Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
A fracas has arisen over a recent investigative news report (Associated Press) finding credible claims of Tamil torture victims that they had been raped and branded by Sri Lanka’s security and policing agencies.
Not something to be dismissed with a casual shrug
Let me be unequivocal on this point. Take the issue away from the hysteria of ‘international interventions’ and let us look at the cold, bare facts. The use of torture as an interrogation method in regard to ‘ordinary’ criminals or ‘terror’ suspects, (as well as those believed to be falling into each of these two categories), by law enforcement agencies is a fact.
That has been affirmed by none other than this country’s own Supreme Court following exhaustive legal inquiries into the facts of each case, case by horrifying case. In some instances, palpable mistakes committed by the police in ‘believing’ someone to be a criminal or a terror suspect due to simple cases of mistaken identity have been highlighted. In many of these cases, the victim had been beaten so severely as to cause death or life-long injuries.
So the matter of endemic torture as a part of the law enforcement machinery in Sri Lanka is not something that can be dismissed with a casually cynical shrug. It has torn apart communities and wreaked unimaginable grief on individual lives. None of these instances can be dismissed as the prejudiced outpourings of Western journalists or for that matter, extravagant claims by United Nations observers engaging in whistle-stop tours. As a lawyer who was directly involved in taking these cases to the Court at the time, I can vouch for that fact.
Eschewing propaganda on both sides
But on the other hand, assessing this problem only as a concern for victims of Tamil ethnicity is as equally subversive as dismissing the allegations on the basis that they have been fabricated by desperate asylum seekers. Certainly, this subversion of the debate does not help Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people on the frontlines of facing risks of torture as opposed to those comfortably ensconced in their corners of privilege, overseas or in Colombo.
So to drive home this point with force, state-inflicted and racially-motivated torture of Tamil victims is enabled by the general environment of brutalized law enforcement of which a Sinhala or Muslim man or woman is as much a victim. This is the reality though it may not comfortably fit into propaganda paradigms of protagonists in this stinging war of words. An inane and bland statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mouthing useless platitudes in response to the AP report did not help matters either.
Political hot air must be dispensed with. A serious and sober discussion of systemic reform must commence even at this late stage. The criminal justice system must be taken away from the iron grip of politicians. Left to itself and even with all its manifest shortcomings, it will work once the canker of political control is taken away. And the police service must be headed by a competent man or woman. The incumbent in the position of the IGP only demonstrates the singular ineffectiveness of the Constitutional Council-headed process on the appointments to these high offices as he is not, by any means, a fit and proper person to hold this post.
His public statement this week that ‘indecent police officers must resign’ ought to be addressed right back at himself with the caution that grabbing a lift operator by the collar because that unfortunate man did not attend meditation sessions as mandated by the IGP falls into the classic category of ‘indecent behaviour’ measured on any standard.
Deplorable truths in issue
Along with this, institutions that are meant to operate as a control on these excesses of the law must not only be staffed with independent and credible members but must have the necessary legal powers and the resources.
Reeling from the degradation of the Rajapaksa era, one might have expected 2015 to signal a sharper and more critical engagement. But fundamental failings in that regard did not stop Western embassies in Colombo investing heavily in useless exercises without actual change in state structures. The funding circus that went on from 2015 on security sector reform is one example. So the blame is not solely on the shoulders of the Sri Lankan political establishment.
And there are stronger truths to be acknowledged. Sri Lanka got itself into an unpleasant bind by promising to replace its Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a ‘modern’ counter-terror law. The problem however is that most of the ‘modern’ counter-terror laws in the West are scarcely good examples to go by. By opening that Pandora’s box with no regard for the consequences, it has been difficult to put all its miseries back in. As the former Minister of Justice Wijayadasa Rajapaksa protested in faux innocence over protests regarding a problematic draft Counter-Terror law that has now been withdrawn for further consideration, ‘we are only following the example set by the UK.’
And Western journalists who write on Sri Lanka’s accountability crisis may be advised to engage in more forceful investigative reporting into the blatant use of euphemistically named ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods as part of counter-terror strategies by their own Governments, specifically the US and the UK.
Extinguishing of life in the polity
In sum, dealing with the ‘torture mindset’ of law enforcement can only be through reform of the criminal justice system in this country. Other glamorous or even sensational options are short-lived. That logic holds true in other instances as well. The so-called Bond Scam Commission of Inquiry is a perfect example. For months we have been variously entertained and outraged by the disclosures before the Commission. The good justices who served on this Commission will no doubt deliver a competent report. But the question remains as to what action will be taken against implicated individuals where the law is concerned? Yet another Parliamentary sub-committee has issued a report on laws delays in the criminal justice system and we are told of a special court that will hear corruption cases.
But this systemic breakdown extends to virtually every area of functioning. We are now informed by a Cabinet Sub-Committee of Inquiry that the unprecedented fuel crisis recently was due to failure on the part of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation officials to maintain adequate stocks of petroleum. That revelation aside, there is nothing to prevent this same crisis re-occurring.
While one breathes, there is hope as the old promise goes. But the problem is that the vitality of the Sri Lankan polity is slowly being extinguished, but by painful bit.