A court in Sri Lanka has given a shocking verdict in a case of police torture. Both the judgment and chain of events that led to it contain many important lessons for people in Thailand.
Police in Wattala picked up Gerald Perera [pictured above] on June 3, 2002. They took the 39-year-old to their station, strung him from a beam and beat him with iron rods and wooden poles for about an hour in an effort to get him to confess to a murder.
They had the wrong man. Gerald knew nothing of the crime. His was a case of mistaken identity. But by the time that he was released he had suffered renal failure. Only protracted and expensive medical treatment saved his life.
Both Gerald and his wife had a strong sense of justice and great courage. Despite the obvious danger, they sought help to lodge complaints against the police. They asked to be compensated for breaches of Gerald’s constitutional rights, and initiated a criminal inquiry.
In April 2003 the Supreme Court found that Gerald had been beaten to within inches of his life while in custody. It said that the police accounts of what had happened were unsatisfactory and noted that three officers had admitted to using force during the arrest.
In awarding Gerald a record payout, the court said that it had “no doubt whatsoever” that he had been tortured. It added that by not rushing him to hospital the police also were guilty of committing cruel and inhuman treatment.
Buoyed up by these findings, Gerald prepared to testify again, this time in the case that the prosecutor had lodged under Sri Lanka’s anti-torture law, which carries a mandatory seven-year jail term.
He never spoke. On Nov. 21, 2004, a gunman shot him on a city bus. He died in hospital three days later. The police were implicated in his murder and a new inquiry opened, but by 2006 still no dates had been fixed to begin hearings.
Meanwhile, the torture case dragged on until last week, when it had an unexpected finale. The high court acknowledged that Gerald had suffered his injuries inside the Wattala police station, but reasoned that because there were no witness testimonies of torture, the accused could not be found guilty.
Basil Fernando, a Sri Lankan lawyer and leading rights defender, responded that the court’s judgment is not only legally wrong but also morally bankrupt, as it effectively instructs torture perpetrators that they cannot be punished so long as they kill their victims. He has urged the attorney general’s office to appeal.
There is much in all this of relevance to Thailand, where torture is also a routine part of criminal investigating. However, whereas Sri Lanka joined the United Nations anti-torture treaty and introduced it into domestic law some years ago, Thailand has only recently become a party and is yet to make the necessary changes to give it effect.
Once that is done, the really hard work will begin. In Sri Lanka, it took years for any cases to be brought into the courts, and for a special unit to be set up to probe torture claims. The first convicted perpetrators managed to flee the country rather than go to jail. Trials have been long and arduous; the victims and their families have faced tremendous threats with no guarantees of success.
In Thailand police or others acting on their behalf abduct, assault and murder people with impunity. Once a law against torture is brought into effect and cases are lodged against individual officers, the threatening and attempted killing of witnesses will surely follow. As in Sri Lanka, this will place enormous strains on those lodging cases and their supporters.
And judges in Thailand too go out of their way to give credence to the testimonies of police and other officials over those of ordinary citizens.
For instance, Anek Yingnuek and some friends told a court in 2005 that they were tortured into confessing that they had robbed a woman at knifepoint. The provincial judge noted that even if their accounts were true, the abuse occurred in the first hours of arrest, during which time no statement taken by the police can be used as evidence. So whether or not they had been tortured at that time had no bearing on the trial. In other words, police in Thailand are advised to torture detainees first, get statements later.
The judges in the cases of Gerald and Anek used patently fallacious reasoning, not, presumably, because they are illogical but because they too did not want to confront the police. Where in both countries honest officers are themselves threatened by other police, it is little wonder that judicial officials are unwilling to undermine their careers and security by siding against them.
Gerald’s struggle for justice ended when he lost his life; Anek wound up in jail. Both of them were victims not only of systemic torture but of the massive imbalance between judicial and executive authority in their respective countries.
As the stakes get higher in Thailand and police find themselves accused of torture under new law, complainants and their families are sure to encounter the same sorts of risks and experience the same types of injustices as their Sri Lankan peers. Anti-torture campaigners and lawyers in Thailand would do well to study Gerald Perera’s case in detail, learn from the Sri Lankan experience, and prepare for what lies ahead.
See further: Links to Gerald Perera case files and documents
Personal tragedy ignored in Sri Lanka, Basil Fernando (UPI Asia Online)
An X-ray of the Sri Lankan policing system & torture of the poor, Basil Fernando & Shyamali Puvimanasinghe (AHRC)