The clashed between the Muslims and Sinhalese that sparked off in Kandy in early February 2018 brought about a distrust among the people of different regions who lived in harmony for centuries. However it is a well-known fact these attacks were organized by few extreme groups with ulterior motives.
The 2018 Sinhala / Tamil New year celebrations organized by the Human Rights Office in Kandy brought together not only leaders of all four major religions but also the faithful to join hands to heal the wounds an reaffirm the trust. Around 175 -225 survivors of Torture, Rape, families of the disappeared and the families of the prisoners came together on the 21st April 2018 to the premises of the Fatima Church in Kundasale - Kandy to celebrate the 2018 Sinhala & Hindu New Year.
It was an occasion to integrate the survivors to their own families and to the larger family, the society. The event also helped the survivors and their families to release their stress and meet courageous survivors of similar Human Rights violations and find strength in them. Majority of the participants being Buddhists & Hindus, celebrated this National event together as a family with joy to mark the dawn of the New Year.
The chief guests, Ven. Dr. Athipla Mangala Thero, Dr. Muzzammil Cader from Samadanam institute, the Hindu priest Rev. Sr. Philomena, the superior of the Padiwatte Convent, and Fr. Nandana Manatunga along the gussets lit the traditional oil lamp to mark the inauguration of the 2018 Sinhala & Hindu New Year celebrations.
The religious representatives then observed their religious rites and spoke of the unity and harmony and the need of bonding as a human family irrespective of differences in language and religion. The annual celebration of the Sinhala & Hindu New Year was another occasion for the survivors coming from different provinces of the country to meet and renew their friendships and collaborate with one objective namely to seek Justice and Redress. Some of the survivor families had started off their journey on the previous day morning to make sure that they are on time for the celebration.
The staff of the Human Rights Office Kandy and the members of the support group organized several traditional New Year events for the participants of different age groups. The participants consisted of survivors and their families, of rape and torture, the families of the disappeared and of the prisoners.
The activities were a relaxation for the survivors as well as a healing; hence await for this occasion. There were special events organized for the staff and the members of the support group by the end of the celebration and prizes were distributed to the winners of different events held during the celebration.
Having shared the mid day meal as a sign of unity, peace and solidarity, the participants returned home with Joy having celebrated the 2018 Sinhala / Tamil New Year gathering.
Nandakumar, thatched coconut leaves with his infant daughter cradled in his lap during the Sinhala / Tamil New Year gathering of the survivors, organized by the Kandy Human Rights Office. Nandakumar participated in the 2017 celebration of the dawn of the New Year which was held at the Fatima church premises Padiwatte with 175 victims and their family members participating in various events on the 22nd April
The chief guest, the senior superintendent of police Mr. Edmund Mahendra along with the guests of honor Mrs. Kumudini Vithana, the Kandy Regional Coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission, Fazrul Rahaman Moulavi, the Parish Priest of Fatima Church Padiwatte, Rev. Fr. Timothy Gnanapragasam, Rev. Sr. Philomena, the superior of the Padiwatte Convent and Fr. Nandana Manatunga lit the traditional oil lamp inaugurating the days events.
The staff of the Human Rights Office and the members of the support group organized several traditional New Year events for the participants of different age groups. The participants consisted of survivors of rape, torture, the families of the disappeared and of the prisoners. It was another occasion for the survivors to meet, greet each other and renew their friendships and collaboration with one objective namely to seek Justice and Redress.
There were few group events in which all the participants joined with excitement irrespective of age. The Annual gathering of the New year celebrations brought together not only the survivors but also their family members uniting them as a larger family leaving aside differences of language , religions and ethnicity. The survivors from Central province, North-Central, Uva, Sabaragamuva and from Western provinces reached the venue early in the morning with the wish, to be distracted from their daily routine.
The chief guest Edmond Mahendra addressing the gathering stated that the Police officers although are expected to provide security and protection to the civilians, at times incidents of Torture are being reported to him by the Human Rights Office. The SSP referred to his long standing relationship with Fr Nandana and said he would always comply to the requests made by him. Further Mr. Mahendra invited the participants to call on him when his intervention is needed.
For the survivors, the occasion and the activities were a relaxation as well as a healing, hence it was another memorable occasion for them. There were special events organized for the staff and the members of the support group by the end of the celebration and prizes were distributed to the winners of different events held during the celebration by the guests of honor.
The climax of the 2017 Sinhala / Tamil New Year gathering of survivors was the sharing of food by all the participants as a sign of unity, peace and solidarity.
The topic of debate was “how effective is the process of justice (police, courts and prison) in Sri Lanka”. The law students who are being trained to defend and uphold the justice system of the country and the prisoners who at times have become victims of this system argued the pros and cons of its everyday realities.
