TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | JUNE 2012
VOLUME 01 NUMBER 02
by THRISHANTHA NANAYAKKARA
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” – Martin Luther King Jr., American civil rights activist, 1929-1968
Whenever I drive through Delkanda junction, the tireless work of the traffic police officer reminds me the value of law enforcement to productivity and peace in the society. Standing upright in the hot sun, showered with dust full of Lead molecules and inhaling toxic gases – these officers were regulating traffic and saving time for the nation’s workforce. The service the police
force delivers to the normal citizens of the country is invaluable and indispensable. It is for this very reason I wish to point out a specific area in which police training in Sri Lanka has been somewhat deficient and in so doing contribute to enhancing the good work these policemen do.
One summer evening in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I watched the documentary “No More Tears Sister” written and directed by Helene Klodawsky and aired on the PBS Point of View series in 2006. The group who had watched that documentary with me wanted to understand the subtle causes behind two armed uprisings that had devastated Sri Lanka. Although many
causes such as poverty, conflicting political ideologies, racism and widespread paranoia were presented as crucial factors, I was struck by a simple statement made by a living witness that was caught on footage. I do not remember the exact words, but the witness said, “Upon graduation from arms training, the LTTE gave me a cyanide capsule to be swallowed in the event of capture. They told me it was better to die than to live and be tortured.” It is likely that the LTTE would have benefitted from these suicides – organizational secrets would not be leaked to the Government during interrogation, for instance. Yet the LTTE leadership had concrete grounds upon which to convince its membership of the brutal and horrific treatment that met prisoners taken by the government.
The same witness talked about the LTTE cutting off medical supplies to a refugee camp. He said, “They (the LTTE) said that they needed at least five hundred more dead people to present a strong case to the international community”. Such was the civil war that innocent civilians and LTTE cadres themselves were pawns and victims in a game that had spun out of control. For the government and government affiliates (law enforcement agencies) to be complicit in such atrocities, despite their legal and moral duty to the protection and well-being of their citizens, is a great tragedy indeed.
Sri Lanka is not the only country wherein police resort to torture. In a highly publicized case in the United States, a person called 911 crying, “I have been beaten, I am bleeding…” (again, these are not the exact words). The officer on the other end of the line asked, “Where are you?”, to which the victim replied, “in police custody…”. The difference between this case from the United States and
the situation in Sri Lanka is that the incident was subsequently exposed in the media, circulated amongst the American citizens and subjected to intense public criticism. Importantly, prosecution and punitive action was taken against the offending officers for abusing the privilege and power given them as police authorities. The significance of such a negative feedback loop in a country’s judicial system is that it corrects the original malaise by emphasizing rule of law and the equality of all before the law. This has the effect of justifying and increasing the confidence of every citizen in the ability of the constitution and statutes to protect them and their rights and fundamental freedoms. Once such trust and confidence is betrayed and constructed systems proven inefficient or corrupt, the country devolves into lawlessness and rebellion, with each man thinking first and foremost for himself and disregarding all authority.
In a recent documentary sponsored by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a prominent Sri Lankan human rights advocate said that in all three major postcolonial uprisings in Sri Lanka, the rebel groups had managed to effectively channel public hatred and resentment towards a corrupt and oppressive police against the authorities. The documentary presented statements from recent victims of police torture and powerfully presented a argument wherein the state is pathetically counterproductive, even self-defeating, in inciting popular outrage through its cruel and oppressive acts against its people. It was clear that the desperation, frustration and anger the general public felt was closely linked to the methods employed by the police in enforcing the law.
While the occurrence of such custodial violence may not be distributed evenly throughout Sri Lanka, and while not all police officers are involved in such inhuman treatment of suspects and prisoners, the confronting reality that all victims of torture occupy lower and middle income groups and possess not political connections is cause for alarm. The obvious partiality of the police toward criminals with political connections negates the principles of rule of law and equality of all before the law. If anything, convicts who had been part of the government bureaucracy or were themselves law enforcement agents should be punished more severely because they had a legal obligation to protect the rights of others as well as a duty to be moral exemplars as leaders of a nation.
I may not be a legal expert or have experience in law enforcement. Yet as a concerned citizen who has the constitutional right to question and be protected by the law of the land, I am myself morally compelled to suggest the following possible remedies to the current culture of partiality and violent impunity:
1. Re-establish independent police commission – The annulment of the independent police commission under the 18th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution is a step in the wrong direction. An independent, government-endorsed, -directed and –funded commission is necessary to review the comprehensiveness of the country’s police training courses. All vestiges of colonial practices of law enforcement have to be done away with and fresh practices strengthening the notion of citizenship and rule of law should be conscientiously planned and actively implemented. The independent police commission should be accorded sufficient power and a well-defined legal mandate to ensure law enforcement practices become more transparent and accountable to the Central Government and to the public.
