by Fr. Nandana Manatunga Director of Human Rights Office in Kandy, Sri Lanka
“Having seen the tears of the mothers and family members of torture victims, I was compelled to go beyond the cultic role of the priest”
As a very young priest, I saw how the security forces killed thousands of young people in broad daylight. They were suddenly picked by the armed forces and detained. I went in search of them … it was the beginning of my human rights work.
In the very second year of my priesthood, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front or JVP) youth insurrection led to unfortunate incidents occurring during the 1988-89 period, and over 60,000 people, including those who did not have any connections with the JVP, were killed or made to disappear by security forces and paramilitary groups who operated with the blessings of the then-government.
Arrests, torture and killings
I saw so many young people being arrested, almost every day, being brutally tortured and killed and their bodies either burnt or thrown into the river. I had to visit several police stations and army camps in search of the arrested youth, to get them released. Security and protection had to be provided to the youth who were searched by the security forces. Once when I was traveling alone in my vehicle, a man suddenly stopped me and got into the van and asked me to speed. The stranger got off at a bus stop and told me that he had been taken to the cemetery to be shot, but that he had managed to escape.
Having seen the tears of the mothers and family members of torture victims, I was compelled to go beyond the cultic role of the priest to broaden my pastoral ministry to defend and protect the vulnerable that were subjected to torture and inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment.
I was convinced that the priests and religious are also moral leaders and we believe that God created mankind in his own image and likeness and that we are equal and share the same dignity. Hence since year 2000 we have empowered more than 125 priests and religious to commit them to work against torture and to protect, promote and safeguard the rights of the poor, the discriminated, and the marginalized of the society. We have formed the network “Priests and Religious for Human Rights” (PRHR).
Inspired by the families of the disappeared and the victims of torture and rape, I journey with them in search of justice and redress. For the past 20 years I have provided them security, protection, legal, medical and psychological assistance to regain their lost dignity. To achieve this goal, the Human Rights Office was set up, with a support group of more than 35 members, both professionals and civil society activists. Several torture victims were provided security and protection, legal, medical and psychological assistance for more than 15 years, until the adjudication process was completed. So far, we have assisted around 128 victims of torture to receive justice and redress.
A historical day
July 28th, 2015 was, to me personally, an historic day, as one of our torture victims Rohitha Liyanage activated the Torture Act no 22 of 1994 after a long interval without use. No torture perpetrators from the police or armed forces were indicted nor sentenced during the previous regime from 2005-2015, as a reward for assisting the armed forces during the civil war.
The legal machinery was once again activated when the two accused police officers who severely tortured Rohitha on the 28th July 2005 were sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment by the Kandy High Court Judge on the 3rd of December 2015.
Jesudasan Rita, a schoolgirl, also secured a historical judgment in 2015 when two perpetrators were sentenced to 23 years’ imprisonment for abduction and rape in 2001.
I have had to face threats from police and other rights violators and have had to navigate criticism and skepticism from some fellow priests and church leaders since I challenged them to be more active in fighting abuses.
I dedicated the award which I received in 2018, the Gwangiu Prize for Human Rights, by the May 18 Memorial Foundation in South Korea, to the victims and survivors of torture and rape.
This is the latest installment of a regular feature on the Peace Stories blog featuring the stories of our 120 member organisations on five continents around the world. In this story, we’re getting to know the Human Rights Office-Kandy, our member organisation in Sri Lanka. This interview was conducted by email with Fr. Nandana Manatunga, director of the office.
The Human Rights Office of the Kandy Diocese is part of the Catholic Church and headed by Fr. Nandana Manatunga. The office provides an important service on protection, security, legal advice, health, and trauma counseling to victims of rape, torture and other serious human rights violations “in breaking the silence”. The office engages in the rehabilitation of prisoners and their families and the families of missing persons. Efforts are made to educate the general public on the need to campaign for the defence of human rights and getting redress for the victims.
When and how did Human Rights Office-Kandy start?