The debate organized by the Human Rights Office Kandy, called it the ‘Mandela Shield Debate’ and according to its lawyer, Suren Perera, who wanted to prove that, “prisoners too were talented and as everyone else and deserved the same dignity and respect”. This debate between law students and prisoners was fashioned after a famous debate between the Harvard Debate Team and a debate team of New York Prison inmates in 2015. The debate rose to much fame as the prestigious Harvard team which had earlier won the National title, lost to the team of inmates at the debate.
The debate in Kandy, however, chose to have a friendly debate and not a competition. It was targeted to raise awareness around the state of prisoners and prisons on ‘Prisoners week’ which was commemorated in September.
The Human Rights Office Kandy, which explained what took place, said the prisoners used material published by the Asian Human Rights Commission to strengthen their case while the law students used the Penal Code, Constitution and other legal documents to support their arguments.
The prisoners also chose to use their own personal experiences as well as those of their fellow inmates to highlight examples of when the justice system did not work and its practical implications in their everyday life.
“Three of the prisoners are serving a death sentence for murder. They had both English and Sinhala material and there was one prisoner who could speak in English. He chose material from English books to argue. The prison had debates within prison to choose the best orators for the team,” explained Suren Perera.
“We had two rounds and the prisoners wanted more time to speak. The first round had five minutes each. The second, we gave each speaker three minutes,” he said. The law students who used their legal training, in the meantime, spoke of the various laws and avenues the prisoners had when faced with an injustice, but the prisoners had pointed out that accessing these avenues was difficult for them and even when they did, it did not work in reality.
The law students showed that the Constitution had guaranteed the Fundamental Rights of all citizens and that they had the right to file a Fundamental Rights petition when they felt that their rights have been violated. The prisoners, however, said that there were problems when submitting such a petition and that it was hard to get an experienced lawyer for a fee which ordinary people can afford.
The prison debate team which was also up to date on their current affairs, used the most recent example of the murder of Wasim Thajudeen and the inability to decipher video footage as a serious flaw in the system. Ironically, on the day of the debate, the verdict on the murder of Bharatha Lakshman, was delivered and this too became a highlight in the arguments used by the prisoners.
The Human Rights Office, Kandy, also stated that the law students who had attended the debate, found the debate to be a lively and sensitive one where they were able to gain first-hand experience on the lives the prisoners, the problems which occurred during legal cases, and issues when dispensing justice through the system.
The debate also brought up the need to treat prisoners and those who have been rehabilitated and released as part of society and not as outcasts. A prisoner speaking on his own experience said that due to the stigma of his being in prison, his child found it hard to get even a Grama Sevaka certificate.
At the end of the debate, a visibly moved law student had declared that she did not want to use the word ‘prisoners’ to refer to her opponents and that she felt that they were part of her own family.
Many important aspects in the arena of human rights too were discussed; the law students who spoke of the law against torture in Sri Lanka pointed out that there were several legislations against torture. But the prisoners said that even though they had made several complaints regarding torture, the police was not independent enough to enforce the law. One of the most important arguments revolved around the Victims and Witnesses Protection Act No. 4, 2015. The prisoners pointed out that with no independent organisation outside of the police to help enforce the Act, it was hard for the national body responsible for such an Act to keep the victims and witnesses safe.
The debate ended on a high note. Given its success, the University has agreed to continue such debates and discussions with the prisoners and law students in future. The Chairman of the judging panel, a lawyer also chose to speak further with the prisoners after the debate and promised to pursue the injustices they faced within prison with the courts and other agencies.
The debate, however, was a spotlight on the gaps in our justice system. It helped realize that the system needed to do more to protect the vulnerable and live up to the common values of equality and fairness.
The Peradeniya University students in the end, similar to students from Harvard, walked away at the end of the debate, knowing that they had met their match amongst the orators behind bars
The survivors of Torture, Rape, families of the disappeared and the families of the prisoners celebrated the Sinhala & Hindu New Year at the Kandy, Gurudeniya School Grounds on the 23rd April 2016. There were around 300 participants for this annual event. The objective of this gathering was to integrate the survivors and their families to their own families and to the larger family, the society. It was also an occasion for the survivors and their families to release the stress and meet courageous victims of similar Human Rights violations and find strength in them.
The HRO staff and the support group prepared the school ground on the previous day to ensure the smooth operation of the day. Several families of the political prisoners, remand prisoners and detained prisoners from different part of the country participated along with their children. The released prisoners and their families too joined the event with Torture, Rape victims and their families and the families of the disappeared. Majority of the participants being Buddhists & Hindus, they celebrated the event together as a family with joy to mark the New Year.
