Still waiting for justice in Sri Lanka
Several Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons (COIs) had been appointed by successiveÂ governmentsÂ since 1990.Â Of these, the writer had been the Secretary to what is known as the Central Zone Commission and the All Island Commission appointed in 1994 and 1998, respectively. Militancy of Sinhala youth in the South and the Tamil youth in the North resultedÂ in whatÂ the NGOs estimate to be the disappearance of nearly 60,000 youth from variousÂ parts of Sri Lanka. However the Commissions appointed in 1994 received only 27,526 complaints.Â Of theseÂ 10,136Â complaintsÂ were inquired into by the All Island Commission appointed in 1998.Â The following comments and observations are made as a corollary to the book that is being launched today. It is hoped thatÂ the readers wouldÂ get a clearer picture of the task of the COIsÂ and what followed after their reports were submitted to the President.
The Mandates of theseÂ Commissions
It needs to be noted that the Mandates of the three Zonal Commissions authorized the COIs to inquire only into incidents of disappearances that occurredÂ after 1st January, 1988. This resulted in a large number of disappearances that occurred during the period before that date being excluded from being inquired into by these COIs.
At the time the COIs were appointed. Jaffna was under the control of the LTTE and the people of thatÂ area had no electricity or access to information. They were not able to travel freely to the South.Â So many of the victims of disappearances in the North at that time did not even know there was a COI appointed to inquire into such incidents.Â Consequently, the North East Zonal COI, which incidentally never had a sitting in Jaffna, received very few complaints from the Jaffna District.
In the conduct of their inquiries the COIs are exempted from the requirement to comply with the provisions of the Evidence Ordinance so they were able to come to a finding on a balance of probabilities based on the evidence ofÂ complainant and other witnesses, Â and on an examination of the relevant information books and records at the police stations. The COIs had to, inter alia, come to aÂ finding on whether credible material indicative of the person or persons responsible,Â was available.
The COIs were also expected toÂ report on the whereaboutsÂ of the persons alleged to have disappeared.Â This could not be done satisfactorily as they had no access to the several unauthorized detention centres about which the COIs became aware during course of the inquiries.
When the COIs had concluded their inquiries and were in the process of writing their reports, the Secretary to theÂ President summoned the Chairmen and Secretaries of the COIs and informed them that any compensation contemplated should not be a burden to the finances of the country. Â TheyÂ wereÂ directed to fall in line with the provisions of a circular issued in 1987 with regard to compensation to victims of the riots that took place during that year.Â This circular had specified a scale of compensationÂ ranging from Rs.15,000 to a student who had been killed or disappeared to Rs.500,000 to a politician who had been killed or disappeared. The COIs had no option in this matter and had to complyÂ with the directive and they have added a note in their ReportsÂ indicating their disapprovalÂ with the grading of the disappeared persons and theÂ amountsÂ to be paid as compensation.
Procedure of recording evidence
In view of the large number of complaints that had been received by the COIs, the evidence of the complainants and the witnesses were led only up to the point where credible material indicative of the person responsible came to light.Â During the trials where the court cases had been filed, the prosecution had not appraised theÂ courts of this fact. ConsequentlyÂ theÂ defense counsel were able to take advantage of this deficiency and plead thatÂ the details of the incident as given by theÂ witness during the trial,Â wereÂ fabrications.
The key recommendation with regard to the legal actionÂ to be taken against the alleged perpetrators was that ‘an independent public prosecutor should be appointed’ to prosecute in cases of disappearances. In making this recommendation the COIsÂ impliedÂ that the Attorney General may not be able to play a neutral role in these cases. YetÂ theseÂ cases were handled by the lawyers in the Missing Persons Unit of the Attorney General’s Department. They perused the evidence andÂ passed on the files for further investigations by the Disappearances Investigation Unit of the Criminal Investigation Department which had been set up for this purpose.Â The latterÂ consisted of police officers. The brotherly feeling they had with the perpetrators,Â some of whom had been their colleagues , superiors or subordinate officers, stood in the way ofÂ effective investigations being carried out in all earnest.
Among the perpetrators against whom the COIsÂ found credible material indicative of their responsibility for the disappearances Â are, the names of several leadingÂ politicians, high ranking officers in the police and security forces many of whom are still in service in higher positions. The victims of the disappeared who gave evidence of their involvement in the incidents concerned,Â areÂ helpless spectators of these persons who are nowÂ in high positions despite their misdoings.
The President called for a specialÂ report from the Central Zone COIÂ on the killingÂ of aÂ candidate contesting a leading politicianÂ on the request by the influential wife of the deceased.Â In compliance with this request, the Commission did a thorough investigation andÂ submitted a special report. TheÂ passports of the security officers of this politician who were complicit in the killing, were impounded.Â Yet no action was taken against this politician despite there being enough evidence of his involvement in the killing.Â Subsequently the wife of the deceased, who had complained to the COI and caused a special report to be submitted, was made a Minister following whichÂ theÂ Special Report was swept under the carpet.
The COIs drew the attention of the government to the information on the existence of Â about ten mass graves and several torture chambers in various parts of the country. It was recommended that these be investigated into, yet, successive Â governmentsÂ did not take any action with regard to this recommendation even though the location of these places and the names of the persons whoÂ were responsible for them were made available in the Â statements of the relevant witnesses who gave evidence before the COIs.
Interim Report VII of the Central Zone COI refers to an officer in charge of a police station in the North Western ProvinceÂ who was alleged to haveÂ threatenedÂ a complainant and his family for having given evidence against him before the COI. ThisÂ matter wasÂ brought to the notice of the President with a recommendation that this officer be interdicted forthwith and disciplinary action taken against him. Â But this recommendationÂ was ignored. Subsequently this police officer was promoted to the level of an Assistant Superintendent of Police, despite this case andÂ his involvement in several disappearances in the area where he served.
