Chitral Perera is leading a nationwide campaign to combat torture by empowering victims to pursue justice and by changing how their cases are handled in Sri Lanka.
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Many victims of abuse and torture are not political prisoners or government opponents, but rather ordinary rural poor embroiled in police investigations. Chitral founded Janasansadaya (The People’s Forum) to advocate and provide counsel for torture victims throughout the legal process, ensuring that they feel safe when they speak out against abuses and have the tools and guidance to pursue a fair trial. Janasansadaya begins by organizing community clinics where citizens report unlawful police practices and document complaints to an objective body that won’t simply file them away. To encourage victims to come forth, Janasansadaya also includes a financial support structure to cover hospital bills or safe housing during a trial process. Once victims are ready to file charges, they face a slow, drawn-out legal process. Reforming the legal system is thus crucial to restoring confidence in the law. Chitral has introduced new ways for people to lodge complaints against police; programs to sensitize lawyers to the realities of victims; advocates to monitor courtroom proceedings and provide additional counsel; and independent stenographers to ensure the proceedings are properly recorded. To compliment these strategies, Chitral campaigns and works closely with media to raise awareness about the issue of torture and abuse of police power as an endemic societal problem. By encouraging dialogue on this taboo subject, Chitral is helping people to overcome their fear to speak out. Chitral stages events for victims and their families to meet the public and distribute information about torture. He has also initiated a public awards program to recognize citizens that have persevered long legal battles in human rights cases.
Over the years, the Sri Lanka police have departed from being a service-oriented institution to one that is plagued by corruption and feared by the public. From 1947 to 1995 several commissions were appointed to investigate the police, and while they recommended urgent reforms, most failed to produce the intended results. Meanwhile, political turmoil in the country fostered a culture of impunity toward the police. From the 1971 insurrection to the period of terror and ethnic conflict from 1988 to 1992, the police became more militarized. Routine torture, perpetrated on ordinary people—most often the poor and powerless—became widespread, along with arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and fabricated charges. Victims explained that most instances of torture were committed for purposes other than interrogation, such as bribery or to produce a suspect. Lacking the proper mechanisms to investigate allegations, the only way to file a complaint was by walking into a police station. Needless to say, justice was rarely served. Though anti-torture legislation was enacted in 1994 it took almost 10 years for the Attorney General’s department to secure a conviction under the Act. To date, there have been only two convictions for torture and in one case, at the time of judgment, the accused absconded. Sri Lanka has no witness or victims’ protection laws and frequent intimidation of witnesses— especially police torture victims—pressure them to recant their testimony; making convictions very difficult.
Another reason convictions are rare is that torture cases rarely make it to court, with defense attorneys pushing to settle out of court and have the charges dropped. Police are often represented by senior public defenders who take these positions late in their careers after having served extensively in the public prosecutors’ office. Therefore, in court, younger prosecutors face a disadvantage in arguing against their former employers and mentors. Meanwhile, with an immense workload, prosecutors are seldom prepared for long and intricate court cases and will encourage victims to accept the settlement offered by the perpetrator. Since prosecutors represent the state and not the victim, their commitment to a long trial and conviction is often weak. Judicial delays are not always a sign of an overburdened court system, but may be planned, managed, and extended for absurd periods of time by corrupt police, lawyers, and judges. It is not unusual for criminal proceedings against a person with modest influence to last 10 or 15 years.
Chitral’s strategy has three pillars: working closely with victims to address their cases and their lives; reforming aspects of the legal system to cope better with torture cases; and transforming torture from a taboo subject to a topic for public discourse. Each pillar is critical for creating lasting change. Without the successful prosecution and conviction of offenders, behavior will not change. This requires cases pressed by empowered victims, a system capable of delivering justice, and a concerned and engaged society, contributing financial, professional, and moral support to victims. It also requires internalizing and spreading a new set of values about limits on police powers and the rule of law. Chitral began his work in human rights to raise awareness about how individual rights are protected through various laws and limits on state power. However when he and his colleagues visited villages, they realized that while many people understood their rights on paper, they also understood that in practice these rights were often abused. For example, when Chitral’s team explained that police could only hold suspects for 24 hours without laying charges, many people laughed. There are troubling gaps between the legal precepts contained in statute books and the realities faced by rural citizens. Chitral thus established clinics for citizens to talk about the problems they face and began identifying the cases in need of immediate attention. The response was so great that he organized “citizen committees” of trusted and respected people at the district level to hear confidential complaints and refer people to his organization, Janasansadaya. Since 2004 Janasansadaya has received 1,056 complaints of which 376 regard police torture. It has provided support in 85 cases—45 in the Supreme Court, 24 in the High Court, 13 against fabricated police charges and three for compensation. Janasansadaya has also filed 32 Fundamental Rights cases and has represented and assisted victims in 120 cases before the Human Rights Commission. Chitral has built the capacity to receive