Pictures of those accused of serious crimes leaving the court premises with their handcuffed hands raised up like heroes is a familiar scene on our television news bulletins. A swarming group of media persons is ready with their cameras outside the court premises for a clear shot of the accused being escorted by police officers to the Black Maria.
We live in a society where the accused sometimes receive the fullest media fanfare, while the victims of crime and witnesses cover their faces and getaway through the back door, struggling to keep a low profile for their own safety.
“There have been instances where victims and witnesses of serious crimes have, in fear of their lives, withdrawn from giving evidence as a result of the media revealing their identities,” National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Director-General and Senior Lecturer of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice of the FHSS; Udayakumara Amarasinghe said.
He was speaking at a workshop for journalists at Waters Edge in Battaramulla last week. It was organized to raise awareness on the ‘Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act’ of 2015.
Fear of stigma
Amarasinghe pointed out that child and female victims of rape, abuse, and domestic violence often tend not to complain or to drop their complaint in the middle of the legal process owing to the inordinate delay in the legal proceedings, social disgrace, and threats by the accused party or the lack of confidence in the police or the judicial system.
He, citing several complaints which the Authority has received in recent times, pointed out how bad are the responses by some among us towards the victims of sexual abuse.
“A Grade 8 student in a Colombo school had lodged a complaint with the police that she had been a victim of child abuse by an old businessman. Somehow, this information had been leaked to one of her school friends and she had spread it among other friends asking them not to talk to her. The victim had been harassed and humiliated by other children. She had complained to the teacher in charge of discipline, but to her utter shock, the teacher had rebuked her stating that she deserved the negativity and must have even been removed from school. The girl is now reluctant to go to school again. The pertinent question here is how long would she be willing to continue the case given the stigma she is facing,” Amarasinghe said. “In another case that we encountered in the Southern Province, a girl of about 13 years had been sexually abused by her elder brother. She had complained to the police and after an indictment by the Attorney General, the case has now been taken up at the High Court many years after the incident. Now she is married with a child. Her husband got to know of the incident only when the High Court sent notices. Her husband had insulted and tormented her following this piece of information. Once again our challenge is to persuade her to see the case through overcoming all the difficulties she is facing,” he remarked.
He said incidents of rape, child abuse, and domestic violence often go unreported because of the reluctance of victims and witnesses to complain.
“The recent brutal attack on a child by her stepmother and a female Grama Niladhari came into the limelight because of the video circulated in social media by a third party. It enabled the police to apprehend the culprits by commencing an investigation of its own. If not for this video taken by a third party, I doubt whether the victim would have come forward to complain,” he observed.
Delays in courtrooms
“On average, it takes about 10 – 15 years for the final judgment of a case, except for those of heinous crimes which have caused a public furor, as in the recent cases of the rape and murder of Seya Sadewmi and Sivaloganathan Vidya. In about 90 – 95 percent of the cases of rape, domestic violence, and child abuse, the victim and the accused have a close connection to each other. They can be family friends or relations. The victims face inconveniences when they have to continue the case for a long time against a person with whom they have a close connection, especially after the accused gets bail. The victims may also face threats,” he elaborated.
“However, there is little awareness in society, that the Victims of Crime and Witnesses Protection Law has addressed these problems to a considerable extent. Another little known fact is that, as per the Act, victims can obtain compensation up to Rs. one million at the end of a case. Our message to the public is they should not hesitate to report such incidents, because we in the Authority are there to assist and protect you. If you are afraid to go to the police or lack confidence in them, then report the incident directly to the Authority or the police division attached to it. Our hotline is 1985. This was introduced in April last year. We also accept complaints by a person or by post,” he added.
He said the Victim Protection Fund maintained by the Authority currently has a sum of Rs. four million. “This money is not obtained from the Treasury. The court, at the time of convicting a criminal, orders him to pay a sum equivalent to 20 percent of the fine imposed on him to the Fund,” he explained.
The Authority, with a limited cadre of 55, has taken great pains to raise public awareness and conduct training campaigns for police personnel, lawyers, principals and other public servants in relevant categories.
In the meantime, an amendment to the Act is in the draft stage to strengthen the protection it provides to child victims and whistle-blowers. A committee that was appointed to look into the matter has submitted its report to the Justice Ministry.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative in Sri Lanka Robert Juhkam speaking at the workshop said the UNDP was happy and proud to support the proposed amendment, which aims to add separate and more descriptive provisions for the protection of child victims and whistle-blowers.
“A hallmark of a successful protection structure lies in the independence and promptness of response mechanism. It must be able to earn the trust of the victims and witnesses because their reluctance to participate in the judicial process can be inhibited by a fear of retaliation,” he commented.
Since it is a relatively new piece of law, the UNDP Resident Representative pointed out that Sri Lanka’s mechanism is in “the embryonic stage with much more to be done to evolve into a fully-fledged protection structure,” but at the same time, he acknowledged that there is “important progress.”
“The passage of this law changes a lot in the justice sector in Sri Lanka. It provides the legal recognition of rights and entitlements afforded to victims of crime and witnesses. It criminalizes the offenses perpetrated against them and outlines the assistance and protection measures they can avail themselves of. This includes the express recognition of the right to confidentiality and of the punitive measures when that right is breached,” he explained.
Reasons for homicide
During the course of his presentation, Amarasinghe also revealed some interesting findings of a study he had been involved in. He said that land disputes, extramarital affairs and clashes which erupted under the influence of alcohol or drugs were the three main reasons for homicide in Sri Lanka according to a recent study.
He said the number of killings committed as a result of organized crimes such as demanding ransom and kidnapping or clashes between underworld gangs were considerably lesser than the above mentioned three reasons.
Amarasinghe who is also a senior lecturer at the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department of Sri Jayewardenepura University said the study was based on interviews with about 1,500 inmates in prisons convicted for homicide.