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Ramani’s Story

“There is a common perception in Sri Lankan society that criminals deserve poor treatment,” she explains, “and that all detainees are criminals. However, this is not accurate, since, for example, over half of the prison population is composed of people who are awaiting their trial and have not yet been proven guilty. Also, 2008 statistics show that 50.3% of Sri Lankan prisoner could have paid a monetary fine instead of being sent to jail.”

by Gaston

(August 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Ramani Perera’s house in Panadura, Sri Lanka, seems abandoned. Daylight shines through holes in the back wall, and the cobwebbed ceiling beams bend under the weight of the corrugated metal roof. After calling her, Ramani and her son Sugath appear though the green tangle of the yard. They built a new shelter a bit further back, she says, since this one has become unsafe. Their new home, though more stable, still holds no luxuries, with a dirt floor, no electricity and no bathroom facilities. A dog greats visitors by the door, while Ramani extracts a squeaking monkey from a cage near the wooden panel she uses as a bed. “Its mother abandoned it just after it was born”, she says, “I’ve been raising it for three months, and when it’s big enough, I’ll let it return to the trees.”

Regardless of her humble provenance, Ramani has developed a reputation as an ardent defender of human rights in her area. Through an organization called Janasansadaya, (The People’s Forum), she has participated in protest actions against the use of torture in Sri Lanka, and has helped to organize seminars to inform her neighbors of their rights. She has been supporting Janasansadaya’s activities ever since her family needed to turn to them for legal assistance in 2002.

Both her husband and her brother were arrested for trespassing on private land that belonged to a police officer, and drawing water from his well. At the police station, Ramani claims, officers beat the men with sticks, in the face and on their back. Both needed medical attention after the assaults, but none was provided. After they were released on bail, both men suffered long-term consequences from their encounter with the police. Ramani’s brother, who worked as a coconut harvester, could not climb trees anymore, because of constant dizziness. Ramani’s husband could not find a job, and the police continued to harass him. A few months after leaving prison, her brother died as a result of various illnesses. Ramani is now raising his son.

Stories like these form the daily work of Janasansadaya lawyer Harshi Perera (no family relation to Ramani). “There is a common perception in Sri Lankan society that criminals deserve poor treatment,” she explains, “and that all detainees are criminals. However, this is not accurate, since, for example, over half of the prison population is composed of people who are awaiting their trial and have not yet been proven guilty. Also, 2008 statistics show that 50.3% of Sri Lankan prisoner could have paid a monetary fine instead of being sent to jail.” Often these pre-trial detainees remain in prison for weeks or months awaiting their court date. In addition, according to the 2007 UN Special Rapporteur Report on Torture, torture by security forces is widely practiced in Sri Lanka, although prohibited by law. As a result, regular citizens like Ramani come to Janasansadaya to report cases when the police reacted to petty crime with undue violence.

With the help of a lawyer provided by Janasansadaya, Ramani still fights in court for justice, even after her husband passed away five years ago. She is not ready to rest until the judge acknowledges that the police officers who assaulted her relatives committed a crime. “Because I am a woman, I feel that police officers and court officials try to intimidate me sometimes. But I will continue to fight courageously until the end.” And pointing up at the roof of her house, she adds: “But right now I need to find a way to stabilize this house. I don’t want it to fall on our heads during our sleep.

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