Photo courtesy of Torture Magazine

Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

When Sri Lanka was ruled by kings and queens, they used 32 types of torture to keep their subjects in line. These included being trampled by an elephant and being impaled on a pointed iron pole.

Today’s documented methods of torture include the removal of nails, application of electricity and heat to the body, being forced to drink petrol, hands being pressed on machines, rape and sexual torture. In addition to these physical aspects, psychological torture methods include laying with dead bodies, sexual threats, others being killed in the survivor’s presence and sleep and food deprivation.

Torture survivors have depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, nightmares and difficulties in concentration. Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where they revisit their torture again and again.

Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits torture. In 1994, an act of Parliament gave effect to the UN Convention against Torture.The current Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code of Sri Lanka have several clauses to protect the survivors of torture and to punish the perpetrators.

All governments have proclaimed zero tolerance for torture but this is mere lip service. The practice continued even through the supposed good governance government. It is systematic and institutionalised within the police and the armed forces. Several international organisations such as Freedom from Torture, Human Rights Watch, the International Truth and Justice Project and the United Nations have documented ongoing cases of torture in Sri Lanka.

More than 50 men seeking asylum in Europe in 2017 claimed they were tortured and raped by soldiers and  members of the CID. There were scars on all parts of their bodies. A report by the Associated Press news agency said, “Piers Pigou, a South African human rights investigator who has interviewed torture survivors for the past 40 years in the world’s most dire countries, says the sheer scale of brutality is nothing like he has heard before. ‘The levels of sexual abuse being perpetuated in Sri Lanka by authorities are the most egregious and perverted that I’ve ever seen.’”

The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake was quoted in the same article as denying the allegations, saying, “There’s no reason for us to do that now.”

The spotlight shone on the issue of routine torture in Sri Lanka through three recent high profile cases. In Australia, a Tamil family seeking asylum was about to be deported when their plane was turned back. The two children were born in Australia and the younger one has health issues. The headline of a CNN report on the story reads, “She was born in Australia, but the country wants to send her back to alleged war criminals”, referring to the appointments to top government positions of senior military officials who were implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the war.

Last month, there were protests in Germany against the deportation of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka among allegations that they would face persecution and torture in the country.

In Britain, tribunal judges hearing a case between two asylum seekers and the Home Secretary ruled that the asylum seekers should not be deported to Sri Lanka. “It is abundantly clear that there is a reasonable likelihood that those detained by the Sri Lankan authorities will be subjected to persecution within the meaning of the Refugee Convention and ill-treatment contrary to Article 3 ECHR,” the tribunal’s judgement said. (The European Convention on Human Rights).

In a new report due out shortly on protecting survivors of torture, the Law and Society Trust (LST) said that torture was severely under reported. One of the main reasons for the under reporting was that victims came from low income groups and those discriminated against because of ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity as well as children and prisoners. As a result they are less likely to report torture. Some victims believe that torture and violence are normal. They fear they will be blamed, shamed and threatened with more violence for making a complaint. They feel no one will believe them.

According to the LST report, between 2010 and 2018 the Human Right Commission received three complaints of torture every two days while less than one percent of the complaints were prosecuted. In 25 years only nine convictions have been secured.

There are no medical, psychosocial or protection state sponsored support services specifically designed and available to survivors of torture and their families. Access to protection and justice is not safe and free of judgement, the report said.

To make up for what the state lacks, there are several NGOs working with torture survivors and providing legal support, counselling and rehabilitation services.

The Right to Life Human Rights Centre, based in Katunayake, is a civil society organisation assisting survivors of police torture, disappearances and other fundamental rights violations. Legal Officer of the Centre, Lakshan Fernando, spoke about the reason for and repercussions of torture.

Is torture is widespread in Sri Lanka?

Yes, it is. Criminal investigations are primarily vested in the national security sector, including the Police Department and the Criminal Investigation Department under the law. So far no government has taken steps to provide proper guidance to police officers on scientific investigative procedures. As a result, it has become common practice for the security forces to resort to physical and mental torture to obtain information from suspects. Developed countries use advanced scientific methods and technology to obtain, report and collect information and evidence on criminal cases. However, in most of the police stations here, even the computer facilities are sparse and knowledge on new technology is low. It is clear that torture is used as a method of criminal investigation in most of the cases that we receive. Although the law states that torture is a criminal offence as well as a violation of the fundamental rights of individuals, the security forces are not paying any attention to it.

What are the main reasons for people being tortured here?

People’s knowledge of fundamental rights and related law is poor. Most police officers are deployed to provide security to politicians so only a small percentage have been assigned to criminal investigations although the number of crimes to be solved is increasing day by day. These officers have no advanced technical equipment or training on the latest methods of criminal investigation. As a result low level methods such as torture to carry out criminal investigations have contributed to the establishment of torture.

Who are the main perpetrators?

State security officers are responsible for torture incidents. The police are the foremost institution for the rule of law and order in a country. The main functions of the police are to enforce the law equally for all and to establish and maintain individual liberty. But there are frequent reports of torture and killings by the police. Suspects are arrested, detained and brutally beaten in police custody. Police torture refers to many things, including physical and mental abuse, such as arrests, assaults, threats, intimidation and forcible signing of false statements.

What are the effects of torture on a person?

The victim becomes physically and mentally ill. Although they are hospitalized and treated, they have long term injuries due to the severity of the torture. Sometimes the victim may be the only income earner so the entire family faces serious economic hardship.

How can they overcome the mental and physical scars?

Physical injuries cannot be completely cured by medical treatment. Torture can lead to permanent disability. Torture can have devastating mental effects, often lasting forever. It is essential to seek specialist psychiatric treatment.

Although torture is widespread, we rarely hear of cases coming to court and the guilty being punished. Why is this?

With regard to the procedure of hearing petitions on fundamental rights in the Supreme Court, Article 126 (5) of the Constitution states that the Supreme Court must hear and complete a fundamental rights petition within two months from the date of its submission. But this provision is not practical. The main reason for this is the delay in court cases. This is a huge problem in the judicial hierarchy from the Supreme Court to the Magistrate Courts and due to these delays, there is a serious crisis in the efficient administration of justice. Due to the prevailing Covid epidemic, the functioning of the independent commission mechanism as well as the entire judicial system is currently paralysed.