Torture is a crime. And, this criminal activity, in all its cruel, inhuman, and degrading reality has been increasing in Sri Lanka. This is so, even after the end of the civil war between the State and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

There is evidence that various forms of torture existed in the history of the island nation. During the long periods of ‘Royal Absolute’, torture was a tactic used by the authorities to impose and maintain order. In fact, a whopping 32 types of torture methods were used categorically to punish suspects in front of the public. As one of our contributors has presented here, these torture methods included being trampled by an elephant and being impaled on a pointed iron pole. The prosecution process in the country was thus rather violent and primitive until 1815, when British colonialists introduced a law against the practice of torture.

In the last hundred years, many laws have been passed and many international conventions have been signed by the government on behalf of the State in acceptance of the prohibition of torture. But torture continues to be practiced widely in Sri Lanka, even today.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has documented more than a thousand cases of torture in Sri Lanka, and it has summarized over 400 police torture cases during the last couple of decades. Most police personnel in Sri Lanka remain ignorant of basic principles and ethics that they are expected to know, and required to practice, in implementing law and fulfilling duty. The consequence is merciless use of old torture practices in various new forms.

Most police stations in the country have become torture chambers. Here ‘suspects’ get severely tortured from time to time and deaths in custody are only occasionally reported. Many citizens of Sri Lanka have become victim to these ruthless practices. To our knowledge, such torture is not limited to police stations, but is entrenched in some prisons as well.

In the last week of May, 2012, the US State department issued its critical annual human rights report, which has highlighted existing methods of torture in Sri Lanka. “Former TID (Terrorism Investigation Division) detainees at Boosa Prison in Galle confirmed reports of torture methods used there. These included beatings, often with cricket bats, iron bars, or rubber hoses filled with sand; electric shock; suspending individuals by the wrists or feet in contorted positions; abrading knees across rough cement; burning with metal objects and cigarettes; genital abuse; blows to the ears; asphyxiation with plastic bags containing chili pepper mixed with gasoline; and near-drowning. Detainees reported broken bones and other serious injuries as a result of mistreatment,” stated the report.

There have also been frequent media reports over the last few years – about the widely practiced method of white-van abductions, which have given the public much cause for fear and anxiety. The feeling is termed ‘the white van syndrome.’ It has been reported from Sri Lanka that there are genuine concerns that it is the government that has been involved in some of the abductions.

The widow of one such abductee has revealed details of her experience, which confirm the prevalence of brutal torture in the country. The case, in summary, goes like this:

Mr. Mohamed Sali Mohamed Niyas, also known as “LokuSeeya”, was abducted in a Colombo suburb by an armed gang in a white van, and then taken to an unknown location in the Eastern province, where it is believed he was tortured, killed, and his body dumped into the sea. An apt question is how such an abduction can occur, considering that it involves taking a victim hundred kilometers away from the site of abduction and that the abducting gang would have had to go through at least 5 major security checkpoints. According to the postmortem, LokuSeeya was strangled and his throat slit. Injuries show that he was pounded and pummeled on the head and stabbed a number of times. He was also administered 3 injections of unknown chemicals. His body was found strapped with over 100 kg of weight and bound with barbed wire. That is not all. The body was further covered with polythene and bound some more with chicken fencing (similar to barbed wire). There also appeared to be something like an anchor attached to the body. In spite of all this weight, LokuSeeya’s body washed ashore at Akkaraipaththu. From here, it was flown back home for funeral proceedings.

A question: why is torture endemic to the country, even after passage of many laws and the acceptance of numerous conventions against torture? The answer might appear to be a complicated one. However, we must remember that the occurrence of torture is neither accidental nor invisible to the public. It is the result of a long systematic process of social control, which uses old tactics of the powerful and unaccountable, without respect for past or present.

Sri Lanka is unable to develop a system through which not only would torture be eliminated, but all forms of crimes would reduce, to reflect the kind of evolved civilization that we claim we are. The sad part is that these primitive practices of torture are being used as tools of social control. Even the electoral process has become cynical manipulation by those who appear to have absolute power; i.e. a site of hollow democracy where authentic dissent has little space to make its presence felt. It is perhaps naiveté on the part of the citizens that accept this space as one through which justice can be achieved and violence reduced. This acceptance has created tremendous stress and darkness in Sri Lankan society. What is being witnessed today in Sri Lanka is the collapse of basic institutions and citizens are forced to accept no-system as a system.

The incumbent regime has been using cultural emotions to gain more power while sidelining the laws. Cultural dominance is a good way of understanding people’s rights towards facilitating their own freedom. In the past, the royal absolute created huge distance between culture and the law. This was followed by a period that saw an overlap of cultural power with absolute power, resulting in isolation of the law. And, now, the gap between the highest practitioner of the law and the authority taken in the name of that law is itself the very foundation of dictatorship. To most citizens, the law was a stranger and did not directly cause any harm. But, those who have been allowed to abuse power in the name of law, have became the root cause of so many problems in our society.

Unlike most other countries, Sri Lanka has witnessed systematic and active elimination of dissent. This began occurring when a law, claimed to be of superior value, was introduced into society. This significant

and horrendous event began with the introduction of new constitution in 1978, which made the executive presidential system official. It is unfortunate that there were no statesmen at the time willing to abolish this unquestionable, unethical, and irresponsible system. Today, there are in fact many who are gaining more powers by tom-tomming the benefits of the same. And, even more harmful than this act of sheer political vandalism is the September
2010 amendment, i.e. the 18th amendment to the Constitution. It has damaged hope for political reform, essential to reconstruct any broken system.

We have been going wrong in the last few decades; many political proposals have reached the legal level with lots of loopholes that have only aided the escape of the real culprits. Destruction of policing did not happen through isolated incidents, but collective efforts of the absolute power for many years. We cannot blame police officers for their becoming tools of the custodians of power in order to earn their living. In other words, destruction of morality and of the genuine policing system is not the actual disease but only a symptom. The solution or the process to find a solution needs to start at the root. Without deep feeling for, and/or genuine commitment to high level of justice, claims of reform in state institutions are a farce.

What is visible before us today is only our own fallacious rhetoric:

“It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.”