Healing hands for torture victims

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Sunday TImes
| Date: 20000609

By: Laila Nasry and Chatura Randeniya

Torture is a word which sends shivers down our spine and chills our hearts. Most of us don't give much thought to it because it is not part of our lives. But for some it is a reality like sleeping and breathing. A reality they have suffered, which has left them traumatised.

Torture is the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, make a confession or for any other reason.

Our Constitution, however, states very clearly that "no person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Despite this, torture exists, perhaps reflecting the troubled times we live in.

The Family Rehabilitation Centre (FRC), which deals with torture victims, has worked with 840 direct victims in 1999 alone. Most victims divulge only the fact that they were tortured, to their counsellors, who are the ones in touch with the reality. These counsellors have the hands that heal.

FRC's 'clients' who have external injuries are referred to Dr. Suresh Yogasundaram . "When they come to me their wounds have healed but there are scars on the body along with the aches and pains," he says. He sees this as a failure in the system where a torture victim is not treated when he needs it most. Dr. Yogasundaram does his utmost, referring to a specialist only if the need arises.

His job entails much patience. One of the main problems faced by him is that the clients are irregular. "Initially we see them for around six months to two years and then they disappear and there is no way of tracing them."

Why did he get into this type of work? "I always had this urge to do social service and when I heard the horror stories, I wanted to help," he explains. He was sent to Denmark for special seminars on treating torture victims. "You need patience and a different attitude for this kind of work."

Dr. Yogasundaram has been doing this work in Vavuniya for two years and in Colombo for three years. Despite his experience "the things that people do still shock me", he says. "Torture makes the victims feel as if they have lost their future."

What satisfies him most is seeing his clients re-build their lives, learning to live and deal with their incapability and fears. Though it takes a long time Dr. Yogasundaram strongly believes that as long as there's life there will always be hope.

The gentle silver-haired physiotherapist, who declined to be named, has been an FRC volunteer for nearly 10 years. "All the merit goes to my husband and daughter for allowing me to do this work," she says, while stressing that it is her work, not herself, that is important.

A former principal of the School of Physiotherapy, she says, "I deal mostly with the physical damage they have suffered, but you can't classify the damage as physical and mental. I focus on the whole person. My clients can talk to me whenever they like. I don't prompt them, but I'm always willing to listen."

She uses relaxation techniques in her work. "Almost all our clients are traumatised, and one of their biggest problems is insomnia, mostly out of fear. The body needs sleep to recover and relaxation helps them. You have to be very strong to do this kind of work. If you are not strong internally, I don't think you'll go very far in this line. You must also have the desire to help."

"I believe that every torture victim can recover. It may take a lot of time and support, but they can recover. The worst case is when the breadwinner is tortured and left crippled. They have very real economic problems and it works on their minds. This makes the situation worse and slows recovery," she says.

The reward? "I feel I'm contributing to somebody's welfare, and that keeps me going. Seeing a client's condition improve is reward enough for me. As long as I am fit for this work, I will not stop."

Social worker Chan-drakanthi Pathinige's passion was to serve people. Her work too at FRC revolves around torture victims. Often it involves being where the crisis occurs, in today's context often it is a bomb blast site.

Each person she comes across is different, but needs the same special treatment. People who have survived a blast feel guilty at having escaped, while others died. "There is a lot of self-loathing and they need constant reassurance that it was not their fault."

Initially, Chandrakanthi listens to her client. "They keep repeating what is troubling them the most. It is this that I seek to put in order first and the rest just falls into place. Giving advice is not all that easy."

She recalls seeing parents who have felt useless as a result of their disability and children who feel they are a burden on their parents. Partners who are afraid the other would abandon them due to their incapacity. But Chandrakanthi has also seen the support of family and friends towards torture victims.

Playing 'good samaritan' for the past nine years has not been easy. At times it is an immense strain, however "seeing my clients settling down well into the life they once had is what brings me satisfaction".

There are many more who dedicate their lives to torture victims. At first glance, these people seem to have nothing in common. They come from different walks of life. But deep down they are similar. All of them have found in themselves the strength to confront this painful issue and do something about it. And despite all they have seen, they still believe in humanity.

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Not condoned but it continues: DIG Sivaratnam "The Police Department does not condone or tolerate torture," says Deputy Inspector General M. Sivaratnam of the Ombudsman Branch, "but there's no denying that it occurs in police stations." The actions of the police are governed by The Torture Act No. 22 of 1994 (The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act 22 of 94), Article 11 of the Constitution and the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, says Mr. Sivaratnam.

Article 5 of this Code states that "no law enforcement official may inflict, instigate or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, nor may any law enforcement officer invoke superior orders or exceptional circumstances such as a state of war, a threat to national security, internal political stability or any other public emergency as a justification of torture."

Victims of torture can obtain relief under the Torture Act 1994 or as a violation of fundamental rights through the Supreme Court. "Not a single policeman has been charged under the Torture Act so far," says DIG Sivaratnam.

According to FRC Executive Director W. Diyasena the most common form of relief is through fundamental rights cases.

DIG Sivaratnam said, "The Supreme Court does not call petitioners to the witness-box in fundamental rights cases against torture. Instead it relies on affidavits and other documents, and thus even if a police officer is found guilty of torture, the Supreme Court does not recommend his/her dismissal from the force."

Are there sensitising programmes for police personnel on this issue? "Every policeman is instructed on this in training school as well as in higher training institutions they are expressly told not to use torture. However, once they go into the field, it may be the other way around," he said

Why aren't scientific and humane methods such as lie detector tests used in interrogation? "We can't afford most of the modern equipment. However, police personnel are taught cross-examination techniques. They are taught that the arresting of a suspect is the last thing to do. First, you must amass the evidence against that person, and later confront him with it. Then it is easier to break him. But sometimes circumstances mean that we must arrest people quickly," he said.

He added, "Any person who has been tortured can complain to the Police Department itself. The Assistant Superintendent of Police in charge can conduct an investigation and take disciplinary action."

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A victim lives to tell his tale His eyes were vacant but fearful. His voice quivered and his lips trembled. Tears of frustration and helplessness welled up in his eyes. But Raju (name changed to protect his identity) fought them back, at times with difficulty. He was one of FRC's clients recalling the day his world and his hopes for the future, came crashing down. It was to be a simple search operation. Instead it turned out to be a nightmare. Four policemen entered his home in the middle of the night and searched it. Not finding anything they threatened his parents and then arrested him under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Raju alleged. Raju was held in police custody and allegedly tortured for 21 days. "They tied my hands behind my back and then put a rope around my hands and hung me from a ceiling fan for four days and beat me asking what my connection with the LTTE was," he said with his head in his hands, sobbing. When he fainted he was taken down from the ceiling fan and thrown into a cell. "They would return and burn my body with a lit cigarette. They also used electricity to torture me. They put a shopping bag over my head and stifled me. At times I thought I'd die," he said No phone calls were given and initially no one was allowed to visit. "My father was permitted to see me only on the eighth day. By then most of the damage was done," he said. With mounting pressure from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International he was produced before a Magistrate and released. Raju had to live on painkillers. A nerve was damaged and there was no sensation in his hand. After medical check-ups and weekly physiotherapy sessions he learnt to relax and sleep. Counselling has also helped and Raju is on the road to recovery.