Sri Lankan State Intelligence Chief under criticism at UNCAT review | Sunday Observer

Sri Lankan State Intelligence Chief under criticism at UNCAT review

It is now clear that the Sri Lankan President will get to meet two of the most powerful world leaders within the first three months of next year – a significant achievement for Sri Lanka in the foreign policy front.

When Retired DIG Sisira Mendis was appointed the head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) many termed it a wise move as he was known as an officer with a highly successful track record.

On the other hand, the new government felt the need to restructure the state intelligence apparatus which was heavily politicized under the previous government. Mendis, at that point, seemed to be the ideal man for the task.

The senior Police officer, suddenly, made headlines last week when the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) raised questions over the Intelligence chief’s inclusion in the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNCAT session.

The first reaction to the DIG’s inclusion in the delegation came from local and international human rights organisations pushing for speedy post-war accountability in Sri Lanka.

Two media organisations, the Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) and the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) fired the first salvos at Mendis saying they were dismayed to learn that the Sri Lankan State Intelligence chief was a member of the Sri Lankan delegation to UNCAT.

They reacted strongly to the State Intelligence Chief’s inclusion on the grounds that he oversaw two police units, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), during the final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war from March 2008 until June 2009. A UN investigation accused both units of torture and sexual violence during the period that Mendis was in charge.

“The well-known journalist J. S. Tissainayagam, the writer and publisher V. Jasikaran and his wife V. Valarmathy, and journalist K. Wijesinghe are among the prominent media figures who experienced cruel treatment at the hands of the TID according to RSF,” the two bodies said, in a statement.

“Dr. ThurairajahVaratharajah, who was detained by the CID in 2009 along with four other Tamil doctors, was subjected to inhuman treatment for being the main source of information from the war zone for international media outlets during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s bloody war, when no independent journalists were allowed to cover the fighting.”

“RSF and JDS ask UNCAT to question National Intelligence Chief Sisira Mendis on the conduct of these police units under his command and to determine who was responsible for the crimes against journalists and violations of press freedom,” said Benjamin Ismail, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

This was then picked up by many other organisations that questioned the inclusion of Mendis. As a result, some members of the UNCAT also raised concerns over the Sri Lankan government’s move.

After the Sri Lankan government concluded the first part of its submissions to the Committee, UNCAT Member Felice Gaer said the internet had exploded with allegations against Mendis, a member of the Sri Lankan delegation.

The CAT member also said the senior Police officer’s name was included in the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka Report as he was the head of the CID and the TID during the final phase of war.

Gaer then posed a series of questions over interrogation techniques, conditions at detention centers and the conduct of officials at the time Mendis was the CID and the TID Chief.

She also asserted that although the new government had adopted certain new laws, the country is yet to address the issue of impunity.

“Based on everything we have heard, the issue of impunity is hanging like a sword over your country, and indeed, over your review,” Gaer said, during the review.

During the session, however, Mendis did not give answers to questions fired at him by members of the UN committee.

However, those supporting the Intelligence Chief’s inclusion in the delegation say the criticism by UNCAT members and international organizations was unfair.

“It is clear that they are trying to single out Mendis for some reason. It is true that he was the head of the intelligence bodies during the final phase of war, but no one has proven that he is personally responsible for alleged excesses. In this context, it is unfair to single him out and criticize his conduct. We cannot prevent any party from raising questions, but treating the state intelligence chief as a war criminal should not be accepted,” a senior government spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Sunday Observer.

UNCAT report

The UNCAT report on Sri Lanka released this week presented a series of important observations and recommendations concerning Sri Lanka.

“The Committee remains seriously concerned over consistent reports from national and UN sources, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, indicating that torture is a common practice carried out in relation to regular criminal investigations in a large majority of cases by the Criminal Investigations Department of the Police,” regardless of the nature of the suspected offence. The committee is concerned that the broad Police powers to arrest suspects without a court warrant has led to the practice of detaining while conducting the investigations as a means to obtain information under duress. The committee notes allegations that Police investigators often fail to register detainees during initial hours of deprivation of liberty or to bring them before a magistrate within the time-limit prescribed by law, during which time torture is particularly likely to occur. It also notes with concern that neither the Attorney General nor the judiciary exert sufficient pressure over the legality of detention or the conduct of Police investigations to prevent this practice. In this regard, the committee shares the concerns of the Special Rapporteur on torture that magistrates often do not inquire into potential ill-treatment during pre-trial hearings, and accepts the request of Police officers to keep suspects in remand custody without further scrutiny.

The Committee calls on the state party to:

* Make the necessary legislative amendments requiring the Police to obtain an arrest warrant issued by a judicial authority to conduct an arrest, except in cases of flagrante delicto.

* Ensure that detained persons are promptly brought before a judge within the time limit established by law, which should not go beyond 48 hours.

* Ensure that arresting officers ensure the exact date, time, ground for the detention and place of arrest of all detained persons. The state party should ensure that the compliance with the detention registration system is closely monitored and penalize any officers who fail to adhere to it or to ensure that their subordinates do so.

