(A file photo)
Women’s Action Network (WAN) welcomes yesterday’s (6th October 2015) precedent setting verdict of the Vishwamadu military rape case (case no 1569/12 ) delivered by the Jaffna High Court. We salute the courage of both victims, especially one of them who pursued the case in-spite of physical harm, intimidation, insults and harassment since she registered her complaint on 14 June 2010. Her tenacity in the midst of personal ordeal and structural obstacles placed against her and her family members while she pursued the case needs to be lauded, as it provides hope not only for many other women who have filed cases of sexual abuse against the military but also the scores of women who continue to suffer in silence. It also highlights the structural obstacles that are placed on women when are seeking justice even in a post war context.
Case Details: Women A and B faced several displacements due to the war and have suffered loss of family and property due to the brutal war that ended in 2009. Both women returned from Manik Farm (a Vavunia based mass IDP camp) in June 2010 to their land in Vishwamadu, Killinochchi once the land was ‘cleared’ for resettlement. The women and their children were clearing their land when four soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army visited the site. Realizing that the women were without male family members the military went back to the camp, came back the same night and assaulted the women and children, and subsequently went on to rape A and sexually abuse B. When victim A complained regarding the rape, she was asked by the police to first complain to the military. During her complaint to the military, Victim A was offered money to stay silent about the attack. Victim A refused the money and requested that the complaint be registered and investigated. She was then kept in military custody until the police arrived and accepted the official complaint. On 14 June 2010 at an identification parade held in Killinochchi magistrate court both victims identified the four military men as Corporal Danushka Priyalal Ratnayake, Pathinaratne Bandaranayeke Priyantha Kumara, Pandithagethera Shantha Subasinghe, Delgolelage Dunushka Pushpakumara belonging to the 572 Brigade. On 19th November 2010 the four accused military men were released on bail and the fourth soldier absconded and continued to evade arrest. He was therefore tried and sentenced in absentia.
Yesterday, in a hallmark judgment, the Jaffna High Court sentenced the soldiers each with 20 years Rigorous Imprisonment (RI), and ordered the payment of compensation of Rs. 500,000 and fine of Rs. 25,000 for the gang raped victim. In the case of failure to pay the compensation they will serve two more years of RI. Failure to pay the fine will result in an additional year of imprisonment. In the case of sexual assault, the court sentenced the 4 soldiers to a 5-years RI coupled with Rs. 100,000 as compensation and a fine of Rs. 10,000 each. In the event of failure to pay the compensation one more year of RI and an additional year of imprisonment will be imposed if they fail to pay the fine. The judge went on to state that each of the convicted will serve a sentence of 25 years and an additional 5 years if they fail to pay compensation to the victims.
At this point, we also want to highlight yet another case that is to date pending judgment irrespective of the fact former president Chandrika Kumaranatunge appointed a special commission to investigate it; the gang rape of two Tamil mothers on March 19, 2001 in Mannar.
It is not easy for ethnic minority women to stand up against armed men and demand justice but in this gang rape too women did come forward even at the risk of being killed. In the above mentioned Mannar rape case they identified three police officers and nine navy personnel as perpetrators. During the latter part of 2006, the case was taken up at the High Court, Anuradhapura. The Attorney General’s Department decided it would be counterproductive to take up the rape case, and amalgamated the two cases into one and tried it as a torture case. In 2008 the case hearing was stopped on a stay order by the Court of Appeal as one of the victim went missing. The other woman was forced to flee the country due to threats to her safety.
In the past WAN has handled several cases of this nature where women who were raped, tortured and have even been murdered by security personnel. Due to threats against their own personal safety and the safety of their family members, women have refused to file official complaints regarding such accounts of sexual violence and assault. The pressure tactics of the military has exacerbated delays in case proceedings and the harassment of victim women continue unabated thereby preventing the women from seeking justice through the Sri Lankan judicial system. The recently released Investigation On Sri Lanka (IOSL) report by High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al-hussein clearly set outs the structural and systemic manner in which the rape and sexual torture of men and women was conducted by the armed forces and police of Sri Lanka. The recent case in Killinochchi where a mother whose baby accidentally died was detained and sexually tortured by police officers, including the insertion of pole inside her vagina, highlights the systemic nature of sexual torture and violence.
There are many more women like the women in Vishwamadu and Mannar who suffer in silence and bear the scars of such brutal crimes while their violators enjoy amnesty and continue to commit such grave crimes against women. These crimes are not committed by the military alone but also by various government officers, politicians and people in power, reflecting the level of impunity that exists within State apparatuses. In such cases, the police often refuse to file a complaint, refuse to arrest or investigate and ensure that the case is prolonged. Hence, often justice for women is not only delayed and denied but remains blind and insensitive.
We are fully aware of the fact that sexual harassment and assault, torture, mutilation, rape and murder are not mere misfortunes of armed conflict, but strategies that have been used against women for the purposes of keeping minority communities subservient, spreading terror, destabilizing societies and most importantly entrenching patriarchal power. Sexual violence against women cannot end overnight and the government in its human rights action plan and upcoming policies must take progressive steps to create awareness within society while promoting women’s equality and justice for all.
The Sri Lankan government, the Police department and the Attorney Generals department must take immediate action to end the impunity against sexual violence, especially in cases where state officials are the alleged perpetrators.
WAN also wishes to highlight that we do not endorse the death penalty for this crime as has been articulated even by the head of the State. We strongly believe in the right to life and demand that the justice and law enforcement system work in an efficient manner and urge a process of gender sensitization be implemented. We also demand that the sentencing adhere to those set out in the Penal Code, that the Attorney Generals department ensure such cases are dealt within a gender sensitive structure and in a speedy manner. As a network of ethnic minority women who have lost loved ones due to the brutal war, we reiterate the value of life, even of perpetrators.
WAN notes with dismay the insensitive manner in which the media has reported on or dealt with cases of sexual violence against women; for example their reporting regarding the Vishwamadu rape case victim in the aftermath of this verdict. Often the media has refused to print cases that have implicated the Sri Lankan Military or State Actors and in instances where they have, the reporting remains gender insensitive. Rape and sexual violence remain a highly stigmatized form of violence and we ask the media to respect the privacy of the women who have undergone tremendous physical and mental torture and have fought courageously and received justice.
We also call upon the President to set up a special mechanism to ensure all reported cases of sexual torture and sexual violence are investigated swiftly and in gender sensitive manner. Further, we request the prosecution is expedited while an immediate revision in the penal code is undertaken to ensure victims of sexual violence perpetrated by State actors are provided compulsory compensation. Finally, we urge the government to make rape and sexual torture and violence non-bailable offences at least until the non summary proceedings conclude.
Women’s Action Network is a collective of 8 women’s organisations that are working in the north and the east.