The kangaroo court style questioning of children who are victims and witnesses of crimes and divulging their evidence on public media exposes them to harm and rejection from their own families
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
– Dr. Martin Luther King –
Thirty years after ratifying the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNRC) in 1991, child protection is a national crisis in Sri Lanka. Over the past 16 months 10 children have been physically and sexually abused and murdered, yet not a single person of authority has twitched to protect the true beneficiaries of the future, our children.
Sri Lanka’s rapidly deteriorating international reputation in the height of gross violation of human rights and callous disregard of structural collapse of integrity by public officers is a painful observation of our paradise island being dragged to hell that we can no longer tolerate quietly.
Dismissing of accountability
“Who is the safe adult?” was the final question raised at a recent expert panel discussion on ‘Child abuse during the pandemic’. In response, I clarified that whilst the parents/main carers are considered the primary guardians of a child, the State/Judiciary is the ultimate guardian. If a child is experiencing abuse at the hands of whom they trust, the State institutions responsible for child protection should be places where a child at risk can access freely.
However, due to escalation of incidents of misconduct, victims often decline to report to Police or National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) as “no point”. It is paramount that these institutions act with accountability to clean up their act to provide a responsible and trustworthy service zero tolerant of any form of malpractice.
Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Director of the Police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women, Darshika Ranasinghe’s unfathomable response that “there are 85,000 police officers and these are rare incidents; we must not focus on exceptional circumstances,” was a hint of acknowledgement and total dismissal of accountability. SSP Ranasinghe overlooked the perfect opportunity for a newly ranked female police officer to show empathy and visionary professional leadership to not only regain the trust of the nation but also score brownie points with the international community. Instead, she predictably joined her male counterparts in macho pseudo heroism of an institution miserably failing to maintain law and order.
Dementia of misconduct
Varuni Bogahawatte, an award-winning cop ‘super woman’ was found guilty of child abuse by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in June 2019 for forcing a 15-year-old girl to undergo repeated medical examinations to establish if she had been sexually attacked.
The complaint commences when the girl was questioned in her home by Bogahawatte in front of strangers violating privacy and confidentiality of a minor. The landmark verdict stated, the Court also takes an opportunity to note with concern the increasing number of incidents of abuse of power by law enforcement authorities. 17-point guidelines were recommended in furtherance of securing and advancing the rights of the public that are recognised under the Constitution and under the law. (View the verdict here: (https://stopchildcruelty.com/media/doc/1591786686.pdf).
However, Sri Lanka Police continues to ignore this verdict by making a mockery of the judiciary system. The latest trend by law enforcement officers is to conduct their duties accompanied by private media channels. The kangaroo court style questioning of children who are victims and witnesses of crimes and divulging their evidence on public media exposes them to harm and rejection from their own families. They are compelled to change or withdraw their evidence resulting in the collapse of the case after many years.
The unethical click-bait news headlines expose these defenceless children and their siblings to public humiliation and decades of mental trauma making it impossible to re-integrate them to society unscathed and unharmed. Both the police and the media are guilty of being secondary abusers, a direct violation of Penal Code Section 365(c), which prohibits identification of victims of sexual abuse/rape.
During the lockdown period in 2020, we witnessed the shocking images of Policemen assaulting a 14-year-old autistic boy in broad daylight at Dharga Town. He has now filed a fundamental rights petition at the Supreme Court.
Police reports of a high-profile case earlier in 2021, confirmed 41 suspects have been arrested in connection with sex trafficking of the 15-year-old girl including a Sub-Inspector of Police.
Over the past six months, there have been numerous alleged incidents of women and children sexually abused inside police stations with several officers arrested but bailed within days. Recently, we learned of more spine-chilling news that Matara Police, the same Division as Bogahawatte now back in service, forcefully conducted a pregnancy test of a 15-year-old girl. There is an investigation ongoing.
Ironically, the newly-appointed Acting Deputy Inspector General of Police, Renuka Jayasundera while confirming the incident, swears that there is no misconduct by officers even before the submission of the final report of the investigation; one guesses on the conclusion there then!
According to my simple calculations, that is one too many than 1 in 85,000 complaints of child abuse as dismissed by SSP Ranasinghe. ‘None’ of these cases have been concluded with transparent mechanisms to rejuvenate public faith.
Delaying of justice
The headline news in June 2021 revealed, ‘Sri Lanka: 2,055 child abuse cases including 1,953 rape cases in 2020; Police fail to secure single conviction’. With over 20,000 cases of child abuse backlogged for the past decade at the Attorney General’s Department and ‘zero’ convictions of rape for the past five years, it attracts very little public faith in law enforcement services. In fact, Police failed to ascertain any evidence for five days while the 15-year-old who sustained burn injuries at a politician’s house was fighting for her life. She later succumbed to injuries, becoming a mere statistical number of 1 of 10 children murdered within the last 16 months. National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), established by Parliament Act No. 50 of 1998, the most powerful institution to protect children with jurisdiction to take over any investigation which is mishandled by Police, has forwarded a letter to the OIC of the relevant Police Station requesting for an explanation. The crime of bureaucratic disability is crippling the last remains of a fragment of justice.
Denial of responsibility
Police Scotland that was conducting training for Sri Lanka police since 2010 suspended its program amidst serious violations of human rights by law enforcement agencies in 2021. The training focused on improving community policing, especially on sexual abuse and gender-based violence and increasing female representation in Police service. Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone informed the Scottish Police Authority, “We remain committed to supporting the international development of policing services across the world so that we can enhance and enable human rights and we can underline the values that we hold dear in Police Scotland of integrity, fairness and respect.”
Both SSP Ranasinghe and DIG Jayasundera seem to have forgotten that their promotions resulted due to the equal opportunity training that Scottish Police were endorsing and only after the suspension of training, as a last-ditch attempt by Sri Lanka Police to save face.
Officers of Sri Lanka Police must accept that responsibility and accountability mixed with humility and integrity is the only partnership required to establish ‘One Country, One Law’. We demand unreservedly for equality, justice and hope for the true beneficiaries of our future, our children!
(The writer is the Founder Chairperson, Stop Child Cruelty Trust and Global End Violence Champion. She could be reached via email at email@example.com.)