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SRI LANKA: Preventing making of complaints and claiming that there are no violations

May 16, 2008

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Preventing making of complaints and claiming that there are no violations

A group of civil society organisations in Sri Lanka have appealed to the members of the United Nations Human Rights Council urging them not to reelect Sri Lanka for membership to the council on the basis of its blatant human rights violations and disregard for the pledges made to the council itself. A reply from a government source has been that these organisations are only a few compared to the very many civil society organisations in the country. Perhaps what should be examined is to why more people have not been coming forward to expose the human rights violations in Sri Lanka? It is because the situation is so good that there is nothing to complain about, or is it because the consequences of complaining are so harsh that now there is a widespread fear psychosis and a deep realisation of the futility in seeking justice in Sri Lanka.

Let us take a few examples to see the real situation. Gerald Perera was a worker associated with a company inside the Sri Lanka harbor which is one of the places where the worker?s movement has been strong for many decades. He was also an active member of the suburban community where he lived and a man who had links to the rest of his society. One day, suddenly he was arrested without any reason, and assaulted to an extent that upon leaving the police station he suffered renal failure. Gerald was shocked and deeply humiliated by this experience, but he was a mature individual who did not resort to revenge but rather wanted to seek justice. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka held that the arrest, detention and torture of Gerald Perera were in blatant violation of his rights. There was a case filed against the police officers and he was summoned to give evidence. A few days before he could reach court to do so he was assassinated and the investigation revealed that it was police officers that killed him. Just a few weeks ago the decision on the torture case was given, six years after the incident. The court held that, despite of the fact that the arrest by the accused police officers and the torture inside the police station had been proved, the accused should be acquitted as there were no eye witnesses to the incident. In the murder case, despite of the fact that many police officers involved have made voluntary statements of their own volition to a magistrate about the incident, it is most likely that the same outcome as the torture case will follow. With enormous delays and inefficient prosecutions it is quite common for criminals to escape justice.

It was the Attorney General who filed the torture case as a result of which Gerald was assassinated. After the assassination the Attorney General continued with the prosecution and even assigned a deputy solicitor general to be in charge of the prosecution. However, when the court gave its verdict acquitting the accused, when Gerald?s widow requested to AG to appeal he did not. Is it because he agreed that the judgement was correct? If so why did the AG prosecute the accused in the first place? If the AG was of the view that it is not possible to prove the case against the accused no prosecution should have been filed at all. However, if the prosecution was conducted on a solid basis and failed it is only reasonable to assume that there should have been an appeal. But if the prosecution was merely to appease public resentment against the torture and the murder, then this is not justice at all. And this is not the first time that such things have happened. Naturally those who watch such events will have very little faith in justice.

Let us also take the case of Michael Anthony (Tony) Emmanuel Fernando. Five years ago when he went to make a complaint to the Supreme Court he was instantly sentenced to one year of rigorous imprisonment for contempt of court and while in jail he was severely beaten. The United Nations Human Rights Committee held that the order of the Supreme Court to imprison him amounted to illegal detention and asked the government of Sri Lanka to take remedial action and pay compensation. Nothing was done to implement this recommendation. This week, after five years two judges of a three member bench held that the prison officers had tortured him. In order to pursue his complaint against the prison officers Tony Fernando had to leave the island and is now in Canada. This is the logic of trying to seek justice: one year of rigorous imprisonment and having to leave his country.

Let us take the well known case of the five medical students of Trincomalee who were killed in broad daylight. The father of one of the students, Dr. Manoharan recently made a statement through a video link from abroad. Earlier he had informed the public many times that his own life was under threat. During the interview he stated that if he were to give this evidence while in Sri Lanka he would have been killed. In this case there was also a survivor who also made a statement from abroad but who was living in fear, even outside the country, and did not want his face to be shown in the video.

As for the 17 aid workers of Action Contre La Faim, even in the recent weeks witnesses have complained of threats made inside the very premises where the Presidential Commission of Inquiry is being held when they came to give evidence. People do not want to even be identified by name because of the possible repercussions.

