Activist sister of police torture victim assaulted in Beruwela | Sunday Observer

Activist sister of police torture victim assaulted in Beruwela

Amitha Priyanthi (Pic: Courtesy lankamirror.com)
Amitha Priyanthi (Pic: Courtesy lankamirror.com)

Amitha Priyanthi, a human rights activist looks petite but is full of passion about her work. Attached to the Janasansadaya, a civil society organization engaged in human rights work, Amitha was recently attacked by two men on motorbikes, wearing full-face helmets close to her home in Beruwela on July 6.

She says, the two men had followed her on motorcycles from her workplace in Panadura, about 37 kilometres away. As they left the Jansansadaya premises to make the short walk to the bus halt, Amitha and her colleague noticed the riders parked near the office. They had alerted other colleagues still in the office to the odd sight before leaving the premises, but never noticed that they had followed her bus all the way home.

“They appeared suddenly as I was turning to the lane. The pillion rider got off and started assaulting me on the head. If a neighbour and my husband had not come out and tried to stop the assailant, it would have been worse. They grabbed my bag with all the important documents and the phone in it and fled” she explains.

Eye-witnesses to the assault

Soon afterwards, Amitha lodged a complaint at the Aluthgama Police, who had recorded and conducted a local inspection. However, even after the lapse of six days, the Police was yet to record statements from her neighbour and her husband, who had been eye-witnesses to the assault when they came to her aid. The delays would be strange in any assault case, but given Amitha Priyanthi’s own personal history and the nature of her work, the police dragging its feet on the issue is downright sinister, say colleagues and lawyers working on the case.

Amitha is a victim turned human rights activist. Her brother died in police custody 18 years ago. His death, she says, altered the course of her life. Her brother Lasantha Jagath Kumara died as a result of injuries he had sustained allegedly at the hands of the Payagala Police in 2000. Legal action has been filed against the OIC of the police station, and the case, Sriyani Silva Vs. Iddamalgoda OIC Police Station Payagala and Others, is ongoing and currently being heard in the Supreme Court. The primary accused in the case, the Crimes OIC at the Payagala Police Station at the time of the fatal assault on her brother has been absconding court since 2005 and the case is being heard in his absence. The most recent hearing on the case had been three days before the brutal attack on Amitha.

False statements

In the Supreme Court, the wife of the first accused was summoned to courts and questioned about false statements she had made in court and at the police. “A previous inquiry from the Commissioner of Immigration and Emigration revealed that the accused left the country in 2005, although an open warrant had been issued for his arrest. It further revealed that he had visited the country twice between 2005 and 2009,” Amitha explained. For the past 18 years her whole life has been devoted to seeking justice for her brother’s death. Two days prior to the assault on Amitha Priyanthi, was the court date at the District Court, where the family was pursuing a compensation case against the Judicial Medical Officer who allegedly covered up the torture sustained by her brother.

Amitha was the unbending force behind the progress of her brother’s case in the courts, says Chirtral Perera, Secretary of Janasansadaya. “Under these circumstances it is clear to us that only suspects who are on trial for the crime will threaten Amitha Priyanthi by harming her physically.”

In a press release about the incident, Janasansadaya stresses that the two riders in full face helmets had passed by four police stations without an issue. “When such things happen, we tend to wonder whether law enforcement is also involved in these crimes,” the statement said. The attack has been roundly condemned by lawyers and other activists, who have called on the Government to take action. “The attack is a clear violation of the rights of Human Rights Defenders. The Government must take it seriously. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has to take the issue up since they have suo moto power,” said a top human rights lawyer who wished to remain anonymous. The lawyer stressed that the National Police Commission also has an important role to play in such investigations since fingers are pointed at law enforcement itself.

Ingrained culture of impunity

Attorney at Law Ermiza Tegal said, the attack on Amitha Priyanthi “demonstrated the deeply ingrained culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.”

While Amitha’s experience is not unique, simply because she is female, it reminds me of the heavy burden usually undertaken by women persevering in the pursuit of justice,” Tegal noted.

Rights activist Shreen Saroor said the attack displayed how guilty officials are structurally gearing up to operate in the same way they operated through the culture of impunity of the previous regime. Space opened up after 2015 for HRDs to work on many issues that ail the social fabric of the country, noted Saroor. “More recently this space had been closing up which is troublesome,” she said.

Janasansadaya where Amitha works is an organization assisting victims and families of victims of human rights violations including torture in their search for justice through the legal system. Amitha engages in legal empowerment of victims and coordination of the legal programmes of the organization.

The victimized human rights activist says it was disappointing that those who were pursuing justice legally were being subject to assaults and intimidation. But one week after she was attacked, Amitha is determined not to allow the incident to hamper her work.

“I won’t stop being an activist, I won’t give up seeking justice for victims of human rights violations,” she said. 

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