complaints from at least seven districts: Kalutara, Kurunegala, Galle, Ratnapura, Mahiyanganaya, Anuradhapura and Matara. The extensive databank of information obtained from these ‘clinics’ has been used to formulate reports and publications both by Janasansadaya and other local and international organizations. His latest strategy to extend his grassroots reach is to train Buddhist monks to run local clinics.To set Janasansadaya apart, Chitral ensures that no one is ever turned away and that each visitor, each case, is given immediate priority. Chitral discovered that victims found it especially difficult to explain the methods of torture inflicted on them, so he invited artists to help them visualize the experience—much the same way that police employ artists to help witnesses describe suspects. This sensitivity to clients informs many aspects of Chitral’s work and distinguishes Janasansadaya from conventional legal aid. Janasansadaya runs a welfare fund to help victims when one of their breadwinners has been incapacitated by torture and to help pay hospital bills; it arranges trauma counseling for victims and their families; and it runs an informal witness protection program and shelters vulnerable victims while they pursue their cases. Chitral believes such measures are necessary to bring more torture cases to light. Without such safeguards, the average victim, no matter how outraged he or she may feel, would rarely speak out and take action. Chitral is not a lawyer and does not represent clients himself, but finds lawyers to help victims and uses Janasansadaya to enter into the court system. Torture is a criminal charge prosecuted by the state, and the state is represented by professional prosecutors. Attorneys from the prosecutor’s office are not always invested to pursue these cases and are burdened by an enormous workload. In addition, overzealous attorneys may put themselves at risk: their opponents are powerful and well connected. Most prosecutors finish the case as quickly as possible through negotiation, which tend to include cash offers in exchange for rescinding the accusation and dropping state charges. Chitral never tells victims what to do, but ensures Janasansadaya’s lawyers attend the proceedings and explain each step and option to the victims. In fact, Chitral has uncovered a precedent for formally introducing “council to the aggrieved party” into court proceedings—essentially as a victim’s advocate above and beyond the state-assigned prosecutor. In addition to interceding on their clients’ behalf, these advocates ensure accurate recording of court proceeding and bring an independent stenographer if necessary. Chitral has convinced a number of judges to allow the advocates to speak and is campaigning with judges and lawyers to spread understanding of this new role. While Chitral’s strategy is grounded in real case work, he also runs a campaign to keep torture and judicial malfeasance on the public agenda. Janasansadaya provides a steady flow if information to the press, to ensure that torture trials are well reported. Chitral has also created an annual awards program for Janasansadaya to honor ordinary citizens who have persevered through prolonged legal battles in basic rights cases. The point is to draw public attention to systemic problems and to encourage people to persevere with their own cases. Chitral has had senior policemen and judges as speakers at awards ceremonies—reformers whose participation validates Janasansadaya’s call for change. In 2005 he began organizing “street movements” for victims and their families to demonstrate in public spaces. While the image of people holding a placard and distributing handbills may not seem innovative, the effect is quite transformative. Public events generate interest, new cases, and broad support. In December 2005, instead of holding a standard seminar on International Human Rights Day, 500 to 600 people participated in a massive street movement at Lipton’s Circus in Colombo. People then proceeded to a public venue where 19 torture victims and their families were awarded the Citizens’ Award for Courageous Litigation, in recognition of their perseverance and struggle for justice in a difficult legal system.
Chitral was born to a middle class family and is the second of five boys. His parents were liberal-minded and encouraged the boys to read widely, explore their environment and learn for themselves. His father encouraged him to attend political meetings and listen to speeches by thoughtful politicians. As a schoolboy, he was vigilant about student rights, always tackling an issue. Chitral trained to become a science teacher and joined the Trained Teachers’ Union. At the time, this was an exclusive union for teachers trained in English and English instructors were considered superior to those teaching in Sinhala or Tamil. But Chitral campaigned to include vernacular teachers in the union and despite strong resistance, it was achieved. A few years later he became a fully-fledged trade unionist, was elected editor of the magazine “Teachers’ Voice” and later as General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union. Chitral united the union with teachers representing the Tamil north of the country, creating a true national teachers’ union. He mastered the art of successfully rallying teachers from around the country as well as organizing publicity campaigns such as exhibitions, seminars and mass distributions of material on various issues. At the end of his tenure, union membership had swelled from 4,000 to 45,000. In July 1980 he was dismissed from government service because he had helped organize a general strike. The following years were difficult but he managed to support his young family by taking a variety of jobs. In the mid 1990s he began to work on legal aid and awareness programs. In village meetings he discovered the gap between what is written in law books and what is actually practiced in the streets. During one of these discussions he was told of a “torture chamber” maintained by a senior official. He picked up the case and spread the word that he was interested to learn more. Soon, a victim subjected to torture approached him. Chitral meticulously documented the information and arranged for the victim to be presented to the United Nations Convention Against Torture Committee visiting Sri Lanka. He also prepared a report with illustrations of common methods of police torture obtained from the victims and disseminated the report both locally and internationally. In this work he found a new passion and life commitment.