by TISARANEE GUNASEKARA

SEYA SADEWMINI was barely five when she was raped and murdered on September 13th, 2015. The three-decade war has inured Lankan society to violence, but this brutal crime touched a raw nerve. Seya’s age, the fact that the murderer took her away while she was sleeping with her siblings inside her own house, sensationalist media coverage and emotional statements by politicians kept the story at boiling point, day after day.

The public was seething and after blood. As a lynch mob mentality grabbed hold of society, justice became equated with vengeance. There were shrill demands for the immediate activation of the death penalty. Some wanted ancient punitive methods to be restored. A parliamentarian even suggested castrating convicted rapists. In the resultant cacophony, rational voices were drowned out. Those who spoke about the importance of due process were accused of inconsideration towards the murdered child.

In this heated atmosphere, the police needed results, and fast. So they got them. They arrested a thirty-something man and a seventeen year old schoolboy. According to Sri Lankan law, the student was a minor, but his name, details and picture were flashed across the media. The police claimed that ‘phonographic material’ was found on the student’s laptop. This was taken as proof of his guilt.

Societal hysteria reached a fever pitch when a third suspect ‘confessed’, with the confession leaked and widely published by the media, in horrendous detail. The third suspect’s brother was also arrested and he too confessed. The demand for the immediate restoration of the death penalty reached new highs. By this time suspects had been tried and convicted by the media and the public, creating an enabling environment for police brutality.

The killer had left some physical evidence on his little victim. That DNA did not match with the DNA of any of the first three suspects. In the end, the matching DNA belonged to the fourth suspect. Incidentally, the fourth suspect was arrested not on suspicion of being the killer but for helping the real ‘killer’.

The first three suspects have been released by the courts. The Human Rights Commission is now investigating the manner in which the schoolboy-suspect was treated by the police. Not only was his identity revealed by the police to the entire world. His lawyers claim he was stripped naked, beaten, tortured physically and psychologically and threatened with a gun.

Had this incident happened one year ago, the plight of the three suspects would have been infinitely more horrendous. During the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, extra-judicial killing by the police became the norm. The police could and would arrest someone on suspicion. The suspect would then allegedly try to ‘escape’ when he is being taken to the court or to show the place where they hid weapons; they would try to take a gun from the police, attack the police or jump into a river and consequently be killed.

It was a brutal farce. Not only were suspects being treated as guilty, without even a trial let alone a conviction; even common or garden robbers were being punished with death. What the police were doing was an open secret. Yet only a few protested. The absolute majority of opinion makers, media and public had no problem with this method of dispensing ‘justice’. And the equation of suspect with criminal and justice with extra-judicial murder caught hold of society.

Addicted to Extra-Judicial Injustice

Had Seya being killed, one year ago, at least one of the first three suspects would have been murdered while they tried to ‘escape’. Once the police obtained a confession from the third suspect, they would have considered the case closed. The real killer would have got away scot-free.

Little wonder then that a crime wave, including child abuse/rape/murder, has gathered force during the last several years. The growing practice of arresting a suspect and killing him out of hand would have emboldened many an actual criminal. All they had to do was to stay out of the way of the police, until the police caught hold of someone and murdered him, while the public looked away with a collective wink and nudge.

The manner in which the police and society conducted themselves in Seya’s case sheds light on the degree to which due process has been subverted and justice corrupted in Sri Lanka. The second suspect in little Seya’s case was arrested reportedly because he got a haircut on the morning after the murder. The police regarded this as a suspicious act! If this is how ordinary suspects are treated, the plight of those suspected of the ‘unpatriotic’ crime of terrorism is easy to imagine.

Recently, the Colombo High Court acquitted Vasanthy Ragupathy Sharma of the charges against her. Ms. Sharma is Tamil and a mother of three. She was arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PYA) and had spent 15 years in jail for a crime she did not commit.

Yet Ms. Sharma is one of the more fortunate ones. At least she was charged. There are an unknown number of men and women (almost all of them Tamil) detained under the PTA, without charges. These suspects are considered terrorists just because they had been arrested under the PTA.

In October 2015, some of these detainees commenced a death-fast asking that they be charged or released. Under the former government of Mahinda Rajapaksa commandos would have been sent in, with many of the detainees murdered out of hand. Fortunately, the new government acted differently. Talks were commenced and the fast abandoned when the president gave an assurance of an early solution.

Already a segment of the polity and media are decrying that response as weak and warning the public that ‘terrorists’ are going to be released, en masse. Sadly, quite a few members of the public do seem to be responsive to such fear-mongering.

In ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’, Albert Camus warned that, “behind the most peaceful and familiar faces slumbers the impulse to torture and murder”. Sri Lankan society appears to have developed a liking for vicarious torture and murder. Most would not commit the actual deed, which is why the post of ‘executioner’ remains vacant, despite several attempts over the previous years to find a suitable candidate. But they would approve and even cheer, if torture and murder were committed by the state, in the name of justice.

In Sri Lanka today then, an irony reigns. The government is interested (at least partially) in restoring the due process and ending extra-judicial crimes by state agents, especially murder. Many, if not most, citizens are either indifferent or against such a positive change, seeing in it a weakness towards criminals and terrorists.