I am Pax Christi, Peace, Social Issues

Reflections from my work with torture victims in Sri Lanka

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.

Moral leaders

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.

Nonviolence, Our Stories, Social Issues

OUR STORY: The Human Rights Office, Kandy in Sri Lanka

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.

Fr. Nandana Manatunga addresses a consultation of Pax Christi member organisation in the Asia-Pacific region in Manila in December 2017.

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.