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Feb 24, 2018

“Sri Lanka’s courts double standards” - UN Human Rights chief Featured

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticizing Sri Lanka’s judiciary system said the country was following a contradictory mechanism in issues concerning suspected state and military officers and asked international powers to take stern action on war crimes and human rights violations.

In his report on "Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka" to the 37th session of the Human Rights Council, which will be held from 26 February to 23 March 2018 in Geneva, the High Commissioner also called on Member States to explore other avenues, including the application of universal jurisdiction, that could foster accountability in Sri Lanka.

“A State’s capacity or willingness to address impunity for gross violations and abuses of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law can, in part, be assessed by its approach to complex, serious cases,” the UN High Commissioner charged.

Unresolved crimes:

The death of 27 inmates during a security operation to control a riot at Welikada prison, in November 2012, the killing of protestors by army personnel at Weliwerya in August 2013, More than 10 years after the killing of five students in Trincomalee, in January 2006, and of 17 humanitarian workers of the non-governmental organization ACF, in Muttur, in August 2006, no noticeable progress has been made in ensuring accountability, the abduction and disappearance of 11 persons during 2008-2009, On 24 December 2016, the five defendants on trial for the murder of Member of Parliament Nadarajah Raviraj, Prageeth Ekneligoda’s abduction and disappearance in 2010, the mass murder in Kumarapuram in 1996, and Lasantha’s killing in 2009 are among the list of unresolved crimes.

He notes that in almost all of these unresolved cases, almost all the security forces personnel involved have been released on bail.

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Lalith and Anusha:

“An overall trait of the Sri Lankan justice system is the perceived double standards in the administation of justice with regard to treatment of State officials or security personnel accused in criminal proceedings,” he pointed out. 

Hence, the argument of appointing a special court comprising specialised officers and international lawyers to take measures against state officials and military personnel who have committed grave crimes, is further justified, he said.

A case not related to human rights violations but that illustrates the contradictions of the criminal justice system is the conviction, on 7 September 2017, of a former presidential secretary and a former director general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission in a corruption case. Within hours of their entry into prison, both convicted officials had been relocated to the prison hospital, reportedly for health reasons. Ordinary convicts often complain of the difficulties they encounter in receiving medical treatment in prison, even for easily verifiable or urgent problems such as infections. On 20 September, the two convicts were released on bail “under exceptional circumstances” by a Colombo High Court judge, after having served only 13 days of their 3-year prison term. This is exceptional in a system where suspects are often held on remand awaiting trial for up to 10 years, the report noted.

International Judiciary

On 28 August 2017, several Latin American human rights groups, coordinated by aninternational non-governmental organization, filed criminal complaints in Brazil andColombia, under the universal jurisdiction doctrine, against the then Ambassador of SriLanka to countries in the region, retired Army General Jagath Jayasuriya, for war crimesand crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the final phase of the civil war, in2009. The ambassador completed his tenure in the region and returned to Sri Lanka on 30August.

An overall trait of the Sri Lankan justice system is the perceived double standards in the administration of justice with regard to treatment of State officials or security personnel accused in criminal proceedings.

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Torture and corruption:

While the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka has improved overall since January 2015, there have been fewer signs of progress since the previous report of the High Commissioner. Several incidents targeting religious minorities, slow government reaction and response to some of those incidents and the controversial statements of some (then) key ministers have eroded the Government’s image of being fully committed to improving the human rights situation.

The High Commissioner remains gravely concerned that, 2 1/2 years into a reconciliation process, his Office continues to receive reports of harassment or surveillance of human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations. The preconditions of trust and confidence that are needed for a reconciliation agenda to succeed are incompatible with intrusive, and likely unnecessary, surveillance of activists. While the High Commissioner has repeatedly been assured that those incidents were not consistent with the Government’s policy, the inability to fully eliminate such practices is alarming. During the period under review, at least two incidents escalated to physical violence against the activist being threatened or kept under surveillance.

“While the Government has managed to steer many of these worrying events in a positive direction, this type of violence in a country that has experienced cycles of extreme violence roughly every 10 years is deeply troubling, particularly when accompanied by hate speech, misinformation and agitation through social media and political manipulation.

The continuing allegations of torture and surveillance and the lack of sufficient progress in implementing critical confidence-building measures, such as the release of land, the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the solution to the pending cases under the Act, have antagonized key constituencies that could be instrumental to the Government’s reform efforts.

The High Commissioner urges the Human Rights Council to continue to play a critical role in encouraging progress in accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka,” he said noting that it also calls on Member States to explore other avenues, including the application of universal jurisdiction that could foster accountability.

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