The Gulag Island

"CID officers are law enforcement officers and their activities must be defined within the framework of the law."


(September 25, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) Aleksandr Solzhenisyn added the word 'gulag' to the human rights vocabulary to describe a type of experience that is being repeated in many parts of the world. His own three volume study was the experience of Russia from 1918 to 1956. Today, in Sri Lanka this same horror is being experienced by the entire population. The dreaded Cheka, the security organisation created in Russia exercised the function of being the informer, the arresting authority, the interrogator, the authority that decided on guilt or innocence and the authority that carried out the death sentences and disposed of bodies or decided terms of imprisonment or any other punishment. And all these functions were exercised in complete secrecy with whatever procedures it chose to adopt. What the law in the country was and how it was implemented was almost completely left to the Cheka, perhaps only with the possibility of a few interventions by the highest authority, the general secretary of the Communist Party who, for the most part, was Joseph Stalin. Within this system the decisions on life and liberty were casual decisions of individuals who answered to no one. There was no transparency or accountability.

The insurgencies which took place in Sri Lanka from 1971 allowed the emergence of such an authority within the country. The lives of tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country have ended up in disappearances through a process where the informer, the arresting and interrogating and adjudicating authority and finally the executioner and grave digger has been the security apparatus.

The earlier systems of the criminal procedure and the judicial authority which intervenes from the moment of arrest through all the stages of adjudication has been replaced by this new system which is not under any of the controls that exist within a rule of law system.

The story of how the process of justice has been taken into the hands of the Sri Lankan Gulag is a long one. What we note in this article is that, by now, this gulag is not merely using its powers on insurgents but on anyone it chooses. The recent investigations into a letter signed by 133 well known Sri Lankan citizens is a demonstration of the way in which any activity can be brought under the gulag and be taken out of the judicial process.

What the gulag does is basically to turn the normal judicial process in the country into a phantom limb. Like in the case of many amputees who continue to feel that they still have the use of the limbs they have lost, most Sri Lankans still believe that their justice system still exists. The investigation into this solidarity letter should be an eye opener for all to realise what has been lost by way of justice in Sri Lanka.

The President of Sri Lanka instructed the Defense Secretary to verify the facts stated in a newspaper advertised petition published in several papers, condemning the death threat to Dr. P. Saravanamuttu a well known civil society activist who received the threat by way of a letter that he would be killed if Sri Lanka does not get the GSP+.

The Defense Secretary was asked to verify as to whether there was such a threat stating that there is some international conspiracy against Sri Lanka.

Following the report of the instructions of the president, officers from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) visited and questioned many signatories to this advertisement. They were asked; how they know of Dr. P. Saravanamuttu; whether there was any meeting for all signatories of the advertised petition; have they in fact seen the threatening letter, and who had sent the threatening letter?

There is apprehension that perhaps another kind of political prosecution may be on the way. In any case the visits by the CID and the questions are without any basis in law and are direct interference into the basic rights of citizens to engage in any kind of solidarity work within the framework of the law.

The Defense Secretary has no authority to direct inquiries into acts which are entirely legal and are within the rights of citizens. The basis of any inquiry is the allegation of a criminal act. In this instance the engagement of acts of solidarity by a group of citizens are not criminal acts. The CID officers do not have the duty to obey any orders which are not based in law. They particularly do not have any obligation to carry out political work aimed at suppressing those that the government considers their political opponents.

CID officers are law enforcement officers and their activities must be defined within the framework of the law. It is the duty of the director of the CID to ensure that his officers are not being directed or used for purposes of political activities and particularly for activities directed towards intimidation.

Under Sri Lanka¡¦s fundamental rights laws, any directions given to engage in purely political activities done under the pretext of investigations are a violation of the rights of citizens for security, which is a violation of article 13 of the Constitution and article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Sri Lanka is a party.

It is the duty of any investigating officer to explain to anyone who is being questioned as to what crime he or she is being charged with. Engaging in an act of solidarity on behalf of a fellow citizen is not a crime. In fact, it is one of the most honorable duties that a citizen owes to his fellows.

In the past human rights organisations have warned that a political police and a political prosecution system are emerging in Sri Lanka. Several previous cases indicate an attempt to give the pretext of investigations and prosecutions on the basis of criminal charges while, in fact, the purpose of such investigations and prosecutions are entirely political.

This is even more alarming in a situation where assassinations and threats of assassinations are not being investigated by the authorities who have the responsibility to investigate them. In this instance the letter containing the death threat was brought to the notice of the government and it was very widely publicized. Like in the earlier cases of such deaths threats no investigation was carried out. In fact, some who work for the propaganda machinery of repression tried to ridicule the complaint regarding the threat.

Now instead of investigating into those who issued the threat investigations are being carried out against those who expressed concern and wanted protection for the threatened person. This is no different, for example, to conducting enquiries against the parents of the recent assassinations at the Angulana police station instead of the officers who carried out the killings. It was due to the popular uproar that such an occurrence did not happen and that, in fact, the actual perpetrators were investigated and prosecuted. However, what happens most of the time is the protection of the actual perpetrators of the crime and the suppression of those who complain about harassment. in this column the author has repeatedly warned that the entire legal process in the country has been turned upside down and the justice process is being deliberately subverted for political purposes.

There must be an end to the harassment of Dr. P. Saravanamuttu and his organisation and also the persecution of Sri Lankan citizens who have engaged in acts of solidarity relating to a fellow citizen. The Director of the CID must inquire as to how the officers working under him are being utilised for such political activities. The director must issue instructions to his officers to clarify the position of the law that they are under no obligation to obey illegal orders. Civil society must be urged to follow the courageous lead of the signatories to this petition and to act in solidarity for the defense of their rights. The international community should support the Sri Lankan people in their struggle for a return to a society based on the rule of law and their attempt to prevent the emergence and continuation of a gulag in Sri Lanka.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
-Sri Lanka Guardian