Witness protection is a vital component of any judicial process in which there is a high risk of reprisals against those giving evidence. In Sri Lanka, the unreformed nature of the security forces (the target of many allegations) and the culture of impunity they enjoy, place a premium on institutions that can effectively deliver it.
Following decades of harassment, threats and violence against witnesses in key cases, the passing of a Witness Protection Act in March 2015 offered hope for a framework that would allow individuals to testify freely and safely. Unfortunately however, that hope has not been realized. Indeed, the outcome of the legislation – whose weaknesses were well documented following its passage through parliament – has been even worse than many of its critics had predicted.
Why? Because the body which it established, the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses, is today overrun by the very individuals whom it was designed to protect against. As a report earlier this week by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) finds, there are grave concerns about at least three of the ten members that have been appointed to date: Nandanda Munasinghe, Suhada Gamlath and Yasantha Kodagoda.
These concerns include allegations against them ranging from complicity in torture, threats against detainees, as well as judicial interference, obstruction and cover ups in serious human rights abuse cases. The report further notes that all of these individuals, as well as another, Ashoka Wijethilake, held positions of responsibility in government agencies implicated in past abuses by the state. While, a comprehensive overview can be found in the full ITJP report, available here, we list some of the key concerns relating to them below.
The implications of the latest report are crystal clear: the government of Sri Lanka must immediately remove these individuals from the Witness Protection Authority and revise the Witness Protection Act if it is deliver on its commitment to a credible safeguarding system – a promise made to all Sri Lankans as part of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 in October 2015. Unless this key institutional bedrock is strengthened, Sri Lanka’s judicial process – as well as its promised Truth Commission, Office of Missing Persons and a special court – will remain castles built on sand, with potentially grave consequences for those who speak up before them.