ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 09
Columns - Focus on Rights  

Collusion of medical professionals in torture

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

This week's three year suspension of a Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) as a result of medical negligence regarding the cruel and inhuman treatment of a suspect by the Payagala police, is a rare case in point of disciplinary standards being strictly enforced by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC).

In this instance, MulleKandage Lasantha Jagath Kumara had been arrested by the Payagala police on June 12, 2000 and was assaulted inhumanely by the police officers during five days in which he was kept illegally in custody. He later died at the Welikada prisons as a direct result of this assault. The then JMO, Kalutara, Dr W.R. Piyasoma had conducted the medical examination of Lasantha Kumara when he was produced by the Payagala police but had failed to observe minimum standards. Upon a complaint being filed against him to the SLMC, several charges were framed against Dr Piyasoma including examining the suspect in the presence of the police officer which deprived the suspect of an opportunity to provide details without fear as to the manner of the assault, failure to take the detailed history of the patient, to record the names of the alleged assailants, failure to diagnose the serious injuries sustained by the patient while noting only the less serious injuries and failure to recommend his admission to hospital.

The Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) of the SLMC, after concluding on the culpability of Dr Piyasoma on these charges, points out that if Dr Piyasoma had taken the needed action demanded of him as a medical professional, he may well have saved Jagath Kumara's life instead of indirectly contributing to his death. Inexplicably however, the PCC decided to erase the erring doctor's name from the medical records only for a period of three years, stating that even though the breach of professional standards should have led to a permanent erasure from the medical register, this punishment was being mitigated due to Dr Piyasoma's age and considering that this was his first indiscretion.

While this reasoning of the Committee may be appreciated by some as reflecting appropriately Shakespearean qualities of mercy, there is no doubt that three years suspension is far too light a sentence for such egregious breaches of professional conduct as has been disclosed in this case. Incidentally, the PCC's decision also passes severe strictures on another senior forensic medical specialist, Professor Ravindra Fernando who had acted on behalf of Dr Piyasoma during the inquiry as well as venturing to give expert evidence at the inquiry.

On another level, the SLMC's decision illustrates an isolated instance of action being taken against a medical pr1ofessional who had virtually colluded with the police in the torture of persons taken into custody. Other cases similar to that of Jagath Kumara's abound; the only difference is that the medical professionals in these cases continue to practice and continue to collude with the police in covering up abuse in custody. The death of Garlin Kankanamge Sanjeewa (whom the police stated committed suicide inside the police station) is one example. Here too, the medical report pertaining to his death was impugned but no action was taken against the medical officer involved.

Then again, the torture of a minor, Chamila Bandara case from 20th to 28th July 2003 at Ankumbura Police Station, (due to his being implicated in a petty crime) highlighted glaring lapses on the part of one medical professional who (as later inquiries disclosed) had issued a medical report without even examining the victim. Initially Chamila was not produced before a JMO, despite being admitted to the Kandy hospital for treatment. It was only, after being re-admitted to the Peradeniya Hospital, that he was given a proper medical examination. Doctors then concluded that the use of his left arm was impaired. However, a later examination by another medical professional contradicted these other medical reports by finding physical injuries incompatible with the nature of the torture described by Chamila. This subsequent report was found to have been written out by a doctor who had not seen Chamila Bandara.

This case is remarkable in that it disclosed collusion not only by a medical officer but also by the district area co-ordinator of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) who (taking into account, only the police version), found that there had been no torture. Due to strong pressure brought by local activist groups, the NHRC held a second inquiry manned by a retired judicial officer which concluded that there had, indeed, been torture of this boy. Years later, indictment was filed in the High Court and the trial is pending.

Isolated cases such as Jagath Kumara's and Chamila Bandara's expose only one instance of a system that is seriously flawed in its functioning, whether it is in relation to subverted police investigations, inadequate magisterial supervision of suspects when produced before them, collusion of medical officers and members of human rights monitoring bodies in police excesses, weak or long-drawn out prosecutions and lack of a sufficiently deterrent body of judgements in terms of the 1994 Anti-Torture Act.

Recently, the third conviction, (in so far as is publicly known), in terms of the Anti-Torture Act was delivered by the Colombo High Court as a result of which seven years imprisonment was ordered for an inspector of police (former OIC of the Crimes division at the Narahenpita police) and a constable for causing the torture of Angalin Roshana, a domestic helper who had been handed over to the police by the family members for whom she worked on suspicion of having committed a robbery.

Here again, while such convictions are to be applauded, they come too far and few inbetween to have any deterrent impact. Like this week's SLMC decision, these are just exceptions to a system that has failed, by and large, to succour ordinary people who are helpless in the hands of bullies in uniform, regardless of a few isolated victories.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.