Sisira Mendis, who was head of two special police units widely known to torture detainees sat quiet through two days in Geneva when questioned by the UN top body on torture prevention.
Speaking at a meeting in London's Chatham House on Wednesday (11), Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera who had approved the delegation to meet UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) claimed that he was not aware of the ex police senior's service record.
Backtracing on accountability
The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister is now backtracking on the war crimes court, talking about a “credible, independent domestic court” in place of the promised hybrid judicial mechanism. It’s a worrying sign that even the champion of Sri Lanka’s transitional justice is reneging on the key promise in the UN Resolution to include foreign judges, investigators, prosecutors and other staff in the proposed special court. The Foreign Minister is now echoing the President and Prime Minister who’ve repeatedly rejected foreign judges. They also ignore the recently published report from Sri Lanka’s consultation process, which recommended at least one foreign judge on each bench to secure the trust of victims. Arguably one judge is nowhere near enough to lend credibility and even the best judges can’t deliver without sufficient evidence being presented to them – that will require international investigators and prosecutors. But it seems even one foreign judge is too much for a Government that still acclaims alleged war criminals as “war heroes”, denies the huge scale of the civilian casualties in 2009, and ignores the UN’s assessment that rape by the security forces was part of a deliberate policy.
There was a lot of talk from the Minister about how this is a once in a lifetime chance for Sri Lanka to commit itself to rule of law and address the mistakes of the past. But when challenged, the Minister was hard put to it to explain why the man who ran the country’s most notorious torture site – the fourth floor (CID headquarters in Colombo) – at the end of the war was sent as part of the Government delegation to the Committee Against Torture in November. The Minister said the decision to send this official, Mr Sisira Mendis, passed his desk and he approved it.
"As for including him in the delegation that is something I have no excuse for. I approved it without going deeply into the background of each person. I too was disturbed when I realized”.
Given Mr. Mendis spent two decades in CID, rose to run the organization and is currently one of the country’s top intelligence officials, it seems odd that the Minister didn’t know know who he was. Furthermore it was the new Government that brought Mr. Sisira Mendis out of retirement, violating all their commitments in the UN Resolution to vet public officials.
The Minister was asked how he could square his comments on tackling impunity with the deputy Defence Minister ruling out even investigating Mr. Mendis though there would have been enough evidence against him to indict him abroad if he had not enjoyed immunity because of attending a UN meeting . “I can’t say whether the man is guilty or not”, he said, adding that once the judicial mechanism is set up it would deal with cases like this.
'Iceberg of cases'
When questioned about why Mr. Mendis could not be charged under existing anti torture legislation, the Foreign Minister argued the system was already overloaded with similar cases. “There are so many cases there is a huge mountain - an iceberg of cases - the AG has to handle and that is why we need some special courts. There are hundreds, thousands of such cases we had to deal with”.
In a follow up question the Minister was asked if his Government had taken any steps to find out whether the allegations against Mr Mendis were true but he didn’t respond.
Bizarrely the Foreign Minister also seemed to suggest the special judicial mechanism should deal with the more than one hundred Sri Lankan soldiers sent home from Haiti in connection with allegations of organised child rape from 2004-7. No matter that the soldiers have already been through a military court process. The issue is the lack of transparency about that military judicial process and the fact that the handful of punishments announced by the Government are in no way commensurate with the gravity of the crimes.
Despite this when about the March session in Geneva, the Minister said, “we are rather happy with the progress we have made so far”. He is looking at a technical roll over in March to give the Government more time to implement its commitments under the Resolution it co-sponsored in 2015. “We will work on the architecture the judicial mechanism which needs a bit more time but the good news is there is the general agreement needed. It will be independent and credible and acceptable to victims and those involved.” It appears the agreement the Minister is referring to is among the ruling politicians rather than victims and their representatives.
There was a lot of emphasis on reconciliation but the Mr Samaraweera claimed that those who oppose this are usually from the less educated groups. He used the word “deplorables" in this context.
“Extremists, spoilers – and now dissenting voices are called deplorables!” said one human rights activist, “the Minister should respect the intensity of the suffering of those who survived Mullivikkal and years or torture and repeated rape – they may not be uneducated or racist but many Tamil survivors struggle with the idea of living side by side with Sinhalese again and I don’t blame them. Genuine reconciliation is a struggle – not some glib slogan to be invoked by politicians – and it can only come after a truth telling process, not in an environment of denial”.
(by Athula Vithanage – jdslanka.org)