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Article Sri Lanka: Criticism of Ongoing Use of Torture

(May 13, 2016) In a statement following a nine-day trip to Sri Lanka, Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, claimed that criminal and terrorism investigators in Sri Lanka still use torture against detainees, even though the use has declined since the end of the country’s civil war seven years ago. While in the country, Méndez conducted a series of interviews with individuals who had been detained; their stories were confirmed with forensic tests. (Taylor Isaac, UN Rights Expert: Sri Lanka Investigators Still Using Torture, PAPER CHASE (May 8, 2016).) In addition to the use of torture, Méndez reported that prisons are crowded and conditions in them are so poor that, in his words, “deplorable doesn’t even begin to tell the story.” (Krishan Francis, UN Expert Says Torture Still Used by Sri Lanka Investigators, ABC NEWS (May 7, 2016).)

The Rapporteur noted:

Fewer cases are reported today than during the conflict period and perhaps the methods used by the police forces are at times less severe. … But sadly the practice of interrogation under physical and mental coercion still exists and severe forms of torture albeit probably in less frequent instances continue to be used. … Both old and new cases continue to be surrounded by total impunity. (Id.)

Some of the overcrowding, he stated, was the result of long sentences and long periods of detention, sometimes lasting as much as 15 years, before a case is resolved. “This is a serious violation of due process and the presumption of innocence,” he added. (Id.)

Sri Lanka’s Prisons Ordinance does provide for the movement of prisoners to temporary shelters in certain conditions, including if “the number of prisoners in any prison is greater than can conveniently or safely be kept therein … .” (Prisons Ordinance, Cap 54, art. 3 (May 1, 1878, as amended and consolidated through May 12, 2016), LAWS OF SRI LANKA.) The official capacity of the country’s prisons, as of October 2013, was 11,762 inmates; by the middle of 2015 the prison population was estimated to be 19,027. (Sri Lanka, WORLD PRISON BRIEF (last visited May 11, 2016).)

NGO Report

The nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report in 2015 detailing cases of deaths in custody in Sri Lanka and the use of torture by police, stating that the officers “frequently use torture to try to obtain confessions rather than undertaking the more difficult and time-consuming process of gathering evidence through investigations.” The report also alleges that police “use beatings and other forms of torture to punish suspects they believe are guilty, instead of leaving the matter properly to the courts.” (“We Live in Constant Fear”: Lack of Accountability for Police Abuse in Sri Lanka, HRW website (Oct. 23, 2015).)

When discussing the issue, Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW, asserted that “[t]he police regularly get away with using torture to falsely ‘resolve’ cases that really aren’t being resolved.” (Press Release, HRW, Sri Lanka: Routine Police Torture Devastates Families (Oct. 23, 2015).) He added that “Sri Lanka has decent laws to protect against such abuse, [but] these laws seem to be treated as mere suggestions and not as required police procedures … .” (Id.) Methods of torture cited by the HRW report, in addition to beatings, include “electric shock, suspension from ropes in painful positions, and rubbing chili paste in the genitals and eyes.” (Id.) The organization advocates extensive reform of Sri Lanka’s justice system, including the establishment of an independent authority for police oversight. (Id.)

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