The murder of George Floyd in the United States has in the past week resulted in a renewed focus on police violence, torture, brutality and impunity. Coincidentally, two cases of Police brutality and violence-those of Kavinda Isuru and Thariq Ahamed –have received a lot of attention on social media in Sri Lanka, but unequally. Thariq’s case; of an autistic 14 years old whose brutal assault by the police was captured on CCTV has received much more attention than Kavida’s case, whose parents lodged a complaint at the Human Rights Commission of the Sri Lanka last week that his death inside the Mahara prison was suspicious as his body showed clear signs of brutal assault and torture.
Sanjana Haththotuwa spoke with Ambika Satkunanathan on these issues, anchored to content posted by her on the systematic embedded nature of police brutality in Sri Lanka, extending over many years. Ambika is an Open Society Fellow and was a Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka from October 2015 to March 2020.
MODERATOR: Ambika, thanks for joining me on this podcast to talk about some of the things that have captured our attention on the media right now as you know there’s a lot coming out of the United States and there’s also a lot coincidentally coming out of Sri Lanka. I suppose the first question or a good place to start as any is when you look at what’s coming out of the United States given how many years you worked in Sri Lanka on similar issues and hearing these same stories, what do you feel, what kind of emotions go through when you see some of these extraordinary media headlines coming out to the States right now?
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: Firstly, thank you for inviting me to be part of this podcast. When I see the headlines, well there are quite a few reactions. First, it shows that the issues that we face locally are all related, that they’re all linked and that perhaps it also makes me realize that the reactions that we see amongst the public here- it makes me question if we see a similar incident happen how will we react in Sri Lanka. And I think most importantly what it shows are the systemic and structural inequalities, that despite the amount of funding you might throw towards an issue, despite the amount of training you might provide to officers if you do not address these historical, systemic structural problems then you will find the police using excessive violence. You will come across these deaths. You will find custodial deaths. So it comes down to police violence just being one of the issues, isn’t it? Covid I mean, what it has done is it has highlighted the underlying fundamental causes, and this is just one of the issues that we’re seeing. Whether it’s prisons, whether it is socio economic issues, in how people in the informal sector how they have been impacted by this. So all those issues are coming to the fore.
MODERATOR: All of those I think worthy of their own podcast I do however want to talk about this issue around and this discussion and attention and that is around police violence brutality and torture. One of the reasons I’m talking to you is that you have in the past week being consistent in tweeting a lot of content related to driving the attention of those who are on Twitter in Sri Lanka around the fact that these issues that we see out of the United States, exist and for decades in our country as well. One of the reports that you consistently keep going back to is the report of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to the UN Committee against Torture in October 2016. In preparation for this podcast one of the things that I did -it is a seventeen-page report- was to do a word cloud, and as you know Ambika word cloud renders words in greater size depending on the frequency of the phrase of the world in the report. And quite extraordinary really for me to see when I did the word cloud that torture, police, detention, persons and human and complaints and rights came out as the big words, literally and metaphorically. Why is, and I think that this is not surprising for a few of us but I think entirely surprising for many of us, is torture so ingrained and married with police, the police in Sri Lanka?
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: Well, I think a few reasons but before I go into them one thing I would like to point out is because of all the criticism that was leveled towards the Commission in the past and the report, is to say that all the cases mentioned in the report are cases that have been inquired into and investigated by the Commission, and are supported by medical reports issued by the Judicial Medical Officer. This means that they’ve found evidence of torture, hence there is no speculation as to whether it happened or not. So, one of the main reasons, there are several, but one of them is also an impunity in that when officers commit torture, when they use violence against detainees either during the arrest or when they are in detention, no action is taken against them or perhaps only disciplinary action is taken against them. You know that in Sri Lanka we do have the Convention Against Torture Act which was enacted in 1994, which criminalizes torture, which means it’s a criminal offense for which you can go to prison for a minimum seven years. We still don’t know, as we mentioned in the report as well, we still don’t know how many officers had been indicted and convicted under this Act. the Commission did request that, and as we mentioned in the report, for these statistics from the AG’s Dept, but until I left, to my knowledge we had not about received them. So that is I think is the primary reason. The second reason is also I think just the nature of these institutions. Because when we speak about the police what kind of an institution is it? It’s an institution founded on power, on the coercive use of power, and it is not particularly an institution founded on the concept of dignity on how we treat others, and it’s a very hierarchical institution and it’s a very masculine institution. It’s a very patriarchal institution.
