Coerced confessions determine Tamil prisoners' fate

[TamilNet, Friday, 15 January 2016, 19:57 GMT]
While rights groups highlight the continued torture and rapes of Tamils even after Sri Lanka's President Sirisena came to power, the 217 political prisoners languishing in Sri Lanka's high security jails expose another dark side of Sri Lanka's failed criminal justice system. The predicament of Valayuthan Varatharajan from Karava'nai South, Karaveddi who had been in remand for nearly 16 years in the New Magazine Prison, and was hurriedly given a sentence for "conspiring to carry out suicide attack" on the then President Kumaratunge, a verdict given three days before Sri Lanka resolution was passed in the UN on the 25th of September 2015, highlights Sri Lanka's judicial bankruptcy, legal sources in Colombo said. The main evidence the prosecution was able to assemble against Varatharajan was a coerced confession signed in Sinhala language by the defendant, according to these sources.

Legal sources in Colombo said that currently there are 217 Tamil political prisoners either serving sentences or in remand awaiting cases to complete or to be filed. Of these, 46 are serving short sentences of 2 to 3 years, after accepting a guilty plea, mainly due to lack of financial resources to continue to defend themselves in the court of law. 14 are serving 20 years or more, with cases pending appeals to a higher court.

Tamil prisoners have been on hunger strike demanding early release. Promises made by the Sinhala politicians to expedite justice and/or allow early release have not been kept, and the prisoners say that they will continue their struggle.

Varatharajan and Ragupathy Sarma: found guilty in Chandrika case
Varatharajan and Ragupathy Sarma: found guilty in Chandrika case [Courtesy: CeylonToday]
Besides Varatharajan's own confession, there was hardly any other evidence to convict him, his relatives said.

According to informed sources the 231 witnesses and 73 Case exhibits presented by the Attorney General for this Case were far remote from the crime to even legally qualify as witnesses or material evidence.

The overwhelming majority of the Tamil prisoners were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), with judicial evidence standards for arrest lower than even "reason to believe," watchdogs observing Sri Lanka's judicial process said.

Police arrested 15 suspects in an overnight sweep after the December 18, 1999 attack on the then Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunge. Varatharajan, Sakthivel Ilangeswaran, Chandra Iyer Ragupathy Sarma (priest), and Vasanthi Ragupathy (wife of the priest) were among those arrested in the sweep, and in the ensuing days. Sakthivel is already serving a 30-year sentence after accepting a guilty-plea believing he would be given a smaller sentence. Vasanthi was acquitted.

Colombo High Court Judge Padmini Gunathilaka sentenced V. Varadaraja and Ragupathy Sarma to 290 to 300 years Rigorous Imprisonment to be served in 30 years. The Court refused to consider the nearly 16 years already served in prison in reducing the final sentences.

While Sri Lanka has ratified core international human rights instruments, including the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of all forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the judicial system has failed to uphold basic equality in dealing with Tamil defendants, creating a two-tier justice system, one for Sinhalese, and another for Tamils, Tamil legal sources in Colombo said.

The UK-based International Bar Association (IBA) has noted that "the judiciary is currently vulnerable to two types of political influence, from the Government and from the Chief Justice himself. The extent and type of influence oscillates between the two and depends on the relationship between the Chief Justice and the Government," IBA said in its Sri Lanka report.


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External Links:
US-RJ: A criminal defendant’s choice
LATimes: Sri Lankan President Wounded in Suicide Bomber Attack


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