander, Jaffna, the inspector general of police, commander of the 51 division, commander of the 512 brigade, and other army and police officials.
Significantly, it is the first time since the war ended that the SC gave leave to proceed to such a large number of people, all of whom are taking on the security establishment. The breadth of violations include torture, arbitrary arrest, detention and language rights which are areas covered in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The bench comprised Chief Justice Shirani A. Bandaranayake, Justices N.G. Amaratunga and K. Sripavan.
Rise in violence
The Naavanthurai cases (better known as the ‘grease yaka cases’) relate to incidents on August 22, 2011 when more than 100 persons from the said area were allegedly rounded up by the security forces. The cases were filed in September 2011. Interestingly, it took eight months for the Supreme Court to grant leave to proceed. They will now be taken up on November 15.
All of the petitions are similar in content. LAKBIMAnEWS obtained the one filed by Wilfred Appa Hildar, a driver who resides at Beach Road, Naavanthurai. He states that there was much concern over several incidents in the North, East and other parts of Sri Lanka involving ‘grease yakas.’ Maintaining that the military and police arrested many people in this regard, Hildar states that, “media reports of such incidents across Sri Lanka including Jaffna indicate a rise in violence including those by security forces and police.”
The petition describes how the ‘grease yaka’ phenomenon was denied by senior government officials, including Defence Secretary Rajapaksa. He is also quoted as saying at a meeting on August 23, 2011, that: “The Security Forces acted calmly and wisely to these situations. But do not play with them… We will give maximum punishment to those who cross the limits of law and take it into their hands.”
Hildar says he returned home after work around 6.45 pm on August 22, 2011. After having a bath and a change of clothes, he reportedly heard from neighbours about the ‘grease devil’ issue and walked to the top of Aseervatham Lane to see what was happening. He claims he did not go any further and that he was not involved in any other incidents relating to the ‘grease devil’ issue.
The petitioner then heard intermittent gunshots from 9 pm onwards. He went to bed around 10 pm. The additional magistrate of Jaffna after a visit to the scene on August 26 mentioned the presence of empty cartridges at the site.
According to the petition, around 1.45 am on August 23, between ten and 12 army personnel in uniform forced open Hildar’s gate, the outer door to his house and an inner door. Shouting loudly in Sinhala, they started assaulting him. “Since the petitioner understands spoken Sinhala he could understand that the army personnel were using language that was inappropriate and kept saying that all Tamils are trouble makers and that Tamils had to be taught a lesson,” the petition alleges.
Ignoring his attempts to explain that he was not involved in any of the incidents alleged to have taken place the evening before, “the army personnel started indiscriminately assaulting him using wooden and iron rods and rifle butts.” His sister was also kicked by one of them, the petition says, adding that he was continuously beaten for one hour. He lost consciousness twice.
The petitioner claims that he was then brought to the Navaanthurai Market Junction, further assaulted and packed into a crowded police jeep. He says there were five to six army personnel inside and a police driver was sitting in front with one or two other policemen. He maintains that he was beaten by the army even inside the jeep. He was brought to the Jaffna police headquarters around 3.15 am that day. He saw others getting out of jeeps and they were assaulted at the police station by police and army personnel with “iron rods, wooden rods, helmets and rifle butts.”
Different police officers then interviewed Hildar the whole morning. A police officer who spoke in Sinhala took a statement from him. “The petitioner states that a statement was recorded in Sinhalese and that he was asked to sign the statement,” papers filed before the Supreme Court say. “He was not provided with a translation of the document that he was asked to sign.” Fearful of further assaults, he did not question the contents or language of the statement.
According to the petition, he was not given medical treatment at the police station although his wounds were bleeding during questioning and while the statement was being recorded. Although he and the others were given rice, sambal and plain tea, he, like many others, could not consume these because of the pain.
JMO report submitted
Around 9.30 am, he and the others were taken to the Jaffna Magistrate’s Court. After proceedings he was admitted to hospital. The judicial medical officer examined him on August 24. The JMO report providing an account of Hildar’s injuries is annexed to the petition. There is also a media report providing photographs of seriously assaulted persons (including the petitioner) who were admitted to hospital.
The petitioner was remanded in hospital to obtain medical treatment and enlarged on bail on September 6. The papers filed in court state that the assault and his arrest constitute and infringement of his fundamental rights. They state also that the assault at his house, outside, on the way and at the police station amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The petitioner adds that he was detained by police for several hours without any reason being given, in violation of his fundamental rights.
The petitioner also complains of an infringement of his language rights: He was made to sign statements in Sinhala despite being a Tamil-speaking resident of Jaffna in the Northern Province. Article 22(1) of the Constitution says the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces shall be Tamil. Further, even in areas where Sinhala is used as the language of administration, a person transacting with the state or state institutions is entitled to communicate and transact business with any official in his official capacity in either Tamil or English.
Hildar’s petition observes that, given the circumstances, he believes no effective steps have been taken to ensure that a Tamil speaking person in areas where the language of administration is Sinhala can make statements at police stations in a language they are conversant in.
The petitioner seeks directions from court to ensure his security because he fears reprisals for having instituted proceedings in the Supreme Court. He claims that the respondents to the case are directly or indirectly responsible for the violations.
Hildar requests the Supreme Court to make an interim order directing the respondents to take immediate steps to ensure that Tamil speaking citizens do not have to sign statements at police stations or elsewhere in Sinhala–but are allowed to make these in Tamil or English (as elected by them).
The petition also requests court to declare that the actions complained of constitute a violation of fundamental rights and an infringement of language rights. It also requests court to direct the respondents to initiate independent investigations and take steps to prosecute all army and police officers involved in perpetrating violence against the petitioner and others.