So, all those things also bring in the values of violence, of coercion, of lack of respect as well because it’s about power and how you use it against someone who has lesser power than you. So, here too we come to the concept of inequality. Because, if you have read the report so you would have seen this, is that in many instances, and I saw this during my nearly five years at the Commission, those who came to us with complaints of ill treatment by the police, often, not always, but often, were of a particular socio economic background, which means they were not wealthy, they were not of a particular class, so there was that socio economic factor which shows also that that is when you are an influential wealthy person you will be treated with a certain level of respect even when you go to the police. So that shows that the concept of inequality, that exists within society and also within that structure of the police. I think these tend to be important two reasons why we see that (violence). Also we see, for instance, investigation techniques, because they’re not taught about new methods of inquiry, of investigation- so for instance we don’t have cameras in every police station in the inquiry room, to be recording everything. Therefore what they believe is that the easy way to elicit information is to use a little bit of violence, to rough someone up and then you will get the information. To be honest I’ve had even police officers telling me this when I’ve gone to meet them, which also shows that they don’t always think or know that it is wrong. If they think they can say that to a commissioner and that it is ok what does that tell us? They think it’s normal. So it has been normalized in our society and also most importantly you would find that even within society people who are outraged now, if there was a theft in their home, and this is something I think many of us have seen, if there’s a theft in someone’s home they go and report it, they wouldn’t really mind it if the police roughed up the suspect to find out where the stolen goods are. These are the questions that every person who is outraged should ask.
MODERATOR: Page 4.13 of the CAT report, the report notes that the complaints received by the Commission illustrate that torture is routinely used in all parts of the country regardless of the nature of the suspected offense for which the person is arrested, which kind of speaks to your point. I did want to ask you about the table, at least in the printed version of the report, just above that point, which looks at the reported complaints received by the Commission from 2010 until 31st June 2016. And it’s interesting. And the question I wanted to ask, is that in 2013, there were around on average 50 complaints a month leading to a total of 600, which is the highest recorded in the report in the years 2010 to 2016. That goes down to around 35 a month in the course of 2015 leading to a total of 420, and in the eight months that the report covers in 2016 it goes down to about 26 complaints. In as much as you know given that it is now four years after this report, and I don’t know whether other reports had been submitted and tabled along the same lines. What has the trend been in the past four years? And the reason is obvious to you in that we had a government from 2015 till November last year in power, and the question quite specifically that I wanted to ask is around the nature of political leadership, whether there is a visible reduction in the occurrences and complaints of torture that the that the HRCSL had recorded 2016 onwards given what is in the table here in this report.
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: We saw perhaps a slight degree. But, I think now if you look at the website the 2018 figures are there I think it was 386 for 2018. 2019 has not been finalised yet but I think it was maybe a little bit more than that if I am not mistaken. So it has always, give or take, 30, 40 or 50 hovered around the 350 to 400 mark.
MODEARATOR: So the culture of impunity is then independent of government isn’t it?
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: Absolutely. It is absolutely independent of government and we have seen this historically because, we have had different governments in power, different with political parties, but, this is something that really has not changed. Because, it’s also about, yes you do have political leadership and you might enact laws but then, how are you implementing them, and also about the culture of certain institutions and how they function. Changing a culture of an institution, believe me, I know after five years, is really not easy at all, and it requires a lot of energy and more than even financial resources just a lot of energy. And I don’t think any government invested that to bring about substantive change.
MODEARATOR: What is the timeline that we’re talking about for change. Because I was reading this morning, “Human Rights Watch” report that came out in 2016 that is quite appalling to read as well. And in it was noted that in 1994 under president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaragunge there was a Disappearances Commission, and the findings of the Disappearances Commission around again police brutality and violence, and routine torture don’t, or to me don’t appear to me to be any different from what is noted in the 2016 report, and I think what has been noted ever since 2016. So, we’re talking about a culture that is decades old so how much of time Ambika given your five years in the commission do you think one needs to change this?
