CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 13 October 2018

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A tear in Sri Lanka’s impunity curtain

KANDY (SE): A ceremony of felicitation was held in the northern city of Kandy in Sri Lanka on February 20 to mark what the director of the Human Rights Office Kandy, Father Nandana Manatunga, called a landmark decision by the Nuwara-Eliya High Court in returning a guilty verdict against the perpetrators of one case of rape and one of torture dating back to 2001 and 1995.

Dubbed a Reward for Courage ceremony, the rape victim, Rita Jesudasan, and the torture victim, Rohitha Liyanage, were thanked for their courage and persistence in following up their cases in an environment where rape and torture are virtually legalised by a protective curtain of impunity.

Liyanage won a case in December last year against two police officers who had tortured him in 1995. In exchange for supporting the government, police officers were not punished for torture at the time the offence was committed.

The two accused of raping Jesudasan, Piyal Nalaka and Thuwanan Rameez, were given a sentence of 23 years rigorous imprisonment when the guilty verdict was handed down by Lalith Justice Ekanayake on 28 December 2015.

In his summation in handing down his verdict, Ekanayake said that he was aware of the international criticism of the drawn out process of the trial, but specifically noted that this had not affected the outcome.

He added that when one of the accused, Nalaka, fainted upon hearing the verdict, the court was reminded of how Jesudasan fainted during her almost seven-day-long cross examination and how she, despite the extreme pain she was suffering after being raped and beaten, had dragged herself with her cross on her shoulder to the police station on 12 August 2001 as a 14-year-old school girl.

When Jesudasan first went to court, she was insulted by the defence lawyer and others from the side of the accused, who shouted at her, calling her a prostitute. 

After that experience, a support group was formed and a large number of people from the community, including several sisters from a school that had taken her into their care, accompanied her.

There were long delays in the case as the accused called on various people in government offices to intervene.

On behalf of the two survivors, whom Father Manatunga described as having the courage to activate the legal system in a hostile atmosphere, the Human Rights Office thanked Bishop Vianney Fernando, from Kandy diocese; Basil Fernando, from the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission; and the legal team for their assistance in the two survivors’ journeys towards legal redress.

He also paid thanks to those who supported the two victims in breaking the silence that made the conviction of the perpetrators possible by providing the necessary support, security and protection in the face of grave risks and challenges.

Jesudasan was abducted and raped by two men on 12 August 2001 as she was walking home from Mass and Sunday school at St. Patrick’s parish church in Talawakelle.

Father Manatunga lauded her courage in going directly to the police station to report the incident and file a complaint after the attack. 

He stressed that she had gone alone and made the report in her native Tamil language to the Sinhalese-language dominated police force.

He described this as an act of extreme bravery.

Because she is Tamil, Jesudasan was harassed by the police when she entered the station and they initially refused to record her statement. Throughout her ordeal she was treated badly by the police in trying to get her complaint registered.

She had been subjected to humiliation and constant harassment, and during her long ordeal she has received no help from the state, not even a word of sympathy.

Jesudasan said that she is aware of many other girls who are suffering in similar situations.

However, her report led to the arrest of the two suspects and the beginning of a long and involved legal case which lasted for almost 14 years.

Father Manatunga said that his office has handled 148 cases of rape and torture, but the one involving Jesudasan stands out as a learning module for all those involved, both the legal team and the support group.

“With her perseverance, courage and endurance, Rita Jesudasan stands out as a model for the youth and the students of this up country tea plantation people,” he said in conclusion.

Jesudasan has been able to finish her education. After graduation from high school, she managed to find employment and has married. She is expecting her first child.

 

Although rape and abuse remain virtually legal in Sri Lanka, because of a curtain of impunity that is draped around them, the case of Jesudasan is one small tear in the shroud and a sign of hope that it may yet be ripped open.

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