Torture in the South
Specific attention is focused this week by the international human rights monitoring
body Amnesty International on a case related development in Sri Lanka which exposes the fragile line between justice and terror that ordinary citizens in this country are now compelled to live with.

That Amnesty has seen fit to draw attention to this case, which might seem mundane, in a period during which attention grabbing constitutional and peace process related events are taking place in the country, is no accident.

On the contrary, it is a pointer to the significant manner in which Sri Lanka's human rights protection structures and institutions have broken down in a collapse of moral and legal faith, the rebuilding of which will take far greater effort than finetuning the niceties of a constitutional document.

The case relates to a woman by the name of Nandini Herat who was arrested by police officers on the 8th of March this year. The arrest had taken place in Wariyapola, near Kurunegala. After she was taken into custody, she was reportedly subjected to sexual torture.

When she was produced before court, the magistrate had ordered that Nandini Herat should be given a medical examination. However a gynaecological examination was not conducted even though she had requested and in fact, insisted that it should be carried out.

Five months later, five police officers, including the officer in charge (OIC) of the Wariyapola police, were charged before the Magistrates' Court of Wariyapola with the torture of Nandini Herat. The trial began shortly thereafter and is currently proceeding.

The problem however was that despite these police officers being charged, they remained in their posts (and in fact, still serve as such). The resultant effect was predictable.

Activists monitoring the case report that one of the prime suspects, the OIC of the Wariyapola police station, reportedly went to the Kandy remand prison where Nandini Herat is currently being held. They believe that he attempted to see her in order to ask her to withdraw the case, but was prevented from doing so by prison officials.

Meanwhile, Nandini Herat's father was threatened by the Wariyapola police when he tried to obtain a copy of the initial complaint made to the police against her.

This was despite the fact that he had with him a letter endorsed by the Inspector General of Police and the Superintendent of Wariyapola Division requesting that a copy of the document be handed to Nandini's father. When these letters were shown, the police at the station had refused to hand over the complaint and threatened to mete out summary justice to him and his son.

This however, is not the full sum of the story. Police intimidation and threats did not stop at the victim and immediate family but extended to activists and lawyers concerned in the case. One activist received several threats consequent to which, two men had come up to him when travelling in a bus, pinned him down and threatened him.
One had pulled out a knife and said "Are you the human rights dog who is trying to send my brother-in-law to prison?" It was only on the intervention of the bus conductor and the driver that he had escaped.

Meanwhile, two lawyers asked to handle Nandini Herat's case have already withdrawn their services and concerns are being expressed that a third lawyer may be subjected to threats and intimidation.

To complete this astonishing cycle of harassment, the local media has also been warned to stay away from the hearings. The effect of all this on the pending proceedings is considerable despite an explicit warning which had been issued by the magistrate that witnesses in the pending case should not be intimidated.

Last week, this column highlighted a Supreme Court judgment concerning the torture of a Tamil woman detained at the Remand Prison in Negombo, whose arrest and detention, though ostensibly under an anti terrorism law prevalent at that time, was found by the Supreme Court to have been without rhyme or reason.

The torture that she had been subjected to, which was horrendous, included the insertion of a plantain flower soaked in chilli powder into her vagina.

It is fitting that, this week, this column should (quite unwittingly though), have as its focus, the torture of a Sinhala woman, though the exact torture that Nandini Herat has been subjected to is not yet known.

Regardless, the point is clear. We have presently no insurrection in the South nor an ongoing war in the North. Yet the culture of brutality has steeped so deep into our psyche that freeing our national soul from its grasp will now be well nigh impossible.

The tasks of rebuilding would have been hard even if we had a highly conscientious civil society and a bold working of institutions set up to protect the rule of law. Yet, what we have in Sri Lanka at present is the contrary, supplemented by a largely callous indifference to the sufferings of those ordinary citizens who are not protected by wealth or privilege.

In commenting on the case of Nandini Herat, Amnesty International has drawn attention to the fact that Sri Lanka incorporated the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment into national law in 1994.

This Act makes torture a crime punishable by seven to ten years' imprisonment and a fine. Amnesty goes on to point out that although the Sri Lankan government has set up a Human Rights Commission and other mechanisms to look into torture complaints, torture continues to be reported regularly, and only a handful of cases are investigated.

Nandini Herat's case illustrates very well as to why this pattern of impunity continues in this country. In the first instance, it is inconceivable that police officers, after being charged of an offence as grievous as torture should have been permitted to remain in their posts, one being as senior as the officer in charge of a police station.

Those activists who have concerned themselves with the case of Nandini Herat in Wariyapola, Kurunegala, meanwhile, should be receiving widespread national backing and sufficient publicity in order that the attempted subversion of the proceedings against the accused police officers be prevented. Indeed, there is nothing to prevent the National Human Rights Commission from systematically monitoring cases like Nandini Herat's from a human rights angle even though formal proceedings are pending in court
This is borne out by Section 14 of the Human Rights Commission Act which specifically gives the Commission the power to investigate on its own motion or on a complaint, alleged human rights violations. Activism of this nature is common for example in India. In this country, hamstrung as the Commission presently is by a severe lack of funds, such interventions are not possible.

We recently had the Government calling for representations before a Parliamentary Select Committee in order to obtain the views of the public regarding the mandate of the Human Rights Commission and the nature of the fundamental rights jurisdiction vested in the Supreme Court.

However, it is at a point such as in Nandini Herat's case that all these lofty representations break down and we have the stark simple truth. Our national soul has been corrupted and we do not have the courage to set it right again.

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