The Human Rights Office (HRO) was started in 2008. I did human rights work with victims since 1997 when I was at Caritas as the director and also at the Diocesan Media Centre as the Director. When I had to leave the Media Centre , I decided to open up the HRO, but it took several years for the Bishop to understand our work and give an official approval. So it was purely an effort of the staff, the survivors and of the members of the support group.
Was there some particular event or issue that served to bring your organisation into being?
Even before we opened the HRO, we were focusing on the victims of torture and rape, an issue that was not so much focused on by other human rights organisations. Further we were the only organisation that took a holistic approach, providing security, protection, legal, medical, psychological, educational and social assistance to the victims. So it was on the request of the victims for such an holistic approach the we embarked on the HRO. Hence the issue was basically focused on providing security, protection and legal, medical and psychological assistance to the victims.
What is the structure and who are the people involved in your organisation?
We have a board of directors, comprised of 5 members, and a financial committee that decides on the organisation’s operations. Then we have the support group that consists of 35-40 members who are involved in the implementation of the activities, along with the staff and interns.
Who are the main leaders or personalities behind the work?
Actually it is myself, the staff and the lawyers who lead the work, but our support group comprised of various professionals assists us all the time.
What are the current issues you are working on, or what are your major priorities?
Right now our priority is the release of the political prisoners who are also torture victims. In addition to that, we work to bring justice for rape victims, torture victims, and the families of the disappeared, and also the prisoners. By working with these groups, we are trying to identify the defects of the justice system and call for judicial and police reforms to bring about the rule of law in the country.
How is your organisation putting nonviolence into practice? What role does nonviolence play in your work?
For our organisation, “empowerment” through acting together is the key to nonviolence. By “empowerment” we mean strengthening the victims, survivors and their families and the whole civil society at large so that they can make a difference, that there are alternatives to fighting, to fight for justice following the adjudication process.
What is the greatest accomplishment of the HRO during its history?
We have broken the silent sufferings of the victims of rape and torture by empowering them to seek justice and redress and we have been successful as we have brought justice for many such victims. Our campaign has borne fruit as now torture and rape victims do not die with their stories, but they speak out and call for justice.
Is there any particular story about the organisation that stands out for you that you would like to share?
On the 28th of December 2015, the Nuwara Eliya High Court delivered a historic judgment: two men were each sentenced to 23 years rigorous imprisonment and ordered to pay Rs. 200,000 in compensation after being convicted for the abduction and rape of Jesudasan Rita, a 17 year-old Tamil girl from Talawakele in the hill country, on the 12th of August 2001.
It was a happy moment for Rita and those of us who were in court, especially to those of us at the Human Rights Office. It was a victory of exceptional courage and determination by Rita and all those who supported her long struggle. But it also showcased the exceptional decay of Sri Lanka’s justice system – more than 14 years to ensure justice for the abduction and rape of a teenage girl. In his introduction to the judgement, the judge also highlighted this delay in justice and also referred to the delays at the police stations.
It is rare that victims of rape, especially a teenage Tamil schoolgirl from a tea plantation area, can fight for justice. She will be victimised, again and again, in the verbal comments made to her, in the way people look at her, in her village, school, work place. The police, the Attorney-General’s Department, the judiciary, the family, the media, and society in general are not sympathetic. Even the sympathetic may not be committed to help pursue justice. She and her family are likely to encounter threats, intimidation, and attempts to discredit her if she decides to pursue justice instead of keeping quiet.
But Rita pursued justice with exceptional courage and determination, right from the time she was raped. Her first step after the incident was to go and complain to the police and then accompany the police to show the place of the incident and search for the suspects. These steps were referred to by the judge in a positive way in his reasons given for the judgment. The state counsels prosecuting her case had changed 15 times. At least 9 judges had heard her case. There were more than a hundred court hearings – in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya High Courts, non-summary proceedings, and another civil case in the District Courts. She had to go through the trauma of repeatedly explaining what happened to her in detail over a number of years, including in the face of harsh and probing cross examinations, and she even fainted once. But Rita had remained consistent in her story. The judge also recognised this and highlighted that the defence lawyers were not able to cast doubt
on Rita’s testimony, which appeared to be corroborated by medical evidence, observations of the police, circumstantial evidence, and some statements by the accused.
