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Bringing Justice and Relief to Torture Victims

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Photo courtesy of The Columbian

Today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture

That Sri Lanka is a country where torture is rife has been well documented by several international organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) and Freedom From Torture.

According to Freedom from Torture, despite being a top holiday destination, Sri Lanka has consistently been the country from where it receives the most clients. Although the civil war ended in 2009, that has not ended human rights violations. Most at risk of torture were Tamil people who had or were thought to have links with the LTTE. “The Sri Lankan police, military and intelligence forces were responsible for committing these crimes,” Freedom From Torture said.

In 2019 the organisation released a report entitled “Too little change: ongoing torture in security operations in Sri Lanka.” Drawn from medico-legal reports done by its doctors, the report found that people were tortured by state officials in a security context despite none being charged under anti-terror or any other laws. One of the main reasons that security forces continue to torture with impunity is the Prevention of Terrorism Act that enables confessions to be admitted as evidence, perpetuating the use of torture to extract confessions.

In 2021, ITJP released a detailed report on torture in Sri Lanka, naming torture sites around the country. The report was based on interviews with torture survivors who had fled to the UK.

“The kind of violence to which Sri Lanka has been subjected metastasizes in the individuals exposed to it and in society as a whole. It is widely acknowledged that violence has a transgenerational character and is self-perpetuating,” said Dr. Mike Korzinski, a psycho-social and trauma expert.

“Despite the absolute prohibition of torture under international law, torture persist in all regions of the world. Concerns about protecting national security and borders are increasingly used to allow torture and other forms of cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment. Its pervasive consequences often go beyond the isolated act on an individual; and can be transmitted through generations and lead to cycles of violence,” according to the UN.

On 12 December 1997, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 26 June the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture with a view to the total eradication of torture and the effective functioning of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Convention has been ratified by 162 countries.

The work of rehabilitation centres and organisations around the world has demonstrated that victims can make the transition from horror to healing. Lawyer Dulan Dasanayaka, Director and Legal Consultant at the Right to Life Human Rights Centre, which provides legal and rehabilitation services to torture survivors, answers questions from Groundviews about how to ensure justice for torture victims and how torture can be reduced.

What assistance does your organisation provide for torture survivors?

We provide legal assistance by filing and supporting Fundamental Rights petitions, seeking compensation for torture victims by filing cases in district courts and supporting them in the magistrate courts and the Human Rights Commission. We work with the Human Rights Commission and Police Commission Against Torture. Victims are directed by us to the commissions to achieve justice as well as for their protection. A human rights defenders network has been developed by us and these defenders work voluntarily at our Human Rights First Aid Centres that are protection centres for torture victims. The defenders are rapidly deployed to the place where the violation is occurring and provide assistance and support. We also educate the public through anti-torture publications and mobilise professional pressure groups, including lawyers and journalists, against torture.

How important is counselling and rehabilitation for recovery?

Torture is often perpetrated by a party far more powerful than the victim. In addition to the physical damage caused by this, the victims also suffer serious mental damage. Some Supreme Court rulings have assessed the psychological damage caused to the victim of torture. Counseling and rehabilitation are needed to rescue the victim from mental breakdown. To fight against state institutions, the victim should be strengthened in every aspect.

What are the challenges you face in supporting torture victims?

One of the main challenges we face is having general public approval for some form of violence. There is a tendency in our society to condone corporal punishment in schools and police assaults. This prevents victims from coming forward against torture. Lack of Judicial Medical Officers is another main obstacle. To achieve justice for torture victims, it is to be essential to provide detailed medical reports to the courts. Regional Medical Officers are not experts in providing detail medical reports that can be used as evidence. Delaying justice is another major issue.

Do we have enough laws to prosecute cases of torture and is it implementation that is lacking?

We have enough laws, our failure lies in the implementation mechanism. Sri Lanka has already criminalised state torture under an act that has been in force since 1994. But when we look at the prosecutions under the act, the Attorney General’s Department has filed less than 150 cases since then. The Supreme Court has given serious rulings against torture since the 1980s. Some of the judgments have decided that Article 11 of the constitution includes mental torture and that it is also an element of torture. The problem can’t be solved only by legal reforms; the public should get rid of its pro torture mentality.

Since the police are the main offenders, what can be done to make them more responsible?

Internal inquires and  investigations should be conducted in a transparent manner. Special action should be taken against those who violate fundamental rights when they are found guilty. In order to make these investigations more transparent, a separate investigation unit should be set up instead of the relevant unit deploying officers for the investigation process. The amount of compensation ordered by the Supreme Court for violations of fundamental rights should be increased.

What measures should be taken to improve the situation?

Torture incidents should be considered as special cases taken up in expeditious manner. Investigations that are related to torture by the police and other institutions should be handed over to an independent team of officers in order to make them more transparent. Building public opinion against torture and empowering the public also positive steps that can be taken. If we can re-establish independent commissions through a constitutional amendment, we will be able to properly conduct independent investigations into torture.

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