There are cases of the recent disappearances and all of those people under normal circumstances would have recourse to habeas corpus applications or even to come before international bodies directly or through their representatives. But they have not come forward. Is it because these incidents have not taken place or is it because of the tremendous fear psychosis that has been so solidly entrenched in the country, coupled with the realisation that there will be no justice at the end.

Let us also recall the cases of over 30,000 persons who disappeared in the south in the late 80s. Other than a hand full of cases the prosecutions were not even filed. Now these 30,000 families are not before the courts or before international forums. Is it because they do not think that the disappearances of their family members is of any importance or is it because they are very satisfied with the justice they have received? On the other hand, is it because the long years of their struggle have not lead to any hope of redress?

The entire discussion on human rights can be turned into a mockery when the possibility of seeking justice is denied to each and everyone. No system of justice is perfect. However, not to have a functioning system of justice is a completely different thing. It makes the search for justice futile. There can be no hell worse than a place which denies the possibility of seeking justice for wrongs done. That is the place to which the successive governments of Sri Lanka have taken their citizens.

The surprise is not about a few organisations making the complaints but as to why a whole population denied of justice is not complaining. Perhaps there is no surprise in that. In the world there are many such examples. The people of Burma or Cambodia may not come forward before courts or international forums. The people of Bihar in India may also not come forward to complain about routine violence and the absence of justice, does that make Bihar a paradise for human rights?

Now that Archbishop Tutu has included his name supporting the same view as the group of local NGOs one would wonder what the Sri Lankan government spokesman would say about him. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes and Sir Nigel Rodley were all called by various names simply because they expressed concern for human rights in Sri Lanka. Perhaps Archbishop Tutu will be called by some name much worse than those used on the others.

The story given below, published in the Daily Mirror yesterday, demonstrates how cruelty and the fear psychosis is combined in Sri Lanka:

An appeal for a mother and her daughters

Living in a tiny mud house in Kalmunai, in the Ampara District, Seetha's story needs no repeated publicity to catch anyone's attention. It is a story of a mother's pain in seeking justice for her two teenage daughters. Shunned by society, Seetha says she will not stop till she receives some answers and vows to search for the perpetrators who tore her family apart. She also says that she will voice her pleas till her abducted daughter is returned to her, safely.

Seetha's story starts when in the early hours of May 10, she was awoken by a loud bang on her front door. She heard voices of men outside, urging her to let them in as they had claimed to be on a search operation in the area. The men had screamed saying they were from the security forces and needed to search the house, as an explosion had rocked Ampara the previous night. It was Election Day and Seetha had no choice but to unbolt the door, despite no male being present in the house. Seetha's husband was in Colombo that day for some work and was to return home later that evening.

Afraid to let strangers into her home, Seetha had, before unbolting the door, locked the bedroom door of her two young daughters. She had heard stories of young girls being abducted in the dark and wanted to protect her daughters from suffering a similar fate. Her daughters aged 16 and 18 were still schooling and Seetha said she accompanied them whenever they left the house in order to protect them from the 'white van.' Her husband too, avoided working in the nights in order to stay with his family.

Seetha hid the bedroom key in the kitchen and hurried to open the door. She had believed the men when they said they were from the security forces and needed to search the house as news of a bomb blast had spread fast in Ampara the previous night. Unbolting the door, Seetha saw three men, in trousers and shirts standing in her doorway. They were armed with knives and pistols and forced themselves in. Their breaths had been reeking with alcohol and one of them had immediately pinned Seetha to the floor and covered her mouth. Unable to scream, tears had poured down Seetha's face. Her only hope was that her daughters, who were sleeping in the other room would remain quiet, in order to remain unnoticed by the thugs. While two of the men had searched Seetha's house for some valuables, one of them had tried to force himself into the locked bedroom. Her two daughters had by that time realized the presence of strangers in their home and had hidden underneath the bed.

Questioning Seetha about what was behind the locked door, Seetha said in a desperate plea to leave her alone as she was alone in the house at that time. She also said that it was a room which had been given to her nephew and since he was away in Colombo, he had locked it.

