Brad Adams, Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.
Two students from northern Sri Lanka’s Jaffna University were shot by police near a checkpoint in the early hours of October 20, 2016. Both died from their wounds.
Initially, police denied the shooting, saying that Sundiraja Sulakshan and Nadarasa Gajan died in an accident. However, the autopsy found bullets lodged in their bodies. Sri Lankan authorities would still very likely have covered up the incident, the norm in police abuse cases, if it weren’t for the public outrage. Media, students, and politicians, especially in the predominantly ethnic Tamil north, refused to accept the official narrative, pointing out discrepancies. As a result of the outcry, the authorities suspended five police officers from service and placed them in custody, Human Rights Watch says.
On November 15, Sri Lanka is due to appear before the United Nations Committee Against Torture and is expected to make a case about its security sector reforms – something it agreed to take on after a 2015 UN Human Rights Council review. But this will be a difficult case to make, in large part because of police abuse.
In June 2014, Indika Jayesinha was shot dead by the police on the Colombo-Kandy road while on his motorbike. The police officer admitted to killing him, but remains on active duty. Sandun Malinga, 16, died from police torture in May 2014. His father said the skin on his son’s back had been ripped, revealing raw flesh underneath. Progress on the case has been slow and halting. In March 2015, a teenager was stopped near Delgoda while fixing his motorbike. Police took him into custody without any explanation and tortured him until, in his words, “I could feel my skin peeling.” He has been too afraid to leave his house since then, has missed school-leaving exams, and has no idea how to overcome his fear. He has been too scared to take any action against the officers.
The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka recently confirmed the existence of unofficial police torture centers and called for police to end these practices. In the few cases where action has been taken against the police, it is almost always because of public outcry or the intervention of an overstretched human rights commission.
If the Sri Lankan government really wants to reform its security sector, it will need to take on police abuse, which may only get worse under a proposed new counter-terrorism law that expands police powers. It shouldn’t be just public outrage – as with the deaths of Sulakshan and Gajan – that leads to police accountability. The government has to take the lead.
Police regularly torture, ill-treat criminal suspects in custody
Meanwhile, HRW says in a new report that Sri Lanka’s police forces regularly torture and ill-treat criminal suspects in custody. The authorities should create an independent oversight authority and adopt concrete steps to end police abuse that has had such corrosive effects across Sri Lankan society.
“The Sri Lankan police treat the use of torture as an ordinary way of obtaining confessions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The police regularly get away with using torture to falsely ‘resolve’ cases that really aren’t being resolved.”
The 59-page report, “‘We Live in Constant Fear’: Lack of Accountability for Police Abuse in Sri Lanka,” documents various torture methods used by the Sri Lankan police against criminal suspects, including severe beatings, electric shock, suspension from ropes in painful positions, and rubbing chili paste in the genitals and eyes. Victims of torture and their families may spend years seeking justice and redress with little hope of success.
Human Rights Watch conducted research in greater Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka in 2014 and 2015. Previous Human Rights Watch reports have focused on wartime abuses, including torture of minority Tamil civilians. This report documents how torture and police abuse are entrenched and devastating to the majority Sinhalese population as well.
Human Rights Watch’s findings are consistent with those of domestic human rights groups that have long worked on documenting torture in Sri Lanka’s police stations and jails.
For example, Gayan Rasanga died in police custody in 2011 after he was arrested on suspicion of theft. Rasanga’s mother said that when she went to the morgue, she saw her son’s body had “dark marks on his ankles. The soles of his feet looked like they had been burned. There were bruises on his hips, his nose was broken and bloody.”
“AJ,” who was arrested on suspicion of theft in March 2015, said that police beat him to force a confession: “Within a minute I could feel my skin peeling, breaking. I was screaming very loudly from the pain. He kept saying that he knew that this was the way to get me to tell the truth.”
The history of police procedural violations against criminal suspects has contributed to the use of torture despite promises of reform by successive Sri Lankan governments. Suspects frequently are not informed about the reasons for their arrest. Police sometimes fabricate charges to justify the initial arrest and subsequent abusive interrogation methods. Suspects often are not produced before a magistrate within 24 hours as required by Sri Lankan law. Family members usually are not informed of an arrest or allowed access to their detained relatives. Suspects may have little or no access to lawyers, and protection mechanisms such as examination by medical officers are haphazard or improperly implemented.
“One of the saddest things about these cases is that, although Sri Lanka has decent laws to protect against such abuse, these laws seem to be treated as mere suggestions and not as required police procedures,” Adams said. “Arbitrary arrest and other police mistreatment end up contributing to the use of torture. The police are meant to protect and uphold rights, not be the torchbearers of dismantling rights.”
Even in cases where victims or their families were able to file complaints before the courts and other mechanisms, there has been only a remote chance of justice and accountability. Victims can file complaints against police abuse with the local courts, but lawyers and rights activists say that there are significant barriers to securing justice through this process, particularly in rural areas where the police engage in intimidation and threats against victims. In addition to court fees, there are regular court appearances and attorney fees for each appearance, and it typically takes years before cases are heard properly, if at all. Lawyers and rights activists advocating on behalf of the victims told Human Rights Watch that the police are allowed a wide discretionary berth by their superiors, the attorney general’s department, and the courts.
Sri Lanka’s new government took office in early 2015 on a promise of a wide array of reforms. To curtail the practices documented, the Sri Lankan government, at a minimum, should implement the following reforms:
Issue clear, public directives that police torture and other forms of abuse will not be tolerated;
Establish an independent police oversight authority charged with investigating allegations of police abuse, the results of which would then be forwarded to the attorney general’s department for prosecution as appropriate. This authority should be housed entirely outside the police department, report to the Ministry of Justice, have all relevant authority to conduct investigations, including on its own authority, and be empowered to subpoena police, other witnesses, and police files;
Establish an independent office in the attorney general’s department tasked specifically with investigating and prosecuting cases of police abuse, including following up on referrals from the independent police oversight authority;
Amend police rules and manuals to be consistent with the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-
Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions; the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials; and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials;
Ensure magistrates fully comply with their obligations to ascertain whether a detainee produced in court has suffered torture or other ill-treatment, and to order legislatively mandated confidential medical examinations; and
Fully implement the Convention Against Torture in line with international obligations, and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture.
“The Sri Lankan police forces should immediately end the barbaric practice of torture, adhere to the rule of law, and act to earn the trust of the communities they serve,” Adams said. “That can only be achieved by taking strict measures against abuses, ensuring justice for the victims, and punishing the perpetrators – not simply by transferring them or suspending them, but through transparent and impartial prosecutions.”