Courage under Fire

July 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

A Catholic priest is helping to give hope to young human rights victims

With a rakish side parting and a smile behind his eyes, it’s hard to imagine Father Nandana Manatunga at work, not because his job involves kids – for that he seems well suited – but because of the situations his wards come to him in. Dancing eyes seem at odds with the grim task of torture rehabilitation.

The small island nation off the coast of India often hits the news for the long-waged and bloody war between its government and the Tamil Tiger separatists, but there are domestic issues that affect the populace even more deeply. Father Nandana runs the Kandy Human Rights Office, a young, independent organisation in Kandy, Sri Lanka that takes care of child victims of police brutality and sexual abuse, and helps them and their families take their cases through the courts. His story brings to light a collapsing legal system and a police force that, like many in Asia, inspires fear more than trust.

In 2001 the then-40-year-old priest was working as director of SETIK, a 15-person development and social justice agency of the Catholic Diocese in the central highland city of Kandy, when he met Rita, a 17 year old girl who had been raped by two men in her village. The men were prominent in the community and neither the victim nor her parents expected to receive help locally; in fact they were already being snubbed in the neighbourhood and at the girl’s school. Later, although Father Nandana was transferred from SETIK, more cases came to his attention: an 18-year-old boy arrested for stealing and beaten so severely in custody that he was unconscious for a week, another boy, 17 years old, who lost the use of one of his arms after being hung from the ceiling. These in themselves weren’t unusual, but each teenager had decided that if they could, they would take their abusers to court. This was much less common, and it’s where Father Nandana became involved. “Our torture act passed in 1994 but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture,” he said, in an office at Hong Kong’s Asian Human Rights Commission,  a supporting organisation. “The idea was to activate the law.”

Since torture is routinely inflicted by the police or the armed forces in Sri Lanka, says the priest, and has been for decades, anyone planning to go up against either needs support and good security; the country has no witness protection program. In 2004 Gerald Perera , one prosecuting torture victim, was shot in public before he could testify in a criminal case, and Sri Lanka’s list of ‘disappeared’ persons runs into the hundreds. In the past the only safe way to deal with abuses was to stay quiet.  “Most of the victims die [naturally] with their story. They don’t want to fight the police and they don’t want to follow this tedious legal procedure,” says Father Nandana, his hands clasped, voice quiet. “What we want to do is empower these children, give them courage and moral support to break the silence.”

It has been a steep learning curve for the priest, who had worked with youths and for missing persons before, but had done little on the legal side. “When Rita’s case was brought to our attention, we didn’t really know what to do,” he said. “When the two perpetrators were arrested we held a public protest rally near the place, 250 people came and marched against the police’s lack of action. Then we had a postcard campaign. A month after Rita’s [case] a young girl was raped by eight people and murdered, and then support came from schools.”  Finally the then- President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a committee to investigate – a victory in and of itself.

As Father Nandana worked with the victims, he was reassigned a number of times by the Bishop, but the cases had a hold on him, and he was given permission to continue the work alongside his liturgical jobs. He set up a human rights media centre, then the independent Kandy Human Rights Office, which with six staff and a handful of volunteers, runs separately from his parish.  Unique for its mix of refuge and legal aid, the office and now helps 22 minors of all faiths from around the country and gives weekly counsel to other victims of the system.

Rather than set up a shelter, Father Nandana decided to place his wards discreetly in boarding schools or in the local convent, though some, if he feels they are in danger, lodge with him. His small team then rallies the medical, legal and psychological support needed to see their cases through the courts. The toll, however, can be high: the country has been under a state of emergency since 2005 and cases tend to last for years.

“Now we have four cases on trial for torture and about four or five rape cases, but no verdict yet,” Father Nandana explained.  “Rita’s case in the Magistrate’s Court was 21 days spread over two years, and only this year, six years later, has it come up in High Court. On the very first day – she was in grade ten – the lawyer for the accused said, she’s a prostitute; so immediately she lost all her energy.”

“It’s hard to see how they are questioned. They have to repeat their story so many times and after six years children forget, especially the details. Even Lalit [the boy beaten into unconsciousness] forgets certain things and I have to tell him, this and this happened to you.”

For the trauma counselor at the Office it’s a Sisyphean task, for whenever she manages to make progress with one of the teenagers, a court date will arrive and the memories need to be dredged back up. Occasionally one will give in. “Our biggest challenge is to sustain them” the Father said. “There was one, a girl who said that she can’t go through with it anymore and decided to go home. But at this point you can’t stop proceedings, and she may still be called back: sometimes they don’t understand that the legal procedure is not only you.”  Others react differently:  one young girl told Father Nandana that she wants to become a police officer – but not to help change the system. He gives a weary smile. “Right. She says that when you become a police officer you get a gun. Then you can shoot anybody you want.”

The role incorporates some personal danger. Those indicted on torture charges are suspended from their jobs, and many, the Father says, feel they have little to lose. The Office’s team has been followed and harassed in towns across Sri Lanka, sometimes openly by police. Father Nandana has managed to recruit a pool of around twenty five high profile friends such as lawyers and doctors, and they take turns to escort the victims on court days, sometimes on journeys that take a day or more.

This show of support is significant. As human rights education increases in the country an awareness is growing that things can be done differently, and that police brutality shouldn’t be run of the mill. In Kandy the families of Rita and Lalit, both led by their grandfathers and both very poor, had refused side settlements and insisted on following through with the case. By doing so they have displayed a new and unusual hope in the system. Last year Torture Victims day, June 26th, saw a rally held in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and unprecedented public talks organised involving lawyers, activists and civil servants.  The day this year was marked on a larger scale, with forums, street campaigns and people’s tribunals in Sri Lanka’s larger cities.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, under external pressure has been making reluctant progress, though his efforts have been widely criticized abroad, by the Human Rights Commissions and notables such as Desmond Tutu. (Mistrust of Rajapaksa’s commission of inquiry led him to invite a group of international observers in 2007, and they resigned earlier this year.) Sri Lanka lost its place on the UN Human Rights Council in May, an organisation it has been a part of since its foundation.

But although none of Father Nandana’s cases have yet hit a verdict, he remains characteristically optimistic, and he has little time for despondency anyway: there’s a parish to run and 750 families to counsel, lodgers to care for, victims to advise, plus he has a program in local prisons and court dates set across the country. “I am very happy to see to our survivors living a normal life and fighting for justice,” he said. “Torture has taken place here for a long time, but only now is there a kind of awareness that something can be done. I believe it’s a calling to be a Human Rights activist… the spirituality of Human Rights I could call it.”