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Torture of suspects in police custody fourishes in Sri Lanka

Oct 24, 2010 8:19:08 PM- transcurrents.com

by Ranga Jayasuriya

"I was taken to the upstairs, where there were four police officers. I was ordered to strip naked. I felt shamed. I looked around. Then a cop shouted at me to strip or else will be beaten. I undressed out of fear......................

An officer tied my hands together and another tied my legs................ My hands were placed on the knees and an officer sent a metal pipe between my hands and legs. They fixed the two ends of the metal pole to two beds.

One cop grabbed my legs and rotated me while Constable Priyantha beat my toes with a club. The pain was immense and it ran up to the head. Cops kept on beating me. I shouted out of pain that I didn’t rob anything. I feared that they would kill me. I told that I had four children to feed. I felt like my hands being dismembered. I could not take beating any longer. So I said I stole and gave it to my elder sister who pawned it at a Bank in Nivithigala. That’s what they wanted me to tell; no matter I was innocent. ".. - Horanekarage Lalith Abeysuriya (31), labourer, Wattehena, Niwithigala.

The above method is, rather miss- fittingly, called ‘Dharmachakra,’ a foremost symbol named after a Buddhist religious tradition. The victim, whose hands and legs are bound is hanged on a pole and rotated like Dharmachakra while his torturers beat the hapless victim. This method is frequently employed to extract information from suspected JVP insurgents by the government military during the reign of terror in 1989.

Two decades since the end of leftist insurgency and the supposed dawn of peace, the torture method hadn’t outlived its use. Now police use it on suspects in police custody.

Sri Lankans live with the daily prospect of torture; but the indifference, if not ignorance of the majority of population is only fostering a culture of impunity.

Indifference of the majority public could amount to condoning a culture of police torture and its continued use as a tool of interrogation — in breach of country’s obligations to the Convention Against Torture and constitutional guarantees enshrined in the very constitution against the use of torture.

A Lakbimanews investigation into torture led us into several dozens of well documented cases of torture by police. But, that could very well be the tip of the iceberg.

Perpetrators have been brought to book in any of the cases investigated by the Lakbimanews and documented below. The sluggish government response and the well justified fear of reprisals by the police explain why many victims of torture don’t wish to come out.


Police officers, though, in private cite a rationale for torturing suspects. That suspects don’t spit out their crimes, until they are beaten is the misplaced logic of the torture.

Police officers admit, in private, the regular use of torture as a tool to extract confessions from suspects. And the torture is condoned as long as it does not trigger a public uproar.

In a separate note, that again explains the lack of professionalism and training on the part of the police.

A professional police force does not beat suspects up to extract confessions; instead it directs investigations by collecting forensic and other evidence in order to piece together a plausible case for the indictment of suspects.

But, inside police sources say Sri Lankan police, more often than not opt to beat suspects to cough up confessions in a hurry to wind up inquiries.

Number of resolved criminal cases would be taken into account in the promotions of police officers, but their culpability in acts of torture stands to be a major handicap for the very fact that many such incidents are hushed up by the police themselves.

Torture, therefore is a short cut to many things.

Is torture a tool to extract confessions of guilt? The answer is vague. Victims of torture tell whatever their tortures want to hear in order to stop further agony. Torture victims own up crimes, which they have never committed in order to escape further torture.

One of the most notable incidents was that of Colombo Dock Yard worker, Gerald Perara who was tortured by the then Crime OIC and seven officers of Wattala police in order to extract a confession on his guilt in a murder. On the following day, only after torturing the victim for a whole night, his torturers realized that he had been arrested on a mistaken identity.

Gerald Perera was later released, but was later killed by the same cops in order to cover up the charges of torture after the victim filed a fundamental rights petition against the police.

Gerald Perara’s murder shocked the Sri Lankan society momentarily, before every thing return to normalcy.

And the police continue to pick wrong suspects and torture them to extract confessions.

Stolen Jewellery

Lalith Abeysuriya, the victim quoted at the outset of this report was subjected to extensive torture by the police to make him extract a confession from him. He did exactly what cops wanted him to do in order to escape excruciating pain. He admitted a theft of jewellery.

But, when his tortures untied him and brought him down from Darmachakra, the poor man didn’t have to show up his loot.

On the following day, he was tortured again by the police to extract the same confession of his guilt and to find out the whereabouts of the stolen jewellery.

