Image courtesy BBC
On 28th December 2015, the Nuwara Eliya High Court delivered a historic judgment: two men were each sentenced to 23 years rigorous imprisonment and ordered to pay Rs. 200,000 in compensation after being convicted for the abduction and rape of Rita, a 17 year old Tamil girl from Talawakele in the hill country, on 12th August 2001.
It was a happy moment for Rita and those of us who were in courts with her. It was a victory for exceptional courage and determination of Rita and all those who supported her long struggle. But it also showcased the exceptional decay of Sri Lanka’s justice system – more than 14 years to ensure justice for abduction and rape of teenaged girl. In his introduction to the judgement, the Judge also highlighted this delay in justice and also referred to delays at Police stations.
Rita’s challenges, struggles, courage and determination
It is rare that victims of rape, especially a teenage Tamil schoolgirl from an estate area, will fight for justice. She will be victimised, again and again, in the verbal comments made to her, in the way people look at her, in her village, school, work place. The Police, the Attorney-General’s Department, the Judiciary, the family, the media, and society in general are not sympathetic. Even the sympathetic may not be committed to help pursue justice. She and her family are likely to encounter threats, intimidation, and attempts to discredit her if she decides to pursue justice instead of keeping quiet.
But Rita perused justice with exceptional courage and determination, right from the time she was raped. Her first step after the incident was to go and complain to the Police and then accompany the Police to show the place of the incident and search for the suspects. These steps were referred to by the Judge in positive way yesterday in his reasoning given for the judgment. The state counsels prosecuting her case had changed 15 times. At least 9 judges had heard her case. There were more than a hundred court hearings – in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya High Courts, non-summary proceedings, and another civil case in the District Courts. She had to go through the trauma of repeatedly explaining what happened to her in detail over a number of years, including in the face of harsh and probing cross examinations, and she even fainted once. But Rita had remained consistent in her story. The Judge also recognized this and highlighted that the defence lawyers were not able to cast doubt
on Rita’s testimony, which appeared to be corroborated by medical evidence, observations of the Police, circumstantial evidence some statements by accused
Rita had lost her father when she was young. Her grandfather died in 2009, midway through her struggle for justice – he had supported and encouraged her, and had given witness in her court proceedings. She pursued justice, despite intimidations to her and family and attempts to offer money and get her to withdraw the case. She was compelled to stay in 21 safe houses for security. She had to leave her friends and familiar surroundings and change school, village. She even had to seek employment in the Free Trade Zone, far away from the hill country she had lived all her life.
Solidarity and support for Rita
Within a few weeks of Rita being raped, I participated in a protest in Hatton in the hill country, demanding justice for Rita. That protest was spearheaded by Fr. Nandana Manatunga, a Catholic Priest. He has remained an inspiration and good friend since then. He was the director of Caritas Kandy then, but has moved on to take new positions, in various parishes and institutions. But he had never wavered from accompanying and supporting Rita, and was in court yesterday, as he had been with Rita and numerous other victims, hundreds of times. He and his dedicated band of staff and volunteers at the Human Rights Office (HRO), Kandy, had protected Rita; finding safe houses, facilitated her education, employment, provided legal and medical assistance and counselling, provided some financial assistance, and even assisted in family funerals, sicknesses, and Rita’s own wedding. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar appealed to the then President Kumaratunga to expedite the case. National and international campaigns have been organised to exert pressure to expedite the case.
As I write this on my way back in the train from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, I remembered stages of Rita’s struggles over the years and my meetings with her, what she had told. I also wondered whether there would have been justice even after 14 years, if not for Rita’s unwavering courage, her family’s and others support?
Rare successes due to survivors and victim’s families courage & determination
Courage and determination of survivors and their families have brought about justice in several other cases, in a country where justice has been, and still remains, elusive and inaccessible to many. In many of these cases, there has been long term accompaniment and significant support from individuals and organizations.
In May 2012, a man was sentenced for 20 years and ordered to pay compensation of Rs. 100,000 for raping 13 year old Divya, who like Rita, was also a Tamil girl from the estate community. Earlier this month, two Police officers were sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment each for torturing two persons from Kandy. HRO had also managed to obtain the release of several persons who were detained for long periods under the PTA, after long years of support to the detainees and the families.
In a rare judgement from the highly militarized and war ravaged North, in October 2015, four soldiers from the Army were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for the rape and sexual abuse of two Tamil women from Vishvamadu, in 2010. A determined struggle by Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda for six years in Sri Lanka and beyond, supported by strong national and international campaigns, has led to the arrest of several persons, including those from the military and intelligence units, who are suspected to be responsible for the enforced disappearance of her husband, cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010.
But, in contrast, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no progress in investigations, no arrests in the 2007 enforced disappearance of Ramachandran Subramanium, a Tamil journalist from Jaffna, despite what appears to be eye witness accounts of military involvement. Is it because his elderly parents could not campaign like Sandya and they did not get the national and international support Sandya got? Tens of thousands of survivors and families of victims of rape and sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances await justice in Sri Lanka for decades.
Reforming justice system
The few successes in struggles for justice in Sri Lanka have been largely due to exceptional courage and determination of survivors and victims’ families and the solidarity and support from few individuals and groups, rather than effectiveness of the state and statutory institutions established to deliver justice.
It’s a major fault of our justice system that justice is not accessible and available independently and as of right, and quickly, but rather, appears to depend on a victim’s courage or ability to garner support. 14 years is way too long for teenaged girl who was raped to wait for justice. Thus, in the longer term, reform of the justice system will be key.
Solidarity and accompaniment – how important is it?
At the same time, I believe it is also important for all of us who believe in justice to reflect how much of our time and energy we should invest in accompanying survivors and victim’s families, in their struggles for justice. It would be particularly important to reflect on ways to sustaining accompaniment and solidarity for long years, as the justice system itself tries to wear us down and make us give up. Rita’s case is a good example of sustained struggle, accompaniment and solidarity despite the delays in the system.
I have been privileged and inspired to have worked with and encountered survivors and families of victims, who had braved extreme odds and risks to pursue justice. Rizkhan, the son of my murdered friend Pattani Razeek; Sandya Ekneligoda, who I mentioned above; Mayuri, whose husband was abducted in 2013; Dr. Manoharan, whose teenaged son was executed 10 years ago; some villagers in Mullikulam whose village has been occupied by the Navy since 2007; and several wives of those who have been unjustly detained are amongst those who come to mind. There are more of course.
I have also come to admire the work of individuals and groups in different parts of Sri Lanka and beyond, who have been supporting such struggles. Together with some colleagues and friends, I have also tried hard to support some such struggles. But despite the risks we have taken, personal sacrifices we have made, and our best efforts, we have not been able to do enough. It has been heart breaking to ignore or say “no” to some desperate appeals and being unable to find others who could support where we could not. I have also been frustrated at my inability to motivate and encourage others, including colleagues and friends, to work more with survivors and victims’ families and invest more in accompaniment and solidarity.
Research, campaigning, advocacy, legal action, trainings appear to be considered more important than accompaniment and solidarity. But in my experience, simple things standing by their side on street protests, like accompaniment to courts and other institutions, visiting them in their prisons and homes, providing moral support, helping with translations, introducing them to others who could help their cause, have been key in survivors and victims’ families obtaining justice, as has been the case with Rita and several others I mentioned above. And it’s likely to be so in the immediate future, till we have more independent, accessible and effective justice system.