Torture in Sri Lanka among “worst in the world,” says UN Special Rapporteur

By P.K. Balachandran

Torture of persons in custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in Sri Lanka is on an “industrial scale” and is “among the worst in the world”, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson said here on Friday.

Briefing the media here after a four-day tour of Sri Lanka, Emmerson said that as recently as October 2016, 80 cases of torture of PTA detainees were reported, and that a senior judge told him that 90% of the PTA cases that came to him were about torture in custody.

While noting that there has been a “steep decline” in cases booked under the PTA, Emmerson pointed out that the PTA itself remains in the statute book despite an undertaking given to the UN Human Rights Council (UNRC) in 2015 that it will be repealed and replaced by a more humane act in accordance with international norms.

He said that in the penultimate draft of the new anti-terror law, he noticed that the admissibility of confessions made to a police officer during investigations has been retained. This, he emphasized, is unacceptable because confessions at the police investigations stage are routinely extracted by torture.

For any anti-terrorism law to be in conformity with international standards, the admissibility of confessions made to the police should be removed. “This is the red line,” Emmerson said.

There are issues about the definition of terrorism in the draft law, he said. The new definition could be used in “circumstances very far removed from acts of real terrorism or against minorities or human rights defenders in a discriminatory and sectarian manner.”

However, the absence of the clause giving the Attorney General the veto on grant of bail, is welcome, Emmerson added.

Retrograde Influences

The Rapporteur expressed dismay over the delay in enacting the new counter terror legislation and blamed it on “inertia” which he attributed to the influence of “certain vested interests in the security sector who are resistant to change, and above all, to accountability.”

“The government has thus far done almost nothing to hold to account those members of the armed forces and security services who committed gross human rights violations during and since the conflict. At the same time, it has, until now, continued to operate the cruel and unjust PTA system that has overwhelmingly impacted on the Tamil community. So far only 71 police officers have been proceeded against for torture,” he said.

Emmerson then went on to warn that: “these are precisely the conditions likely to produce festering grievances, to foster unrest, and even to ignite conflict.”

Referring to the prolonged detention of persons under the PTA, he urged the government to either release them on bail or speed up the judicial process. Out of 81 detainees in the judicial phase of their pre-trial detention, 70 have been in detention for over five years and eleven for over 10 years, he pointed out.

The UN Rapporteur felt that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe is “genuinely” interested in making progress towards setting up the promised accountability mechanisms, but there are “retrograde forces”, both outside and inside the government, which are preventing any forward movement.