Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch

Two young men from Ambilitiya, Shanaka and Eishan Wickramage, were arrested on suspicion of theft. At the police station, they were tortured. Family members said the police denied having taken them into custody. Later a police officer contacted their father and demanded a million rupees for their release. The men were later let go and are being treated for their injuries.

Gayan Pushpkumar, 21, was arrested by the officers of the Pugoda police station as a robbery suspect. In between the suspicion and the discovery that he had nothing to do with the crime, Gayan was hit and kicked by the Officer In Charge (OIC). He died of his injuries. The OIC has now been remanded.

In Hikkaduwa, a 52 year-old woman was taken in by police and beaten on suspicion of being a drug dealer. After spending three days in intensive care at a hospital, she died of her injuries.

In the past three months, six people involved in the drug trade have either died in police custody or have been killed in altercations with police. The latest was Makandure Madush, an infamous drug lord, who was allegedly caught in the crossfire between police and underworld gang members. An opposition MP claimed in parliament that Madush had been killed to prevent him from revealing the names of 80 politicians involved in drug trafficking.

“The question is who is responsible for ending this police barbarism? Given the fact that all power now rests with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it is completely legitimate to hold him responsible for allowing this state of affairs to continue. The president has said publicly that his words are circulars. What circulars show that he has given an unambiguous message to stop acts of barbarism by the Sri Lankan police? There are none. This barbarism is therefore allowed to continue,” said Basil Fernando, spokesman for the Asian Human Rights Commission.

“Who organises a systematic cover up of all forms of barbarity practiced in the manner?” Mr. Fernando asked.

In Chapter Three of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, which deals with Fundamental Rights, Article 11 states, “No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” while Article 12 (1) says “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.”

Sri Lanka has signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 2 says that any act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is an offence to human dignity and is a breach of the Charter of the United Nations and a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1994, Sri Lanka passed an Act to give effect to CAT.

According to CAT, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain a confession, punish him or intimidate him.

“It is a dehumanising process designed to deconstruct the person’s sense of identity. Central to the experience is the victim’s all-consuming sense of helplessness, and the devastating recognition that the harm done to them is intentional rather than accidental,” said a report by the International Truth and Justice Project.

Despite the international treaties and local safeguards, the practice of torture is prevalent across the country, institutionalized by successive governments as they battled two revolutions and a civil war. The continuing violence saw the implementation of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1978 which, in the words of the International Commission of Jurists, was “an ugly blot on the statute book of any civilized country”. The PTA holds that confessions obtained under torture were admissible and as such, torture remains an accepted way to deal with suspects.

Despite the previous government’s promises to repeal the PTA, it did not happen.

It is no secret that police rely on confessions rather than evidence when it comes to putting away criminals and, that in many cases, torture is used to elicit the confessions.

“Police torture people to get confessions, it is the easy way for them,” said Anthony Vinoth from Right to Life, a human rights organisation that supports torture survivors and their families with legal aid and counselling. He is also the National Coordinator of the Sri Lanka Committee Against Torture.

Mr. Vinoth blamed the lack of awareness among the public that torture was an illegal act. In court, a magistrate was supposed to ask whether a confession had been extracted under duress and the accused was supposed to say if he was tortured. In many cases, Mr. Vinoth said, neither of these happen. The accused was not aware of his rights and often he was too intimidated to speak up against the police.

All governments have consistently turned a blind eye to police torture and politicians used the police to further their own vested interests. However, it the past few years, cases have been increasing as more people become aware of their rights and file complaints with the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the National Police Commission as well as UN bodies with the assistance of organisations such as Right to Life.

In addition to creating awareness among the public, Right to Life trains police officers on the laws against torture. Police are also being trained in new ways to collect evidence so that they do not have to resort to torture in order to elicit a confession.

According to Mr. Vinoth, the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the incidents of torture with the arbitrary rounding up of quarantine cases. During the months-long curfew, the HRC and the UN were both closed, leaving no place to take complaints.

Riots broke out across the United States in protest of the choking to death of George Floyd in May this year in a scene that was captured on video, causing revulsion across the world. In Nigeria, people took to the street to demonstrate peacefully against police brutality, only to be met with bullets that left at least 12 people dead.

“People are going to get restive. When your loved ones are subjected to bad acts such as torture, you will retaliate,” Mr. Vinoth pointed out.