An interview with Basil Fernando (advisor of the Srilanka Campaign for Peace and Justice) given to Asia Human Rights Commission (Burma).
How is Torture practiced in Sri Lanka?( Basil Fernando interview)
In Sri Lanka, torture is the usual constant practice. Torture is practiced in Sri Lanka all the time, in all police stations and during military operations. It is the usual constant practice. They use torture because torture is easy and cheap if you want to get a confession quickly. Because the criminal system is so badly organized, an ordinary Constable can torture a person, but cannot conduct an investigation. Investigative technique requires training, time, patience and many other skills. If you want to do things economically, then you use torture. That is their raison d’etre.
If there is an insurgency, people may be tortured who are thought to be members of a questionable organization. However, if one is a prominent political figure they will not be tortured because of status and money. So, it comes down to the fact that ordinary, poor people are tortured. In the course of an ordinary criminal investigation of stealing or robbery, the police mostly use torture to get whatever they want.
Torture in police stations, in military compounds and in detention centers is done in secret, without witnesses. Then they can deny the fact when somebody dies in custody. Excuses might be given that the person died of a heart attack or he hung himself at the police station because according to the law, torture is forbidden. And we have a law which says that torture is a crime punishable by 7 years imprisonment. So torture is a crime. Since you cannot commit a crime openly, you torture people where only police or military people are present. This is their process whereby there is no evidence or complaints, because where does the person go who was tortured?
Officially, they can complain to higher police authorities, to human rights commissions, to police commissions, to lawyers, to the courts, even the Supreme Court. Under the fundamental rights umbrella, they can file a petition with the Supreme Court. The fact is that none of these things ultimately result in any real solutions. So, most people don’t complain because at the end of the day there is no point in doing so. At the beginning they may want to voice their complaints, but get discouraged because it brings on more troubles. For instance, someone will come and say things or offer you some money. In the end, large numbers of people don’t take the trouble to complain because it is useless. They don’t have faith in the police. They know that if you go to the police, there is no point. The higher officer will not enquire into the case, and most certainly will take no action against the ordinary policeman, but rather will take their side. He will try to do a cover- up, making people loathe to go to higher officers and complain, although they have the legal right to do so.
he Human Rights Commission has also done nothing to solve this problem. They go to the Courts in some cases but it takes several years to hear a case. And should the court give a judgment it is not honored by everybody. So in the end, you get nothing. Formally speaking, you have the right to make a complaint. But there is no real system to do so and get the complaint investigated. If the government is not supposed to do torture, they can make things very simple .They must budget appropriate monies to ensure more properly trained, professional people to investigate crimes. Otherwise, police officers will continue to torture.
So, how can the same government which allows the police to commit torture, also take legal action against them? This is the contradiction. Legally they can, speaking they can, but practically government cannot do both. If the government permits police officers to torture, they cannot take a firm standard against those officers who torture.
These two things cannot go together. Common sense tells us that the Sri Lankan situation is not different from many other Asia countries such as Thailand or the Philippines where a proper policing system is not in operation. Police, who investigate crime according to a standard, develop ways and make professional enquires. But we, we have a physically beaten-up style where police do not do these things. This is a high-level industry that is tolerated. Everybody depends on the system. If you don’t and allow an opposition party to get too much power, then you use the police to beat them up at various stages. As a result people will not take to protesting. Torture is used for stopping such things as: protests, organizing political parties, people talking in the public and to intimidate people. They rule by intimidation. They rule by creating fear. That is why torture is everywhere.
What do the Sri Lanka Human Rights organizations do for the victims of torture?
They do their best. They collect information to get people to talk. What else can they do if there are no legal remedies? And when the people are willing to talk, publicize it. Send it to the government even though they know nothing will happen, send it to the newspapers and send it to the internet. They can do urgent appeals and write reports. But, first they get it in the press, so as to generate a great deal of publicity. Some of them also help the torture victims by facilitating psychological and physical treatment and protection. They also aid them in filing many cases or finding cases. None of this ends up in good results however. About all they can do is to get information and publicize.
According to your experience, what is the most difficult area in which to work in your country?
Everywhere is difficult .You need the law, you need the system and the system is broken down everywhere in the country. And of course, it is worse in places where there has been civil war. In the north-east, where there has been civil conflict, there is nothing and the military are everywhere. These people are in the worst position. But, generally, every place is like that.
Are people tortured by the police afraid to make a complaint?
If they complain, who is going to look after the complaint? The police will come back and beat them because they complain. They are merely trying to make a protest about their troubles. Therefore, they will be beaten to create more difficulties for them, because basically the people are afraid of being tortured.
How does the Human Rights Organization encourage these people?
If a woman is raped, you don’t have to encourage talking. She will talk because she is angry. You don’t need to encourage, you only need to listen. There are enough people to listen. Everywhere people are talking about it. People know that it is wrong but people cannot do anything officially about it. But people complain to each other. People complain to their family, their neighbors and people talk. What the human rights group and the others can do is listen, record what they are saying, get it published and get it discussed. But you don’t have to encourage them because people are already very angry. The Human Rights Organization will send them to the government. That’s all they can do. There are many places that people know where somebody will listen to them. So they go to these places and say this is what happened to me.
So they have small town officers, in a small place where it is known what has happened to you. If you go there, you can file a complaint. You can say what you want and the people know what you are saying. They will type up the complaint and officially send it to official channels. They will get it published in the newspaper and other places. And finally they will send it to the international human rights organization. That is what a HR organization does.
What are the difficulties for those who work in the field in Sri Lanka?
The difficulty is the legal system is not used. The Legal system doesn’t help the victim or the legal system for that matter. They both suffer the same problem. If the Legal system is good these things don’t happen. The police are not good, the courts are not good and the government only respects vested money interests. These are the main difficulties. Added to that, government knows that some HR organizations are helping people and the people are therefore stronger. As a result, they try to discourage the Human Rights Defender. In the last analysis, the problem is that there is no system in place that protects both people and the legal system itself.
An additional something
The thing is, everybody knows that torture exists in every part of Asia. People know this but people don’t talk it over. It is not the victim’s problem. People in general as well as the popular media should talk about what they really know .They should stop being hypocrites. Everybody knows what is happening. The real problem is the bigger media outlets, the larger civil society, organizations, and women’s organizations. There are numerous human rights organizations. They know what is happening, but they don’t talk about it enough. Brutality abounds.
The police are brutal, society is brutal and very often people are also brutal. If men have problems at home, they may beat their wives because they know the police will not do anything about it. So torture problems, domestic violence, violence against woman are all related. People should put things together, that is, if the State is brutal, you cannot make the general society civilized. There is no point in trying to punish only the husband because it is the society that is brutalized. You can see everywhere where torture has been used. In the schools, the teacher will use punishment against the child as they think this is the way to discipline students. So, police use torture, schools use physical punishment, husbands beat their wives, all part of a violent society. Sri Lanka is a very violent society.