Rita had lost her father when she was young. Her grandfather died in 2009, midway through her struggle for justice – he had supported and encouraged her, and had given witness in her court proceedings. She pursued justice, despite intimidation to her and her family and attempts to offer money and get her to withdraw the case. She was compelled to stay in 21 safe houses for security. She had to leave her friends and familiar surroundings and change schools, villages. She even had to seek employment in the Free Trade Zone, far away from the hill country she had lived all her life.
The few successes in struggles for justice in Sri Lanka have been largely due to the exceptional courage and determination of survivors and victims’ families and the solidarity and support from a few individuals and groups, rather than the effectiveness of the state and statutory institutions established to deliver justice.
It’s a major fault of our justice system that justice is not accessible and available independently as of right, and quickly, but rather, appears to depend on a victim’s courage or ability to garner support. Fourteen years is way too long for a teenage girl who was raped to wait for justice. Thus, in the longer term, reform of the justice system will be key.
The legal machinery was once again activated when the two accused police officers, R.M. Nihal Rajapakse and W.M. Balasuriya who severely tortured Rohitha Liyanage and Sarath Bandara on the 28th of July 2005 were sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment by the Kandy High Court Judge Menaka Wijesundara on the 3rd of December 2015 in the torture case no. HC 183/2007 under the Torture Act no. 22 of 1994. In addition, the judge also ordered the two accused to pay a fine of Rs. 10,000 for each count, caring a default sentence of six months.
Rohitha Liyanage activated the Torture Act no. 22 of 1994 after a long interval, as none of the torture perpetrators from the police or the armed forces were indicted nor sentenced during the previous regime, as a reward for assisting the armed forces during the civil war.
The 2 police officers attached to Wattegama police station tortured Rohitha and Sarath on the 28th of July 2005 by beating Rohitha with an iron rod until his right leg was broken in 5 places. The two police officers got themselves admitted to the hospital and made fabricated charges against Rohitha and Sarath for alleged attacks on the two police officers. The case of fabricated charges against the 2 victims was initially heard at the Magistrate Court in Teldeniya (Case no. B 600/2005). The Human Rights Office engaged in a national and international campaign against the torture and inhuman degrading treatment and punishment of Rohitha and Sarath, and, as a result of this campaign, the Attorney Generals Department withdrew the fabricated charges against the victims and the police officers were indicted under the Torture Act no. 22 of 1994.
What does it mean for your organisation to be part of the Pax Christi International network?
HRO being a religious organisation that basically works with people of different faiths is privileged to be part of the Pax Christi global network that works towards reconciliation, peace and justice, with so many diverse issues, striving to dialogue and co-operate with non-governmental organisations and movements. Pax Christi has paved the way for us to build bridges with various regional and international organisations to create a culture of peace.
By Fr. Stephen Ashok OMI
Centre for Society and Religion
Note: The following story was submitted to the Nonviolence and Just Peace conference in Rome in April 2016. Conference participants were invited to share short reflections on their own experiences of nonviolence and peacemaking.
Sri Lanka suffered a 30 year-old war which brought suffering to many people both in the North and South of the country equally, irrespective of class, clan, creed and nationality. But among those, the ones who most suffered were the children. Some lost both their parents and others lost only one and even the parents who survived were physically handicapped due to injuries. The children of the northern part of the country were the real victims of the 30 year old curse. They grew up in an unhealthy environment where they saw nothing but the calamity and the destruction of war from morning to evening. These experiences led a lot of the children to a traumatic situation, so much so that they could not even concentrate on their elementary education. Childhood fantasies were so far away for them.
The Centre for Society and Religion, popularly known as CSR, began the mission of rehabilitating the victims of war soon after the war ended in 2009. This mission was called “the ministry of presence” and attention was focused on people who lived in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. At the very beginning, CSR did nothing but just be with the victims, listening to them, trying to look for ways and means of getting support to fulfill their basic human needs such as food, clothing, sanitation and medication.
