Torture and the Sri Lankan justice system

By Dr. Nalin Swaris

Torture of detainees is endemic to the Sri Lankan ‘justice’ system. Police arrests, especially of the socially weak, are often arbitrary and done at the instigation of those who have political or financial ‘clout’ with the police. Torture is routinely practised as a method of criminal investigation. While many officers do excellent detective and investigation work, most resort to torture in order to extract a confession from a suspect - very often taken into custody based on a complaint by an influential person.

Foucault’s opinion

Once locked up, the security of a suspect’s life and limb is putty in the hands of the police. Foucault observes that in medieval times, torture was a judicial game between the judge who ordered the torture and the victim: "If the accused ‘held out’ and did not confess the magistrate had to drop the charges. The tortured man had won." Such a contest begins between the torturer and his victim in the secrecy of police torture chambers, the aim of the torture being to break the victim and to extract a confession. Since the torture is done in secret, a situation is created in which the caprice and the sadism of the torturer can be given full rein. It allows the torturer to unleash passions of intense hatred and sensual desire, held in abeyance by the constraints of society.

This is particularly so when the victim happens to be a female. The victim is often stripped naked, tied at the wrists, suspend by a rope from a beam and beaten by a gang of officers. Psychologists who have studied cases of females tortured by men have pointed out that perverse sexual pleasure is a powerful element in these acts of sadism.

The situation is so alarming in Sri Lanka, that an organisation called the Janasansadaya (Peoples Forum) was founded to expose the routine practice of torture by police officers. The breakdown of the justice system is such that the police can hold suspects in custody indefinitely and produce them before a magistrate when traces of torture are difficult to identify. The suspect can be further remanded or be released on bail. Cases keep getting postponed and hearings can go on for years. Neither the advocates appearing for the suspects or the judges seem to be concerned about the mental torture created by the permanent sense of insecurity and fear in which the suspect and his or her family have to live in. There is no national outrage against what the editorial of a leading daily newspaper called "the hell" to which people are condemned by the law’s delays (The Island, 30 January 2002).

Public awareness

To create public awareness of the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Police, a Lankan organisation called Janasansadaya (People’s Forum) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (Hong Kong) launched a campaign against the practice of torture on 4 February 2002—to coincide with the celebration of 54 years of independence from British Rule. The campaign was organised around the single question: "What does independence mean to the ordinary Sri Lankan, if the Sri Lankan state does not respect its citizens elementary right to life and the security of their lives and limbs?"

The campaign was accompanied by an exhibition that exposed the methods of torture used by the police and photographs of victims maimed or killed by law enforcement agencies and anti-state forces. The Day Against Torture attracted hundred of victims of torture and their families. Some of the participants were the relatives of victims who had died of torture in prison cells. They were given the opportunity to speak out their grief and to lament the cruel indifference of the justice system to their pleas for justice. The litany of crimes committed by the Sri Lankan police are too horrible to relate. In a recent case, a judge found the police guilty of committing atrocities against an innocent person. In his landmark judgement the judge asked with Juvenal: "Who will guard the guardians of the law?"

Atrocities by police

Three examples from scores of atrocities committed by the police will highlight how the crime of torture is routinely committed by the guardians of the law.

1. The first is the case of a boy of twelve years who was arrested on a charge of theft. He is supposed to have climbed down from the roof of a government cooperative stores and stolen some goods. The boy was severely beaten and tortured to extract a confession. The tragic fact is that this boy was born mentally retarded. He was not in a mental state to understand the charges or even answer the questions put to him. Despite pleadings by the father to have the boy released to his care the judge ordered that the boy be remanded in a house of probation, as he was a minor.

The officials of this home had the boy examined by a leading Colombo psychiatrist, who confirmed that the boy is mentally retarded and that he would not have been able to climb a roof and let himself down to commit the robbery. This certificate was produced in court, but it does not seem to have impressed the judge. The charges have not been dropped. The boy was handed over to his father’s care and he has to be produced in court every time the case is recalled. The family has to find the money to pay a lawyer every time the case is called. The law’s delay is a lucrative source of income for the lawyer. His captive clients slide into greater poverty and debt.

2. Police raided a house on a tip off that illicit liquor was stored there. No one was at home and the few meagre possessions of the occupants were smashed up. When the young woman of the house came home, the police pounced on her and demanded to know where her husband was. She said she could not say where he was, as he was casual labourer, who had no fixed place of work. Infuriated, the policeman started beating her up ruthlessly. She fell on her knees and begged the police not to beat her as she was three months pregnant. A policeman kicked her stomach and replied: "We do not care whether you have one or two little devils inside you, say where your husband is." She was dragged away to the police station and held as a hostage, till the husband gave himself up. The young woman’s mother rushed to the police station, when she heard that her daughter had been taken away. The young woman was bleeding profusely. The mother begged the police to allow her to take he daughter to the hospital. The young woman had to be treated for days before she recovered from her injuries. But she suffered a miscarriage.

3. The police raided a house at night, dragged away a young man who was asleep on his mat and locked him up. His parents were told that he had taken committed a robbery. When the family visited the young man the next morning, he told them that he had been mercilessly beaten the previous night and that he feared for his life. He begged them to get him released. The police said he had to be produced before the magistrate the next day and could be released only on the magistrate’s orders. The same night an uncle of the police sergeant who took the man away visited the house and told the parents that their son would be released for a ransom of fifteen thousand rupees.

They said they did not have the means to pay such a large sum of money. Early in the morning the next day the family was informed that the young man had committed suicide by hanging himself in the lavatory. A medical doctor had certified that the cause of death was strangulation by hanging. The family challenged this verdict and the magistrate ordered that the body be sent to Colombo for an autopsy. The body was covered with deadly wounds. When the corpse was cut open, the judicial medical officer was shocked to discover that the body had been tampered with. He found two hearts and two lungs inside the body. It is now known that a corpse of a man who had hung himself had been brought to the hospital the night the arrestee was killed. His lungs and heart had been stuffed into the young man’s corpse to confuse the Colombo judicial medical officer.