“I was hanged in the same way like the previous day and was beaten on the toes. I felt I would die. I pleaded for mercy and asked the police officers how I could produce something which I didn’t steal.

I told the cops that I have four children and they would avenge my death, if I am killed by the police.

Then, Constable Priyantha (his principle torturer) quipped: “paligannath uba ithuruwela inna epaya” (You have to be alive to take revenge from us?)

Torture ended only after the victim passed out.

Impunity enjoyed by the police is far- reaching and leaves little room for redress of grievances of torture victims. Once arrested, suspect is at the mercy of the police.

Seeking legal redress could only aggravate the plight.

A lawyer contracted by Abeysuriya’s family visited the torture victim who is kept in the police cell.

After the departure of the lawyer, police officers resumed torturing the victim.

Constable Priyantha threatened: “Umba kerum karayath genalla thiyanne. Umbata yanna wenne petitiye thamay” (You have brought in influential people. You will go in a coffin.)

Abeysuriya was later tortured by the OIC and several cops; one hit him on the face with a club and he passed out.

He was later shown to a doctor at Wathupitawala hospital. His torturers who had already threatened him against disclosing to the doctor of his ordeal at the hands of police were present throughout the medical examination.

Out of fear, Abeysuriya didn’t complain to the doctor about torture he was subjected by the police.

Following day, he was produced before the court where the lawyer appearing on his behalf, informed the Magistrate that his client had been tortured in police custody and was in need of medical attention.

Abeysuriya was granted bail by the Magistrate who ordered him to be examined by a Judicial Medical Officer (JMO). He alleged that he had been threatened by the police against disclosing his ordeal.

After his release, he has gone into hiding, fearing repercussions by his torturers who are still serving in Nivithigala Police.

Like many other victims of torture, justice is yet to be delivered to Abeysuriya.

That it is mainly the most vulnerable groups of the society that were the regular victims of inhuman treatment by the law enforcing agencies could cloud the influential segments of society from the magnitude of torture.

Police, more often than not become a bully to the poor and the powerless.

Hewawasam Sarukkalige Rathnasiri Fernando (50) of No: 07 D, Warapitiya, Darga Town was kicked and punched and cut with a knife by a group of policemen attached to Welippena police station after he refused to sell them toddy on August 9, this year.

Cops were drunk and deriving a sadistic pleasure torturing the old victim, witnesses alleged. The victim was admitted to Waththewa government hospital and was later transferred to Nagoda Hospital.

While at the hospital, two prison officers arrived and took him to Kalutara prison where he was kept until August 17 without informing him under what charges he was held.

On 17 August, he was charged with the obstruction of duty of police officers and possession of 40 drams of illicit liquor, both charges as alleged by Rathnasiri were fabricated by the police to prevent the disclosure of the information of torture.

Rathnasiri submitted to the magistrate that he had been tortured by the police and that he had received medical treatment. The Magistrate ordered Rathnasiri be examined by a Judicial Medical Officer and released him on bail.

Rathnasiri has sought justice from the IGP, the National Human Rights Commission and the National Police Commission; the latter is now defunct.

Two months after the incident, Rathnasiri’s torturers are still serving in the police.

Sri Lanka police is by no means the most disciplined institution, but, indifference, which sometimes amounts to connivance of officials who are entrusted with the security and physical wellbeing of suspects, further aggravates the dilemma of torture victims.

Sometimes, Judicial Medical Officers become accessories of torture.

The Medical Council of Sri Lanka, in the case of, Mullankandage Amitha Priyanthi vs. Dr. W.R. Piyasoma, (Case No. PPC 53) has delineated the duty of a Judicial Medical Officer.

The Medical Council stated in its determination that it is the responsibility of the JMO to have carefully examined the patient and to ascertain as to how far the patient was affected by the injury caused by the Police... and as to whether the injuries that he has sustained require medical attention in a hospital and therefore he should be admitted for such treatment.”

Ethical guidelines

But, such ethical guidelines are observed in breach. Sometimes, JMOs are culpable of fostering a culture of impunity through their negligence.

Henayaka Arachchilage Parakrama Karunaratne (28) of No. 34, Badiwewa, Ma Oya, Jayanthipura, Polonnaruwa was strapped to a tree and beaten with wooden poles by a group of police officers of Maha Oya police post led by Sergeant Senaratna on April 26 this year, when the victim went to file a complain about a gambling spot operating near his residence. Sergeant Senaratna allegedly ordered to torture the victim as the owner of the gambling spot was a relation of Senartna.