No disciplinary action against errant police officers
Though it was recommended that disciplinary action should be taken against all police officers who were found by the Commissions to have violated departmental rules and procedures, no such action had been taken against any of them.Â Â Given belowÂ are some instances of such violations found by the COIs -
- In spite of a circular by the IGP directing that all Information Books relating Â to the period of the COIs Â should be preserved until the COIs had completed their task, it was found that many OIC’s had destroyed these books.
- Where complains of disappearances had been accepted by the police,Â such complaints had been recorded inÂ the Minor Offences Register. This indicates that whoever recorded such aÂ complaint considered the disappearance of a person to be a ‘minor offence’. Yet no action has beenÂ taken against the officers concerned for this serious lapse.
- There were instances where the list of detainees at a police station on a given day, did not contain theÂ Â names of some individuals who had in fact been detained as was evident from such names appearing inÂ Diet Register for that particular day which was maintained by another officer.Â This non-entering of the name of the persons in the detainees register is indicative of the intention of the OIC of that station. Many such persons had disappeared. Yet no action had been taken against such police officers.
- There had been evidence of female complainants having been raped by police officers either at the police Â station when they came to make complaints or at other placesÂ duringÂ search operations. No action had been takenÂ againstÂ any such officer even though evidence of such instances had been recorded.
The copies of the Reports of the COIsÂ that wereÂ printed and made public by the Presidential SecretariatÂ do not contain all the contents of the reports that were handed to the President.Â While sectionsÂ of the Reports had been omitted in some reports,Â parts of the reports in others had been completely left out. TherebyÂ some important information whichÂ the original reports contained had not been made public.
The mandate of theÂ All Island Commission on Disappearances was identical to those of the Zonal CommissionsÂ except that it was authorized only to inquire into the 10136Â complaints that had been received by the Zonal Commissions and left un-inquired. In other wordsÂ it was precluded from inquiring intoÂ any new complaints.Â Yet Â whileÂ the Commission was functioning itÂ receivedÂ 12,000 new complaints of disappearances which it was not authorized to inquire into. These complaints have been listed andÂ included in the Report of the COI with a recommendation that the President should take action to inquire intoÂ them at a future date.
At the time theÂ All Island Commission was appointed in 1998 Â Jaffna had been regained from the LTTE and had come under government control.Â About 600Â of the new complaints received by this Commission wereÂ in respect ofÂ disappearances from the Jaffna District which occurred following the takeover of Jaffna by the government. The Citizens Committee of Batticaloa handed a list of 7000 disappearances with a note that these were not filed before the COIs appointed in 1994 as the persons who were alleged to be responsible for the incidentsÂ wereÂ still in service at the respective stations in the East. So the complainants were afraid to complain against them at that time.
Of the 600 alleged to have disappeared from Jaffna, 341 complaintsÂ had been filed at theÂ National Human Rights Commission. This CommissionÂ appointed a CommitteeÂ to which itÂ delegated itsÂ powersÂ to inquire into these 341 complaints. The Report of this Committee states that Â in an overwhelming number ofÂ those casesÂ there was clear evidence that the army in Jaffna had taken the persons concerned into custody and that there is no evidence whatsoever as to what happened to them thereafter.
The National Human Rights Commission launched on a project to process the 12,000 complaintsÂ left un-inquired by the All Island Commission and to compile a computerized data base of all theÂ informationÂ on the disappearances that had been inquired into up to that dateÂ by the COIs.Â Unfortunately, this project was aborted with the change of government and the new set of members taking over the Human Rights Commission by-passingÂ the provisions of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
As stated earlier in this document,Â the role of the Attorney-General in prosecuting disappearances cases was discussedÂ by the COIs in their reports and they haveÂ recommended the appointment of an Independent Public Prosecutor with constitutional safeguards.Â This was cited by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons who too contended that the Attorney General was not an independent person and should not lead evidenceÂ at the COI appointed in 2007Â to inquire into serious human rights violations.
Successive governments continued to ignore the recommendations of the Commissions withÂ regard to the perpetratorsÂ and the steps that need to be taken toÂ prevent the re-occurence of such incidents in the future. This promoted the culture of impunity which had by thenÂ pervaded the police andÂ security forces personnel.Â It has been said in a lighter vein that the COIs have helped the successiveÂ governments to identify those in theÂ policeÂ and army who could be used to causeÂ disappearancesÂ effectively. By this time causing the disappearance of a personÂ had by then become a useful weaponÂ in the hands of whichever government that came to power.Â Even the current incidents of disappearances could be by such personsÂ whoÂ haveÂ by now become adept in the technique.
The three major parties in Sri LankaÂ - the UNP , the SLFP and the JVP are not interested in dealing with perpetrators of disappearances.Â They have not pressed for the implementation of theÂ recommendations of the COIs in this regardÂ perhapsÂ because, at some time or the other, each of these parties have themselvesÂ used this weaponÂ on those whoÂ had becomeÂ thorns on their backs. In the circumstancesÂ the victims of disappearances who are waiting for justice have no hope whatsoeverÂ of gettingÂ justice meted out to themÂ in the near future.
This is an edited version of a presentation made by the writer at a panel discussion organized by the International Commission of Jurists at the UN in Geneva on 18th March, 2010, on the occasion of the launching of the book â€œRule of Law, The Criminal Justice System and Commissions of Inquiry since 1977” written by Kishali Pinto Jayawardena.
The author was formerly Secretary to two Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances in Sri Lanka.