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: Do you really want me to answer that question in that we might go into depression, we might both just go into depression.
MODERATOR: The reason I ask is the listener might think that this is immutable right. I mean this has always been the case and I don’t, and I would rather not leave them with that impression. If there’s any vestige of hope that things can change, then how do we bring that about is my question.
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: We must also, particularly those of us who work on these issues we cannot give into despair although we might momentarily, because, if not it’s not possible to continue. The first thing I think is that we must breakthrough this culture of denial and taking it as something personal, in the sense of the country takes it personally. A lot of these issues are linked to loss of face, we will look bad in the eyes of the international community, you’re airing dirty laundry in public. I think we need to stop doing that and ask ourselves, is our pride in just hiding this and acting like it doesn’t happen, or do we we take pride in the fact that we are mature enough and secure enough to accept that these problems exist in our society and find ways to deal with them. Because, this culture of denial is not just at the highest political level. You find that at every level. You find that even at social level because you might have come across even acquaintances or colleagues and friends who would argue and say well no it doesn’t happen. I’ll give you a very good example of how when it happens to oneself is when one realizes this. Then I think that is my second point- is that always think how will you feel if it happens to you it is only then you will realize. I was once a very senior official at a particular ministry with whom I during a particular meeting I had a bit of an argument about the police etc. At the next meeting the person had turned around completely. The person openly told everyone, the person had gone to the police station for a personal matter just a couple of days prior to the meeting and was treated very badly, and the person didn’t disclose the person’s identity. So the person was saying well if I was treated like this, because they didn’t know who I was, then imagine how someone who doesn’t hold a high position in society would be treated. So I think that is key to how we tackle this particularly even where state officials are concerned. I have been at meetings where senior officials, when we said, and I use this argument all the time- what if it happens to you? One of them laughed and told me. well actually it wouldn’t happen to us, because we wouldn’t do these things. But it’s not always about whether one does something wrong or not. Because the context is such, whether it is the political context. you could be in that position where you are wrongfully accused. So you would want the law to protect you regardless of which position you are in, and the law is not merely to protect those who are good people. Because, I think this brings us also to, for instance the two shootings that we have seen in the past few days where these people who were part of the underworld were killed. And I think there is a narrative also going on in social media about how they were such terrible people, and I think a person was affected by one of them said oh you know “I’m glad this happened” etc. Whereby what we’re saying is that only if you are really good people, and my question is who decides who’s good because that also tends to change person- only if you are a ‘good’ person will the law protect you.Do you have rights? If you are not, then you don’t. It’s not enough to enact laws. It’s not enough to provide training. We need to really look at kind of socio economic factors also in order to find the solution to this or to tackle this in the long term.
MODERATOR: I have 3 questions left in a sense also because I’m running out of time. The report on page 5 and 6 points 14 to 17- it’s really quite difficult to read, and I don’t know whether many have taken the time to do. I do want to read out sections of it. Point 14 refer to some complaints refering to torture being used to settle personal scores by the police. Point 15 – and I quote, torture is used not only during the process of interrogation but also during the process of arrest. Point 16 – I hesitate to quote this at length and let me just say that I encourage the listeners to read it because it’s details the ways in which suspects are tortured and in it is, I’m struggling to find a word here- it is extraordinary in the fullest sense of the word- with a degree of violence that is meted out out that that defies comprehension. Point 17 on page 06 – I quote- psychological torture includes taunting and using expletives in the presence of the public and other police officers and scaring them by threatening the well being of family members, especially children and the report goes on. These are these are 17, 16 year olds is a 20 year olds it’s quite extraordinary the degree of violence that is meted out to these individuals. As you said at the beginning of the podcast these are verified cases. And the question I have for you as a commissioner is a personal one. How did you deal with hearing and investigating these number of cases? I mean what impact did it have on you hearing this and visiting these people and talking to them, including the perpetrators.