The victim was later taken to Polonnaruwa Hospital where the doctor didn’t pay attention to Parakrama’s complaint that he was tortured by the police. The victim alleged that the doctor on the request of his torturers decided that the victim didn’t need medical attention despite open swollen wounds of the victim inflicted by torture. Parackama was taken back to the police cell of Kaduruwela police. However, due to his injuries, the HQI of the police station ordered him to be admitted to Polonaruwa Hospital.

Fabricating charges against victims of torture is increasingly becoming the modus operandi of the police in order to dissuade victims from pressing charges against the perpetrators of torture.

After Parakrama was admitted to the hospital, the police pressed charges of obstruction of duty against him. He was presented to the Polonnaruwa Magistrate to whom he disclosed his ordeal. Parakarama was later released on bail and was examined by a Judicial Medical Officer.

The Superintendent of Police, Polonnaruwa repeatedly turned down the complaint regarding the torture of Parakrama until the Magistrate ordered the torture victim to be examined by a JMO.

All that suggests the connivance at all ranks of police to hush up charges. It is a system of “you scratch my back and I scratch yours”. That system keeps torturers away from legal scrutiny.

There is a subculture within police which fosters a culture of impunity by defending perpetrators of torture and dissuading victims, through use of threat, seeking justice. Needless to say that whistle blowing is an alien word for Sri Lankan police.

Human Rights Commission

Parakrama has made a complaint to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (HRC) under the No. HRC/AP/221/2101/ (E). Since then, he had not heard from the Human Rights Commission.

On 30 April 2010, Karasinghe Arachchilage Kumarasinghe Appuhamy of Wijeriya, Kilonna was tortured by the officials of Kolonna police who charged him with illegally obtaining electricity. Appuhamy was admitted to Kolonna hospital after he vomited and fainted. After being informed that the victim had been tortured, the doctor of the hospital directed him to the District Medical Officer (DMO).

Appuhamy alleged that the DMO ignored the request of the victim for treatment and that after a private conversation with one of his torturers, the DMO ordered that the victim be taken back to the police cell, where he was tortured again.

Appuhamy had complained to the National Human Rights Commission against officials of Kolonna police and the DMO.

In a culture of impunity, bribes could fuel police torture. The service of police is available for those who could afford, and wish to teach a lesson or two to their personal rivals.

Valisadeera Lalith Nishantha de Silva of Samagi Mawatha, Makuluwa, and Galle was taken to Poddala police and beaten up after his mother-in-law lodged a complaint over a family dispute. In a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission, the victim has alleged that the estranged family members of his wife’s side had bribed the OIC of the Poddala police to torture him and fabricate charges against him.

The victim was treated in Karapitiya hospital for six days for the complication of beatings he received at the hands of the police.

In another incident, Koronchilage Sujith Aruna Shantha, (17), student of Sangattikulama Junior School was taken to Anamaduwa police on June 4, 2010 after a scuffle between him and a student of a well- to- do family in the village.

Aruna Shantha was beaten with a metal pipe by two policemen in front of the father of the victim.

On following day, when Aruna Shantha’s father met the family of the student with whom his son quarreled, student’s mother replied that, “ We got the police to punch your son properly.”

Aruna Shantha was produced before the Acting Magistrate of Puttalam and was charged with assault.

He was remanded by the Magistrate and was sent to Negambo prison where he was tortured by a jailer guard allegedly on the instructions of an associate of the influential family, whose son had a scuffle with Aruna Shantha.

Complications of torture

Aruna Shantha was later granted bail by the Magistrate. On his release, he fell sick due to complications of torture and was admitted to Puttalam Hospital from where he was transferred to Kurunegala Hospital.

He had complained to the National Human Rights Commission, IGP, the National Police Commission and National Child Protection Authority.

However, his torturers, Police Constable Chandratilake and Ratnayake are still serving at Anamaduwa Police.

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. A law against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment was passed in 1994. Sri Lanka has also ratified the Optional Protocol of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which allows its citizens to file complaints with the Human Rights Committee. Article 126 of the Constitution also provides that any person whose right against torture is violated may petition the Supreme Court under its fundamental rights jurisdiction.

However, the conduct of police and culture of impunity make a mockery of Sri Lanka’s international obligations and constitutional requirements. Equally distressing is the dysfunctional Human Rights Commission which human rights activists allege that prefer to hush up complaints than to investigate them. - courtesy: Lakbima News -