2. Increase emphasis on the use of forensic science and other more advanced methods of investigation in collaboration with local universities to replace crude and unscientific practice of torture, which yields unreliable results/evidence – The police should be allocated funds and given instructions to develop technologies and skillsets to improve the efficiency and accuracy of investigations and to present evidence when proving or disproving a case. This could be achieved through collaboration with local universities and through courses/seminars by foreign experts, with whom the police could
regularly consult on difficult cases. There has been a recent BBC radio-4 interview about the use of technology in investigations into a mass murder in Europe wherein the chemical analysis of the pollen found on the corpses revealed soil and weather conditions at the time and place of the murder. This subsequently supported the hypothesis that the murder had taken place in a different place from where the bodies had been found. It is paramount that in this rapidly progressing world where technology affords more accurate methods of determining the true culprits the Sri Lankan police stop their cruel, inhuman and simply inaccurate practice of torture to derive evidence for a conviction.
3. Mechanisms for witness protection should be improved – In the prevailing environment of fear and distrust between the government and the populace law enforcement agencies have themselves been emasculated. Political authorities openly threaten journalists, activists and other witnesses who could potentially expose their unlawful acts, making the police unable to credibly protect these important witnesses or begin to prosecute the powerful individual or group according to their mandate. According to Wikileaks, government ministers are suspected to be playing pivotal roles in the country’s drug trade. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution has made it increasingly unlikely that law enforcement can or will take credible action on these centres of political power. In as much as the average citizen lives in fear of torture when in the custody of the
police, the police themselves are fearful of a government founded entirely on the exercise of fear and impunity. The lack of judicial independence and the systemic victimisation of the agents entrusted with upholding law and justice is a serious failing in a system already precariously poised on other fundamental fault lines – rife poverty, racism, environmental degradation, physical displacement of people and conflicting political ideologies, all of which were exacerbated by the only recently concluded civil war. There is mounting public pressure for adequate mechanisms to be introduced for witness protection that will not only reduce and prevent future practice of torture but close criminal cases and restore the legitimacy and dignity of the police force.
4. The public should not join in the victimisation of the police by a corrupt political leadership – The public have a duty to empower their local police through regular and productive dialogue through various civil institutions and under the leadership of community leaders. The public should educate themselves about the challenges the police also face in discharging their duties and do their best to demonstrate support for and aid these efforts. In the absence of that popular social affirmation, the police may be more easily influenced and manipulated by corrupt politicians. Sometime during my childhood, a United National Party (UNP) representative of our constituency in Galle, who had been minister of a powerful portfolio at the time, gave me a taste of the extent of this unlawful and
morally reprehensible manipulation of law enforcement agents. I had been but a school boy at the time, and my father, being a strong supporter of the UNP, used to visit this minister’s residence often, and sometimes I went along. One night, a police officer was summoned, and I remember that minister reprimanding the officer in very strong language, warning him against arresting “innocent people” making a small living out of distilling liquor (Kasippu distiller), although this had been outlawed. I observed the frustration on the face of the police officer, yet he finally bowed to the pressure and promised not to arrest the locals again. Appalled and disgusted by such injustice, I asked my father when we were on our way home why they were not doing anything to correct the gracious minister, or why the minister had not passed a new law to legalise Kasippu distilling, for at least then the police officer would be aware of and could uphold that law. My father replied very simply that the practice of politicians intimidating the police was not a new practice, and that previous governments had done the same. In a video recently published on YouTube, Minister Wimal Weerawansa somehow manoeuvred the country’s Secretary of Defence into reprimanding a senior police officer for enforcing law to maintain order in a protest rally order by Minister Weerawansa himself. In other rallies, protestors were shot with live rounds. However, in a recent interview broadcast in an official state media channel, the Defence Secretary asserted that the police officers had been given clear instructions to
implement the law equitably, and that all blame should fall upon the police if there are discrepancies or if the police succumb to pressure from political actors to be partial in enforcing the law. Such partiality extends to practices of torture.
I was as a child and now as an adult, shocked, saddened and disappointed at the state of affairs in my country, where good people such as my father, and the police officer who had honourably discharged his duty to uphold the law, were silent in the face of such oppressive corruption and impunity in the government bureaucracy. Because I love my country and believe justice and peace are possible, I was and am determined to do my part in breaking this silence as the first of many small steps the nation can take toward institutional reform. I call upon my fellow patriots and all who are concerned about such shortcomings in the Sri Lankan government to join me in denouncing the disempowerment and manhandling of the police by a corrupt bureaucracy. To eradicate torture, restore the independence, impartiality and morale of law enforcement and shore up legitimacy for themselves, the Sri Lankan government must take the initiative to enact laws returning certain powers to police and guaranteeing their non- interference in the judicial process. Popular sentiment publicly expressed will help sway the hand of the government. While it may take time to unlearn the prevailing culture of impunity and to earn the trust of a community hardened by years of physical and institutional abuse, I invite you to speak out with me. In so doing, we dream together of a Sri Lanka free from the inhumanity and injustice.
Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara graduated with a first class honors degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, in 1996, MSc degree in Electrical Engineering in 1998 and the PhD degree in Systems Control and Robotics from Saga University in 2001. He has been a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, USA, Radcliffe Fellow, Harvard University, USA and a research affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, Senior lecturer in the faculty of engineering, University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. He has been awarded the outstanding researcher award of the University of Moratuwa in 2006. At present, he is a senior lecturer in the Center for Robotics Research, Division of Engineering, King’s College London. He has published one text book (Taylor and Francis group) and more than 50 peer reviewed research papers in international journals and conferences.