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Justice for all

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 19 January 2018 00:00

A 17-year-old youth hanging himself with his own t-shirt in his cell earlier this month after being arrested by the Pettah police has raised the spectre of rightful treatment of suspects in custody again. The Officer-in-Charge has since been transferred but this has done little to competently tackle the issue of how suspects are treated by police that continues to plague successive governments. 

It is well-known that the police frequently use torture to try to obtain confessions rather than undertaking the more difficult and time-consuming process of gathering evidence through investigations. Police also use beatings and other forms of torture to punish suspects they believe are guilty, instead of leaving the matter properly to the courts. International and domestic human rights defenders have frequently reported that the use of torture and other ill-treatment is common, even for minor offenses.

Too often crime scenes are not properly investigated as police seek quick confessions through coercive means; detainees are not brought before a magistrate within 24 hours as required by law; and magistrates do not give serious consideration to allegations of mistreatment, including by ensuring that the detainee receives proper medical attention from a Judicial Medical Officer (JMO). Domestic and international law prohibit police from excessive force; arbitrary arrests and detentions; and torture or other ill-treatment of suspects in custody. However, the police often bypass or ignore procedural safeguards that exist in Sri Lankan law and are required under international human rights law, including in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party. These include the right to be informed of criminal charges, to have access to a lawyer of one’s choosing and to be promptly brought before a judge. Sri Lanka’s Code of Criminal Procedure contains further safeguards, including registration of arrest and production of the accused before a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest.

The cases documented by Human Rights Watch and others reflect a longstanding pattern of procedural violations. Suspects frequently are not informed about the reasons for their arrest. Police sometimes fabricate charges to justify the initial arrest and subsequent abusive interrogation methods. Family members usually are not informed of an arrest or allowed access to their detained relatives. Suspects may have little or no access to legal representation, and protection mechanisms such as examination by medical officers are haphazardly or improperly implemented.

The problem of torture is not new and has been well documented for decades. But the common excuse offered in Sri Lanka was the general collapse of law and order stemming from the armed conflicts that wracked the nation for nearly 30 years. With the end of the war, that excuse no longer explains this scourge.

In 2005, prominent human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy, then chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, reported that police torture was not an issue stemming from a handful of rogue police officers but instead was rooted in “the routine use of torture as a method of investigation” and required “fundamental structural changes” to be eradicated. This led to little if any change. 

Since 2009, for example, the Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation, has filed 32 urgent appeal petitions regarding custodial deaths and 181 urgent appeals regarding torture.

The existing legal measures for redress are inadequate and require resources most victims do not have access to. The police have staunchly defended and protected their own in this issue, rather than focusing on widespread reform. How can Sri Lanka continue to allow protectors to become predators?

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