As the IDPs were settled and the camps were slowly removed, CSR launched into the second step of the mission in 2013; it was called, “the project of peace and reconciliation”. The IDPs who were settled in a particular divisional secretariat called NEDUNKERNY were chosen as the geographical area and 5 villages of this area became the mission territory of CSR. These were among the many villages where the war was thick and heavy towards the last stage and therefore people were severely affected by the loss of lives and property. CSR rented a small house in the middle of these 5 villages and called it “CSR Centre–Nedunkerny”, and a staff of 5, including two reverend nuns, were recruited to carry out the mission.
The mission contained many components such as forming women and farming groups, supporting them with livelihood programs, giving people a rights-based education, and also promoting nutrition and education among children. As children were the most affected segment of war, our special attention was focused on this particular component.
We started with a small group of children, between 20-30, and started working with them. We taught them English and mathematics and fed them with a snack during the classes. Gradually the number started increasing. We found that some of them were extremely traumatized, and obviously it was due to what they have seen and experienced. We recruited volunteers among them to teach the children, and today, after 3 years, we have 183 children. Almost all the children of the nearby village government school are coming to our centre, and so we are now invited by the principal of the school to teach the children in the school as well. This year is our last year of implementing this program, and we have called it “the exit strategic year”. After 4 years we expect the villages to move on all by themselves.
The strength and opportunities I see
Right from the very beginning in 2009, my experience was that the most important tool of working with these victims was nothing but our openness and willingness to reach them as “a group of our own” and NOT as a group outside who needed our help. As we were a group coming from the South to work with them, initially their reaction was not very positive, as it was the Southerners who fought the war against them. But eventually the relationship grew and they started feeling comfortable with us. This was very visible in children. We always identified ourselves with them and used inclusive language all the time. We were neither judgmental nor critical of anything related to them. We honestly accepted their feelings and empathetically received them as they are. Thus in the midst of violence and conflict of war, we found that our ways of thinking, listening and speaking in ways that awaken compassion and generosity between ourselves motivated us to reach each other without fear or guilt.
Let me tell you that this a noticeable change in approach towards each other by the two ethnic communities which is now seen not only in CSR but also in the entire country. People of the south are more compassionate towards the people in north who suffered immensely due to war. The change of political regime in 2015 has given a huge boost for a lasting and sustainable political solution to the ethnic problem. The civil society is more active and aware of their rights and duties as “citizens” of the country. The ongoing discussions towards drafting a new constitution is a great opportunity for the people of the country to rectify most of the loop holes which paved the way to a lot of differences between nationalities, religions and languages.
Where and how the energy should be invested towards a deeper and wider practice of nonviolence within the Catholic community
As our attempts were very successful and fruitful with children and became a good investment towards a sustainable future in Sri Lanka, I feel that the Church in Sri Lanka too must consider the same as a good vineyard for her future mission. The children and youth are the best components where the Church could invest her energy to link the 2 ethnic communities. The Buddhists in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese and they mostly live in the southern part of the country. The Hindus are Tamils and they mostly live in the north. But the Catholics in Sri Lanka are both Sinhalese and Tamils and they live not only in North and South but also in East and West. Therefore the Church in Sri Lanka has a very good fertile soil where she could plant the seeds of nonviolent communication for a deeper reconciliation, starting with the children and youth. They are a sure way of building the bridge between the 2 ethnic communities, not only in the Catholic Church, but also in the entire country.
The other important area where the Church in Sri Lanka could invest her energy is to get actively involved in contributing to the formation of the new constitution which is currently the hot topic in the country. These days all over Sri Lanka, different sectors and classes of people are pooling their opinions to a committee appointed by the government whose duty is to submit a report to the Parliament on “public recommendations towards the new constitution”. Unfortunately the Church in Sri Lanka is very backward in getting involved in these types of issues. But these are golden opportunities for the Church to influence and promote her theories of nonviolent communication.