The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson today slammed Sri Lanka’s slow progress to address key human rights related issues.
Emmerson said that none of the measures so far adopted to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress, and there is little evidence that perpetrators of war crimes committed by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces are being brought to justice.
The Special Rapporteur told reporters at the end of his visit to Sri Lanka that he was given a personal assurance by the Prime Minister that once the current process of counter-terrorism reform had been completed, the Government would pass legislation paving the way for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be established, and set up an Office of the Special Prosecutor to bring criminal charges against those involved in the most serious atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict.
“These are, of course, steps which the Government promised to the international community that it would have delivered in full by now,” he said.
However he said it is fair to say that there are some very slight indications of positive movement in this direction.
The Special Rapporteur said that during his visit, the Chief of the Army, Mahesh Senanayake, made a public commitment to ensuring that members of the armed forces who had committed crimes would be brought to justice; a senior Naval Commander was arrested for his alleged involvement in the disappearance of 11 people during the closing stages of the conflict, and the Special Rapporteur was assured by the Attorney General that if and when criminal allegations against the military finally reach his office, they will be prosecuted with the full force of the law.
But Emmerson says these indications fall far short of Sri Lanka’s international commitment to achieve a lasting and just solution to its underlying problems, for the benefit of all of its communities, to establish a meaningful system of transitional justice that is governed by the principles of equality and accountability, and to put in place essential and urgently needed reform of the security sector.
Despite the shocking prevalence of the practice of torture in Sri Lanka, the Special Rapporteur notes the lack of effective investigations into such allegations. In response to a request for the most recent official statistics, he was informed that only 71 police officers had been proceeded against for torturing suspects since available records began. He notes that the Human Rights Commission is now routinely informed when an individual is detained under the PTA and has unfettered access to all places of detention. However, in a system that is premised on obtaining convictions by confessions, this, and other safeguards, have proved entirely insufficient to protect suspects against this most cowardly of international crimes.
“The significance of the systemic use of torture to obtain confessions needs to be seen against the deplorable delays that are built into the framework for the handling of cases under the PTA. Through a combination of extended executive detention, and grossly protracted criminal proceedings, suspects arrested under the PTA have commonly been held in detention, in conditions that amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, for many years without ever having been found guilty of anything, and without any effective judicial review of their detention,” Emmerson said.
Under the system still currently in operation in Sri Lanka, the Attorney General, who is the chief prosecutor, has the right of veto over any application for bail. He has almost inevitably refused to grant consent in the past in PTA cases, although that practice has very recently begun to change. The result has been that the hands of the judiciary have been tied by the executive in a manner that is wholly incompatible with the rule of law, or basic precepts of democratic justice.
The Special Rapporteur met a significant cross section of individuals detained under the PTA whose length of detention ran into double figures. On requesting official figures for those currently charged with offences under the PTA, he was given statistics from which it is apparent that out of 81 prisoners currently in the judicial phase of their pre-trial detention, 70 had been in detention without trial for over five years and 12 had been in detention without trial for over 10 years. These staggering figures are a stain on Sri Lanka’s international reputation. Steps should be taken to release these individuals on bail immediately, or bring them to trial within weeks or months, not years or decades. This entire PTA system, as it has operated until now, and continues to operate in those current cases to which it applies, amounts to a flagrant denial of justice.
The Special Rapporteur calls for the Government of Sri Lanka immediately to provide for effective judicial review of the legality of the detention of those still behind bars, and to submit individuals charged under the PTA to a fair trial with all guarantees of due process. He also calls on the Government to establish an effective mechanism for investigating all allegations of torture by the police, and for reviewing the safety of all past PTA convictions in which evidence of a confession to the police was central to the prosecution case. (Colombo Gazette)