* Establish effective prosecutorial oversight over the Police’ action during investigation and improve criminal investigation methods to end practices whereby during statements obtained from Police interrogation are relied on as the central element of proof in criminal prosecution.

* Remind judges of their duty, whenever they have a reason to believe that a person appearing before them may have been subjected to torture or duress, to actively ask the detainees about their treatment during detention and request a forensic examination. The competent authorities should hold responsible those persons whose duty is to apply the law, including judges who fail to respond appropriately to allegations of torture raised during judicial proceedings.

* Install video surveillance in all places of custody where detainees may be present, except in cases where detainees’ right to privacy or to confidential communication with their lawyer or doctor may be violated. Such recordings should be kept in secure facilities and be made available to investigators, detainees and lawyers.

* Encourage the application of non-custodial measures as an alternative to pre-trial detention.

The committee expresses concern at credible reports indicating that the practice of so-called white van abductions of Tamils has continued in the years following the end of the armed conflict. The committee notes allegations of such practice documented by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigation of Sri Lanka (OISL) during 2002-2011 as well as non-governmental organisations which have identified 48 sites where torture allegedly occurred or which were used as transit points to torture locations, between 2009 and 2015.

The committee notes the information received that numerous individuals suspected of having a link, even remote, with the LTTE have been abducted and then subjected to brutal torture often including sexual violence and rape of men and women. According to the information received, such practices are carried out by both military and police in acknowledged places of detention, which have included law enforcement headquarters, army and IDP camps, and “rehabilitation centres”. While noting that the state party’s position that no secret torture camps or detention centres exist at present, the committee regrets the failure of the state party to clarify whether it investigated these recent allegations of torture.

The committee urges the state party to ensure that all allegations of unlawful detention, torture and sexual violence of security forces are promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent body.

The committee urges the state party to publish a full list of all gazette detention centres, close down any unofficial ones still in existence and ensure that no one is detained in unofficial detention facilities, as this practice is per se a breach of the convention.”

The committee report clearly shows that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration cannot wash its hands off by attributing everything to the past. The international partners have made it clear that the current government should take stern action to prosecute those involved in human rights violations under the previous government. They have also stressed the need for adopting a transparent process to keep records on detention centres.

Russia’s move

In an important turn of events, Russia’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alexander Karchava, speaking to journalists in Colombo, announced that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena would visit Russia in March, next year.

“We value this visit very highly because this will be the first visit by any Sri Lankan leader in several decades,” the Russian envoy said, addressing a press conference, at his embassy.

He also added that Sri Lanka and Russia have set up a joint committee on trade and economy and science and technology, and the first committee meeting took place in January this year.

The second meeting will be held in February next year, when both countries are expected to sign an agreement on fisheries.

The Russian envoy also vowed to strengthen bilateral ties with Sri Lanka as the two countries celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations.

After the President’s visit, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is also expected to visit Russia and hold discussions with the Russian authorities.

The announcement came a week after US Vice President-elect Mike Pence telephoned the Sri Lankan President and invited him to visit the US. President Sirisena is expected to visit the US early next year and hold talks with the new US President Donald Trump.

It is now clear that the Sri Lankan President will get to meet two of the most powerful world leaders within the first three months of next year – a significant achievement for Sri Lanka in the foreign policy front.

Many foreign policy experts have opined that the US foreign policy will see a sharp shift under Trump’s presidency.

They have also predicted that the US, under Trump, will adopt a softer policy on Sri Lanka when it comes to war crimes investigations and other matters involving the final phase of the Eelam conflict. The Sri Lankan President has already stated that he will write to the US President-elect, seeking his assistance to drop war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka.

This matter will also be discussed during the Sri Lankan President’s meeting with Trump, next year.

Russia is also in the process of realigning its policy in South Asia, looking to strengthen its ties with South Asian nations.

This was clearly expressed when Dr. Saman Weerasinghe, the newly appointed Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia, presented credentials to Russian President Vladmir Putin, in November, last year. The Russian Ambassador’s remarks in Colombo, this week, indicates that the wheels are now turning.

Ambassador Weerasinghe, at the event, briefed President Putin on the latest developments in Sri Lanka following the Presidential and the General Elections in January and August 2015, respectively.

He expressed Sri Lanka’s appreciation for the steadfast support that the Russian Federation has always extended to Sri Lanka and stated that Sri Lanka would like to further enhance the existing close and friendly relations with the Russian Federation.

The need to expand the bilateral trade relations, for which there is much scope, was stressed. Ambassador Dr. Weerasinghe also indicated the need for exchanging high level visits between the two countries.

In his remarks, President Putin said that recently Russia had managed to reinforce the legal foundation of relations with Sri Lanka, which will lay the groundwork for developing comprehensively Russia’s bilateral cooperation with Sri Lanka. He also said that Russia’s traditional contacts with Sri Lanka in the fields of fishing and agriculture were expanding.

The Sri Lankan President’s visit to Russia, next year, will further expand the cooperation between the two countries. It will also raise the country’s profile in the international political domain, as Russia, at this juncture, is on the path to be a great global power in the coming years. 

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