The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) says that based on the statistics at the Commission’s disposal, it recognises torture to be of a routine nature that is practised all over the country, mainly in relation to police detentions. This underscores the point made numerous times by rights watchdogs that torture has become systemic in Sri Lanka’s law enforcement.
In a report submitted to the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) for the review of the 5th Periodic Report of Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Commission said the complaints received by the Commission illustrate that torture is routinely used in all parts of the country regardless of the nature of the suspected offence for which the person is arrested.
However, the number of complaints of torture has been declining in the last three years, from 600 complaints in 2013 to 420 complaints in 2015 and 208 so far this year, showing that while the Government may sprout different policies, little change has been made within the police to protect suspects against torture.
The HRCSL says the prevailing culture of impunity where those accused of torture is concerned is also a contributing factor to the routine use of torture as a means of interrogation and investigation. Police routinely use transfers to cover up the most heinous of acts, essentially giving offenders license to continue their despicable practices even in the case of custody deaths.
The Commission, as a national human rights institution, submits the report for the review of the fifth periodic report of Sri Lanka by the Committee against Torture in response to the call by treaty bodies.
The Commission says it requires the full support of all relevant authorities to effectively respond to complaints of torture and work towards its eradication but believes there is political space to critique existing laws, systems, processes and practices, and to make necessary interventions for required reform. The UN Committee against Torture will publish its findings, officially known as concluding observations, on 7 December.
The current Government continues to underplay the prevalence of torture with the strongest example of this being the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code which will restrict the rights of those who have been arrested to have access to their lawyers. The new amendment will provide security forces with the power to obtain statements from detained suspects before they have access to legal representation. Activists have said the move will encourage the use of torture and statements made under duress.
However, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has disappointingly sided with law enforcement authorities, insisting the amendment will not impact “law abiding citizens”, and defended the challenges faced by policing in catching wrongdoers. This blatant disregard for human rights and the golden principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is unacceptable at a time when the Government claims it is dedicated to structural changes that will end abuse endured over many years.
The insensitivity of the Government borders on carelessness in allowing such a policy that clearly disadvantages minorities to be implemented. The oft trotted out excuse that torture happens because of a “few bad apples” within the police is grossly understating the obvious and letting down the public’s right to protection as enshrined in the Constitution.