Courage under fire

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2008, 12:00am

With his smiling eyes and optimism, it's hard to imagine Father Nandana Manatunga at work, not because he cares for young people - for that he seems well suited - but because of the condition in which his wards come to him.

His grim role is torture rehabilitation. Father Nandana runs the Kandy Human Rights Office, a young, independent organisation in central Sri Lanka, that takes care of child victims of police brutality and sexual abuse, and helps them and their families take their cases to the courts. His story sheds light on a collapsing legal system and a police force that, like many in Asia, inspires fear.

In 2001, the then 40-year-old priest was working as director of Setik, a 15-person development and social justice agency of the Catholic Diocese in Kandy, when he met Rita, a 17-year-old girl who had been raped by two men in her village.

The men were prominent in the community and neither the victim nor her parents expected to receive help locally. They were already being snubbed by neighbours and at the girl's school. Later, although Father Nandana was transferred from Setik, more cases came to his attention: an 18-year-old boy arrested for stealing and beaten so severely in custody that he lay unconscious for a week; another boy, 17, who lost the use of one arm after being hung from the ceiling.

These cases in themselves weren't unusual, but the teenaged victims had decided to try to take their abusers to court - which was where Father Nandana came into the picture.

'Our torture act [was] passed in 1994 but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture,' he said, in the office of Hong Kong's Asian Human Rights Commission, a supporting organisation. 'The idea was to activate the law.'

He said that because torture had been routinely used by the police and armed forces in Sri Lanka for decades, anyone challenging them needed support and good security. The country has no witness protection programme. In 2004, Gerald Perera, a torture victim, was shot in public before he could testify in a criminal case, and Sri Lanka's list of 'disappeared' people runs into the hundreds.

In the past the only safe way to deal with abuses was to stay quiet. 'Most of the victims die [naturally] with their story. They don't want to fight the police and they don't want to follow this tedious legal procedure,' said Father Nandana. 'What we want to do is empower these children, give them the courage and moral support to break the silence.'

It has been a steep learning curve for the priest, who had worked with youths and for missing persons before, but had done little on the legal side. 'When Rita's case was brought to our attention, we didn't really know what to do,' he said. 'When the two perpetrators were arrested, we held a public protest rally ... 250 people came and marched against the police's lack of action. Then we had a postcard campaign. A month after Rita's [case] a young girl was raped by eight people and murdered, and then support came from schools.'

Finally the then president Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a committee to investigate - a victory in itself.

As Father Nandana worked with the victims, he was reassigned many times by his bishop, but the cases had a hold on him, and he was allowed to continue the work alongside his church duties. He set up a human rights media centre, and then the independent Kandy Human Rights Office. With six staff and a handful of volunteers, it functions as a refuge and legal aid centre. It is now helping 22 minors of all faiths from around the country and gives weekly counsel to other victims of the system.

Rather than set up a shelter, Father Nandana decided to place his wards discreetly in boarding schools or in the local convent. But a few who he feels might be in danger, lodge with him. His small team then rallies the medical, legal and psychological support needed to see cases through the courts. They have a lot on their plate: the country has been under a state of emergency since 2005 and cases tend to last for years.

'Now we have four cases [of] torture and about four or five rape cases, but no verdict yet,' Father Nandana said. 'Rita's case in the magistrate's court [lasted] 21 days spread over two years, and only this year, six years later, has it come up in the high court. On the very first day - she was in grade 10 - the lawyer for the accused said, she's a prostitute; so immediately she lost all her energy.

'It's hard to [witness] how they are questioned. They have to repeat their story so many times and after six years children forget, especially the details. Even Lalit [the boy beaten into unconsciousness] forgets things and I have to tell him, this and this happened to you.'

For the trauma counsellor at Father Nandana's office, it's an endless task: whenever she manages to make progress with one of the teenagers, a court date is set and the memories need to be dredged up again. Occasionally one of the victims finds the pressure too much to bear.

'Our biggest challenge is to sustain them,' the priest said. 'There was one, a girl, who said that she couldn't go through with it any more and decided to go home. But at this point you can't stop proceedings, and she may still be called back: sometimes they don't understand that the legal procedure is not only [about] you.'

Others react differently. One young girl told Father Nandana that she wanted to become a police officer - but not to help change the system. 'She says that when you become a police officer you get a gun. Then you can shoot anybody you want,' the priest said with a weary smile.

There are personal dangers for people who choose to confront the security forces in court. Those indicted on torture charges are suspended from their jobs. The people working in the human rights office have been followed and harassed by police in towns across Sri Lanka, sometimes openly. Father Nandana has managed to recruit a pool of about 25 high-profile friends such as lawyers and doctors, who take turns to escort the victims on court days, sometimes on journeys that take a day or more.

This show of support is significant. As human rights education increases in the country, an awareness is growing that things can be done differently and that police brutality shouldn't be accepted.

In Kandy, the families of Rita and Lalit, both led by their grandfathers and both very poor, refused settlements that had been offered to them and insisted on following through with the court cases. By doing so they displayed a new and unusual hope in the system.

On June 26 last year, a rally was held in Colombo to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and unprecedented public talks drew lawyers, activists and even civil servants. The day this year was marked on a larger scale, with forums, street campaigns and people's tribunals in Sri Lanka's larger cities.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been seeking to show progress on the human rights front but his record has been widely criticised by activists at home and abroad. Mistrust of a commission of inquiry he had appointed led him to invite a group of international observers in 2007, but they too resigned earlier this year.

Sri Lanka failed to win re-election to the UN Human Rights Council in May, following a vigorous campaign by activists abroad.

Although none of the court cases Father Nandana and his team are pursuing have borne fruit yet, he remains optimistic. He has little time for despondency anyway: there's a parish to run and 750 families to counsel, lodgers to care for, victims to advise, plus a programme in local prisons and court dates set across the country.

'I am very happy to see to our survivors living a normal life and fighting for justice. Torture has taken place here for a long time, but only now is there [an] awareness that something can be done. I believe it's a calling to be a human rights activist ... the spirituality of human rights, I could call it.'