Photo courtesy of UCA News

A Gazette notification was published on March 5 announcing proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code. It creates the obligation for all magistrates in the country to visit police stations situated within the appointed judicial division once a month. The magistrates have been assigned the task of visiting those who are in police custody to ensure that they are protected to the extent provided for in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act No. 22 of 1994.

The magistrates have a duty to personally see the suspect while looking into his well-being, welfare and conditions under which he is kept at the police station. Observations and any complaints that suspects may make are to be recorded.

It further states that if the magistrate is of the opinion that a suspect was being tortured, he or she may direct the suspect to be produced before the Judicial Medical Officer or a Government Medical Officer for a medical examination. The report is to be submitted by the medical officer to the magistrate.

It goes on to say that when the report of a medical officer reveals that the suspect has been subjected to torture, the magistrate should issue an appropriate order. This order includes the direction to provide necessary medical treatment for the suspect and to change the place of custody of the suspect.

The magistrate should also direct the Inspector General of Police to commence an investigation into the alleged torture. This will enable the Attorney General to institute criminal proceedings against the person who is alleged to have committed torture.

The amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code Act No. 15 of 1979 is of great significance. It is hoped that the proposed Bill will be passed as soon as possible.

The amendment will provide many opportunities for lawyers, litigants, concerned persons and organisations to intervene on behalf of suspects who have been subjected to torture, cruelty and other inhuman treatment.

Although the magistrate is mandated to visit only once a month, the Bill by implication provides opportunities to complain about torture and ill treatment to a magistrate not only when he visits the courts but at any time. The lawyers could make use of this provision to inform the magistrate by letter or petition that a suspect is being tortured at a police station. By virtue of the obligations created under the proposed amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code, it would be the duty of the magistrate to inquire into complaints either by visiting the police station or speaking to the suspect directly.

The duty of a magistrate to visit a police station once a month does not limit the power of the magistrate to visit a police station only once a month. If it is brought to his notice that torture is taking place, it is possible for him to visit a police station at any time. He or she may then engage in the duties that are prescribed in the proposed amendment.

It is not only the lawyers who could do this. Family members of the suspect or any other concerned person, including civil society organizations, could bring such matters to the notice of the magistrate. It activates the magistrate to take a direct interest in the issue of torture, thereby providing suspects the protection and legal redress entitled to under the law. The proposed amendment goes beyond the strict limits imposed in the past. There were attempts to get the attention of magistrates to the acts of torture taking place within police stations. There were no direct provisions within the Criminal Procedure Code or any other law creating an obligation for magistrates to act on the basis of such complaints. As a result, it was an uphill task to make applications at Magistrates’ Courts and have them looked into. Often, the legal process itself could take days or weeks before a decision was arrived at as to whether a person was being tortured at a police station.

The usual practice has been for the magistrate to ask the police for a report. Naturally, given the circumstances of the police officers themselves being involved in these acts, it is very unlikely that the police will report on the matter in the manner required by law.

Therefore, a direct visit by a magistrate is a much more effective method of looking into the conditions in which persons under custody are remanded.

If this provision is put into effect efficiently, it would be possible to prevent extrajudicial killings that take place quite often at police stations. Judging by the cases that have been decided even by the Supreme Court, it is generally the pattern of such killings that a person is kept under police custody for several days. He or she is tortured repeatedly. In the end the suspect either dies or is disposed of in another way.

By making interventions early, a magistrate would be able to have details of the torture and take precautions by issuing orders to counteract it. The provision for changing the place of custody from one police station to another is also a very positive move. When an assaulted person is kept for a long period of time, the same officers have more opportunities for repeating their acts of torture. This could lead to more serious injuries and death.

If magistrates intervene as required by this amendment to the law to make orders to immediately change the place of custody of a person from one police station to another, it is likely that the person would have more protection.

In Sri Lanka, it has taken many long years to get proper judicial supervision over persons held in custody. Had such provisions for immediate interventions been created as a matter of duty for the magistrate, a large number of enforced disappearances in the past decades could have been avoided. Many of the enforced disappearances were attacks on people. They were arrested first, assaulted in police custody and thereafter disposed of.

Mere visits by magistrates themselves will lead to taking account of a person’s presence at the police station so at a later stage the police cannot deny that such a person was arrested or was in their custody. This has happened repeatedly in the past. 

It is to be hoped that this Bill will become a law in the near future. At that point, lawyers and civil society organisations, as well as the litigants themselves, can make use of this provision to ensure the protection of suspects.

The Bill should be publicized and made a part of the general knowledge of every citizen in the country. If people learn about this law, that in itself will have a beneficial effect. It could lead to preventing one of the most entrenched practices in police stations – torturing people and denying the torture.