However, laughing at her story, Seetha watched helplessly while the two goons broke open the door to find two teenage girls hiding underneath the bed.

With tears pouring down their cheeks, the girls were dragged out and thrown on the bed. Seetha said she screamed, hoping that someone would hear her pleas, but all screams fell to deaf ears as she saw her two daughters being stripped by the men. One of the men, held onto Seetha and tied a rope round her mouth to prevent her screams.

Unable to explain her grief, Seetha explained how she had to hear the screams of her two young daughters while they were being raped by the two men. By that time Seetha had been tied and had to watch helplessly while the third man too seemed to enjoy in their disgusting behaviour. Trying to break loose with all her might, Seetha said all was in vain while the men left minutes later. However before leaving they had threatened Seetha and her two daughters to remain quiet or pay with their lives, if anyone was informed about the incident.

To watch two daughters lying helplessly on the floor in a pool of blood was what Seetha never expected on that Election Day. Her elder daughter who was barely able to walk had untied Seetha minutes later and had collapsed. Her younger daughter had remained unconscious. Seetha had, in the early morning, rushed both her daughters, with the assistance of a relative who lived nearby to the Kalmunai Hospital. Both were discharged later that evening. "The doctors did not seem to care what had happened. They were afraid to get involved. After treating my two girls, they wanted me to take them home immediately. By evening they were suffering from high fever," Seetha told the DailyMirror.

After the hospital staff refused to treat the girls further, Seetha said she brought both her daughters home. Her relative had stayed with her and had assisted her as Seetha too was recovering from her shock. "I felt I was the guilty one as I had to watch helplessly as my daughters were being raped. Such a disaster should never fall on any mother. There were times when I felt like I was about to collapse but if I had not been strong, my daughters would have died," Seetha said.

Seetha's husband retuned home later that evening to find this once peaceful family destroyed forever. He said he found his wife weeping on the floor while his two daughters lay asleep on the bed, with scars on their faces. While Seetha's relative narrated the story to him, the grief stricken father collapsed on the floor, unable to hear the sordid details. Afraid that they would return and harm his family, he prevented Seetha from rushing to the police station. "My husband was afraid that they would return and kill us. Our lives were already destroyed but at least we were alive. He wanted me to remain quiet and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that our daughters recovered safely," she said.

While Seetha abided by her husband's request, their tragedy took a turn for the worst when later that night, five men with sharp weapons and pistols stormed into their house once again. The men had broken the front door and had abused Seetha's husband and relative severely. They had then stormed into Seetha's daughters' bedroom and had dragged her elder daughter, who was still suffering from a high temperature. Seetha said she saw a van parked outside and her daughter was forced into it. The van then disappeared with her daughter inside.

Minutes later, with her husband and relative bleeding profusely, Seetha rushed to the police station. However she alleged that the police officer who was on duty at that time had refused to lodge her complaint as he said that they were busy with election related incidents. Results of the Eastern Provincial Council elections had also just started to pour in, due to which Seetha's tears and pleas to lodge her complaint had been ignored. "There were very few policemen on duty at that time. They were busy with election work and no one seemed to care about what I said. I was thrown from pillar to post and told to return the next day. They also told me I would have to produce several documents to prove that I was a Kalmunai resident, before lodging a complaint," Seetha said.

She returned home, with little hope in the police and decided to be with her family.

"My husband and relative were hurt. My younger daughter who was very sick was crying for me. I felt I had been burnt alive," a grief stricken Seetha said. The only thing she said she could do that night was hold her younger daughter in her arms, hoping that the perpetrators would never return. "No one knows the plight of losing a child till it actually happens. I lost my family that day. I do not have any hope of seeing my daughter again. I feel my life has ended," a tearful Seetha said.

Seetha who has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission said that she will continue to search for her daughter. She also sits by the door each day, hoping for a miracle to see her daughter walk in through the front door. While several incidents were highlighted in the media last weekend due to the elections, what failed to go unnoticed was this mother's story of losing her family. It was an election violence which never hit the headlines.

Daily Mirror" Wednesday the 14th May 2008

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Posted on 2008-05-16
Asian Human Rights Commission
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