Hope for Sri Lanka’s child victims

January 1, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK

Torture has become a familiar feature of criminal investigations in Sri Lanka, where children as young as seven have experienced abuse under interrogation. At a small human rights unit in Kandy city, a Catholic priest has created a vital support system for the victims of police brutality. Father Nandana Manatunga relates the – often tragic – cases he has tried to help with.

Our torture act passed 1994, but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture in Sri Lanka. I opened my human rights office five years ago and since then we have cared for about 22 victims – most of them children, ranging from seven years to 20. Many of them were quite young when they came to us, and now some are young adults. Cases here take years.

The torture is mostly done by the police or the armed forces. Victims are often too scared to fight back, but now a lot of them are trying to – they want to do something and the legal procedure is their only way of taking revenge.

One boy I know was 16 when he was accused of stealing a water pump. He was kept for one week and beaten continuously. They hung him from the ceiling with his arms behind his back, which damaged his nerves. Now he can’t use one of his arms. Lalith, 17, was beaten in police custody for three days. He was unconscious for a week afterwards. They were actually looking for another Lalith who was supposed to have stolen a gold chain.

The police have their own methods of interrogation: they assault you and dunk you again and again in cold water. They also put books on your head and bash. They use torture because there isn’t a proper investigation system; their current procedure is to bring someone in for questioning and beat them until they confess.

Most of the victims of this abuse die with their stories; they don’t want to fight the police and they don’t want to go through the difficult legal proceedings. I run a refuge for these children, with the aim of empowering them and giving them the courage and moral support they need to break their silence. We give them other things they need, like security, protection, legal aid, medical care and counselling.

It was when one torture victim, Gerald Perera, was shot dead in 2004 that we realised the children needed somewhere to hide. There is no state witness protection system, which means the perpetrators are free to hunt down their victim again, especially if they are having to go to court. We started placing the children in convents, where they would be able to go to school. Children who are at particular risk come and stay with me. I often have a full table at breakfast.

Most of the children can go home if they want to, but there are some we don’t want to send back. One girl didn’t go home for three years; she went back just once and the same boy who raped her abducted her again. It took us two months to find her. Sudath, another torture victim, was shot dead. He was with me for three weeks, and now I am hiding his wife and two children. I am so full of regret that I allowed him to go home and be killed.

Right now we have four torture cases on trial and more than eight rape cases. Some have been going on since 2001. One part of the trial will be now and the next part in six months. If you could see how the victims are questioned… it’s really hard. Rita, a girl who was raped, had to appear in the magistrate’s court 21 times over two years; it was only six years later that the case made it to high court. On the very first day – she was in grade 10 at the time – the lawyer for the accused said that she was a prostitute.

The children have to repeat their stories several times, but as the years pass they forget the details. Even Lalith forgets certain things and I have to remind him – “this and this happened to you”. Their trauma counsellor might make some progress, but then be right back at the beginning again.

In October the verdict came through on Lalith’s case. The accused police officer was acquitted and released. We have looked after Lalith since 2002; I saw him when he was discharged from hospital after being tortured. Now I ask God where justice is, and why this poor boy was treated like this. I have fears about the future and what will happen in the other children’s cases.

When a case begins in high court, the accused policeman is suspended from work. Without his uniform and his gun he feels like a nobody, and then he becomes very dangerous, especially if he thinks he might go to jail anyway. The children have been chased and threatened, and in May an attempt was made on Lalith’s life.

We’ve now learned to go to every court proceeding in numbers. There are 25 or so prominent people – lawyers and doctors – who meet with us every month and arrange to escort the kids to their various court appearances in groups. Some trips take us right across the country, but these men help to keep us safe.

Do I wish life was easier? No. I get spiritual support in church, and I meditate. I get a lot of joy from working with my parish. The community children come and play from about 6pm to 8:30pm every day and I always join in because it’s a kind of recreation for me too.

My main challenge is to sustain our young fighters. Just getting these policemen and perpetrators suspended is a victory for all of us, even if we’re not sure of the final judgment. Systematic torture has been going on in Sri Lanka for a long time, but people never knew they could take action against the system. Now there’s a kind of awareness, and activism is growing. As a priest, I call it the spirituality of human rights.

• Father Nandana Manatunga was speaking to Jo Baker.