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: Good question. Oh well, I think the impact is, yes, it does have an emotional impact and I feel that it should on anyone working on these issues because that shows you care. It cannot be just a routine way. But it should not emotionally debilitate you and and I think that is a fine line which might be difficult to achieve. But I think what it showed me is that our systems are not working, our processes and mechanisms aren’t working, in that they work for those who are privileged and they are not really working for those who are discriminated against, those who are marginalized and those who are vulnerable. And as we said we found this all over the country, and I felt that the helplessness of these people is something that came in that they were helpless. When they were arrested, tortured the family members had nowhere to go. Even when they came to the Commission you would often find reluctance and fear- fear of what? Of reprisals. I must say that we have at the commission also have in the past instances of, and the entire commission was aware of this, and also many of the lawyers who represented these individuals would be able to talk about this. The perpetrators would often put pressure on the complainants to withdraw their complaints. So, there’s a lot of fear. So, what you find is that you know as a society have we failed? That’s the question I have. I would ask everyone to ask that question because there if you cannot protect those who are most vulnerable, most discriminated against and marginalized then are we a society that is only for those in positions of power, those who are privileged? And what is the shortcoming with our laws, our procedures and our systems. We need to start thinking about. That is why I think hearing the narrarive or the testimony of a torture survivor is valuable. Because, then people humanize the issue. This is not some terrible person, even then they should not be tortured. I think at the starting point to change minds is to humanize it and to show ‘look this is just someone who was arrested for on suspicion of a theft perhaps, we have even had cases the of the theft of a sheaf of bananas. They are humans, they have families, they feel the pain, and I think the humanizing of that process is very important. And most importantly torture also has an impact on the perpetrator. We don’t always think that, we don’t talk about. It would have any impact. The question I have is, when I see someone who has perpetrated such terrible acts of violence against another human being, I always wonder what does this person do when he goes home? How does he treat his wife and his children? Does he use the same kind of violence there? So that, then creates all these other fears about violence in the domestic sphere because violence is the main means you use to get things done, that’s the framework that you’re going to take from your professional sphere to your private sphere as well right.
MODERATOR: You know just to wrap up things there’s so much from 1994 and the Disappearances Commission through to International Organizations, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, your work, predating your work there, now the outrage around those two emblematic cases over the past wee. What are any meaningful recommendations apart from what is the presentation of the Commission to UN agencies and bodies, maybe listeners are not at that level, I mean what can we do is individual citizens listening to this podcast if you’re appalled or feel powerless, is there anything that we can do? Is there anything that you recommend that we do to maybe as a first step to addressing this culture?
AMBIKA SATKUNANTHAN: I think as citizens the first thing is to acknowledge and to be aware that this happens. If you see someone else deny that it happens, challenge them. If you see it happening before you challenge it. If you see someone or if you come across someone who has gone through this try to find ways of supporting them. You can also refer them to institutions like the Human Rights Commission or there are civil society organizations like Janasansadaya and Right to Life that provide assistance. And particularly in your own interactions, as I said, if someone steals something from you, and you go and make a complaint to the police, always think about how will you react. Will you be ok with the police roughing up that person? I think, on an individual level these are conversations we need to have amongst ourselves and issues that we need to think about. Because, public activism, public outrage, outcry, I think, that has a lot of impact on the state and to pressurize the state to do or not to do certain things. And therefore, I don’t think that the citizen should think that he or she is powerless because you do have a lot of power. It’s just that you need to figure out how to use it.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for joining us. It is a complex issue but part of drove me to do is that when you look at what’s up there, you want to turn your eyes away. There’s too much of reality and it’s too much to take in to realize fully the ugliness of our country as it is presented. That is why I think there is that willing suspension of disbelief around whether we could be so ugly. And then the arguments opposing what has been verified and put up there by the Commission for example, and you have this chorus of individuals trying to shut it down, decry it and deny it. I really hope that the work that you have done with the Commission and the Commission’s ongoing work will be able to make a dent in what is a decade old heinous culture. Thank you very much for taking us through some of these issues and as ever this podcast is a conversation starter and not obviously an end to it. I know that you for example will be on Twitter as you have engaging on these issues as well. Thank you very much and good luck.