Mrs. Kumuduni Vithana the Coordinator of the Kandy Regional Office of National Human Rights Commission was the chief guest of the day and Mr. Attanayake the welfare officer of the Dumbara Bogambara Prison Rev. Sr. Philo, the Superior of the Sisters of the Cross Convent, members of the support group and the director of HRO Fr. Nandana Manatunga were the honored guests.
With religious observances and lighting of the traditional oil lamp by the guest and the survivors, the 2016 Tamil & Sinhala New Year gathering was inaugurated at 10.30 a.m. Father Nandana Manatunga explained the significance of the gathering and welcomed all those who were present.
The traditional New Year items were included in the agenda such as, drawing closest the eye on an elephant, whilst blindfolded. Dashing the three pots filled with water, the winner of the game was the person who smashes open the pot filled with blue water. Participants took turns armed with a wooden bat and were blindfolded.
In order to get the participant of the seniors and children, common items were included such as, a race to inflate a balloons and run to the finish line, filling the water to a bottle as a group with two hand, passing from one to another.
A competition to weave coconut leaves was then held with the best leaf woven being judged and this was followed by a sack race for the children. A rope was suspended between two poles with buns hanging on the end of pieces of string, the children raced to eat the buns off the string and continue running to the finish line – but there was a catch: the children competing all had their hands tied behind their back!
There were items for the support groups as well as the staff of the HRO and last of the items was a tug of war between two women’s groups and men’s groups. The winners of the first round pulled the rope for the finals. It was the most exciting event item of the day between men & women as the participants rallied round in support of both teams.
Finally to conclude the event a closing ceremony was held to award winners of the games and competitions with prizes. The Chief Guest and the Director of HRO gave away the prizes to the winners and all the children who were present for the celebrations.
The participants and the guests joined the fellowship meal that was prepared by the HRO staff, concluding the Annual Sinhala and Hindu 2016 New Year gathering.
A felicitation ceremony was held on the 20th February 2016 to “Reward the courage" of the 02 survivors Jesudasan Rita, the rape victim & Rohitha Liyanage the Torture victim who fought more than a decade for Justice.
The Bishop of Kandy, bishop Vianney Fernando, Mr. Basil Fernando the Director - Policy and Programme of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) - Hong Kong, the lawyers, the members of the support group, priests, religious and the members of the civil society came to gather to the Kandian Arts Residency for this great occasion.
On behalf of the 02 survivors who fought for Justice in activating the legal system, the HRO offered its appreciation to the Bishops, priests the religious, the lawyers, the doctors and the members of the support group, the civil society members for their kind assistance given to both survivors in their journey towards Justice & Redress.
At the outset Fr. Nandana, the director of the HRO explained in details the courageous acts of the 02 survivors in "Breaking the Silence" that made it possible to convict the perpetrators and remembered all those who journeyed with them providing the victims, security & protection amidst of risk and challenges.
The ceremony included, speeches by bishop Vianney Fernando who recalled the day, when he was informed of the fateful incident of Rita from her parish priest and Bishop said that he was determined to seek justice for the school girl and requested Fr. Nandana to work on this and Bishop thanked Rita & Rohitha for their consistency and courage.
Mr. Basil Fernando in his speech lamented on the Sri Lankan society which has to take the ultimate responsibility of both incidents and said in a country where human dignity is respected, this type incidents should have never happened and that we should be shameful of the legal system that took 14 years to deliver justice, whereas they could have being concluded within an year or so. He further said in a society governed by the rule of Law, the citizen could freely move about whether they are young or old and nobody should worry about safety and security.
Legal reviews on both cases were made by the lawyers Mrs. Surangika Ranaweera, Mr. S. P. Padmadakshan, Mr. Titus Manatunga and appreciated the courage of both victims in spite of the defects of the Justice system that systematically discouraged the victims seeking Justice & Redress.
The two guests who were felicitated, Rita and Rohitha made their voices once again heard when they stood in front of the audience to thank the organizers and well-wishers. Rita enumerated her ambitious search of justice to punish the perpetrators and thanked all those rallied round her and empowered her during the past 14 years. She further said that such brutal acts should never happen to any school girls and destroy their future. In a broken voice, Rita remembered her late grand-father, Saverimuttu Anthonimuttu who stood by her and also thanked her husband who accepted her and continue to understand her.
Rohitha explained the Police brutality, when he was subjected to severe Torture and thanked all those who provided security & protection and Medical, Legal assistance for him to come back to life after being hospitalized almost for a year.
RITA (17) a school girl was abducted and raped on the 12th August 2001 while she was returning home after mass and Sunday's school at St Patrick's Church Talawakelle by Nalaka Piyal and Thuwan Rameez. One of the most shocking cases of the violation of the fundamental human rights of women took place in broad daylight in the town of Talawakelle in the Central Province of Sri Lanka on the 12th August 2001.
The case was heard by 09 High Court Judges while the prosecution was led by 10 State counsels and more than 20 lawyers of the Human Rights Office in Kandy appearing on the interest of the victim, the case was finally concluded on the 28th December 2015. The case was called 40 times in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya High Courts. Rita gave evidence in May 2011 as the first witness and was crossed examined for 03 days and she was called back once gain for re- cross examination in 2015 which lasted 02 days.
The judge ordered 05 years rigorous imprisonment and 3000 rupees fine for abduction, if default another 06 months of rigorous imprisonment. 18 years rigorous imprisonment for Rape and Rupees two hundred thousand each to be paid to Rita as compensation, in default 03 years of rigorous imprisonment .
Tamil political detainees in Kandy Bogambara remand prison who joined the hunger strike launched by the prisoners at the Welikada prison on the 13th October ended their fast on Saturday the 17th October 2015, respecting the promise made by the President Maithripala Sirisena who had directed the Justice Minister to formulate a mechanism to look into their issues and finish the process between October 31 and November 07.
The 13 political prisoners, demanded their immediate release as they have being in remand for the last 08 years. Fr. Nandana Manatunga, the director of the Human Rights Office Kandy along with his staff and Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando, Fr. Ananda Fernando and the members of the Alliance for Justice visited the prisoners, explained the promise made by the president and requested the prisoners to end their fast. Addressing the Media Fr. Nandana & Fr. Reid said that the prisoners demand either general amnesty or rehabilitation if required for a short period.
The HRO has assisted the political prisoners since 2008 and managed to release 12 remand prisoners held under the PTA challenging the so called “confessions” for which the suspects were forced to sign after severe Torture.
Human Rights Office Kandy worked in collaboration with the Prison Welfare Union at the Bogambara - Dumbara prison and the open prison at Pallekelle in organizing various activities for the prisoners during the week held from the 07th-14th September 2015.
The focus was on building “Hope during challenging times”, the organizers called this special to support and raise awareness of the needs of prisoners, their families, victims of crime, prison staff and volunteers and those working for the welfare of the prisoners.
“Justice would not be served until those who were unaffected are as outraged as those who are”- Benjamin Franklin. According to Francois-Marie Arouet, it is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.
“In Sri Lanka there are people languishing in jail for years without being able to furnish heavy cash bail ordered by the High Court. In 2012 there were 486 remand prisoners who had been in remand custody for more than 03 years with 136 of them having languished for more than five years in remand custody” Fr. Nandana remarked at the opening of the prison week and further said, there are also others in remand prison because they are poor and powerless and have no sureties acceptable to Court.
On the first day of the prison week, the 07th September 2015, a value education programme was organized by the Human Rights Office for the prisoners in Open Prison - Pallakelle and around 500 prisoners took part in event. A vibrant, timely input was given by Prof. Attanayake M. Herath with the invitation of the HRO.
Religious Observances of all the major religions were held on the second day at the Bogambara - Dumbara Prison on the 08th September 2015.
On the third day of the prison week, a medical clinic was organized by the Human Rights Office for the Prisoners at the Bogambara - Dumbara Prison on the 09th September 2015. The group of medical experts consisted of 03 dentists, with the dental mobile unit of Peradeniya dental faculty, 02 doctors from the orthopedic unit of Peradeniya teaching hospital, 02 general physicians and 02 nurses from the Lakeside hospital. The staff of the HRO and few members from the HRO support group facilitated the medical camp. All most all the sentenced prisoners amounting to 236 were seeing by the physicians, including those sentenced to death.
On the 04th day of the Prison week, a Legal Clinic was organized by the Human Rights Office for the prisoners in Bogambara – Dumbara Prison on the 11th September 2015 with 09 Practicing lawyers, 08 law students, HRO staff and few members of the HRO support group.82 prisoners who needed legal advice and assistance, consulted the lawyers and the documentation was done by the law students to follow up the and assist the prisoners.
On the final day of the Prison week, 14th September 2015, a Family Day was organized and family members of 236 Prisoners in Bogambara – Dumbara Prison visited the prison and it was a very emotional reunion. The family members amounting to more than 800 family members brought, food and other items to their loved ones detained in prison. At the opening of the family day the prisoners bowed down with respect before their parent as a gesture of requesting pardon and reconciliation.
An awareness programme was launched by the HRO with the flags day organized by the prison welfare unit. The flags were distributed in schools both in Kandy and in Colombo, parishes and temples in Kandy.
The attempt of the HRO of the “inside-outside” approach making outsiders aware of the insiders-prisons and prisoners being brought to the awareness of the outside world was successful. Further HRO discovered several innocent persons, serving death sentence and life imprisonment due to the defects of the justice system. Hence the execution of the capital punishment would risk of executing innocent persons.