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What a rape case says about Sri Lanka's legal system

Sexual assault victim battles 14 years to get justice

Kingsley Karunaratne, Colombo

Kingsley Karunaratne, Colombo

Published: April 21, 2016 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: April 22, 2016 11:49 AM GMT

What a rape case says about Sri Lanka's legal system

Father Nandana Manatunga (center in white) with lawyers during a legal review of Jesudasan Rita's adjudication process in 2013. (Photo from the Human Rights Office, Kandy)

Jesudasan Rita was a 17-year-old schoolgirl when she was abducted by two men and raped in Sri Lanka's Central Province, Aug. 12, 2001.

Before the rape, Rita was on her way home after attending Sunday Mass and confirmation classes at St. Patrick's Church in the town of Talawakele.

The rapists held Rita for four hours in their vehicle and then dumped her in an isolated area.

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After Rita thought about how Jesus carried a heavy cross up Calvary, she managed to break out of a state of despair and began walking with the intent of going to the police.

The teenager reached a main road where she stopped a passing vehicle that took her to the police station. There she made a complaint in her language, which is Tamil.

The police took Rita with them to search for the two accused, who were found and arrested.

Rita then sought medical help and spent four days in two different hospitals.

News spread about the rape and Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy directed Father Nandana Manatunga, director of the local Caritas, to do everything possible to help Rita.

At the same time there was a widespread view that some of the police officers were siding with the perpetrators, one of whom was Sinhalese and the other a Muslim.   

Many thought investigations weren't going the way they should be and two weeks after the rape, a public protest was held in the town of Hatton to pressure police to conduct a proper investigation.

When the case got to court, the magistrate said investigating officers did not protect important evidence, such as not sealing the clothes of either the victim or the accused.

On top of that, on day one of legal proceedings Rita was accused of being a prostitute by the defense counsel.

During the trial, Rita's classmates accompanied her to court for support. Father Manatunga also assisted Rita, making sure that someone was there to help her in court.

After 21 hearings in the Nuwaraeliya courts, the case was referred to the attorney general in November 2004.

But it didn't stop there. Rita's case dragged on for a total of 14 years.

Given the length of time that the case dragged on, many people lost hope in the judiciary and the rule of law, especially as the suspects were still free. It also became increasingly difficult to hold a fair trial as discouraged witnesses gave up on providing evidence.

Further exasperating the delay with Rita's case, the courts were unable to deal with a growing backlog of other cases.

Six years after the rape, the accused were indicted in the High Court in Kandy. That was in October 2007. In 2009 the case was transferred to Nuwaraeliya's High Court.

In total the case was called 40 times in both courts, said Father Manatunga.

"The case was heard by nine High Court judges while the prosecution was led by 10 state counsels and more than 20 lawyers, from Caritas Kandy (SETIK) and also from the Kandy Diocese's human rights office, who appeared on behalf of the victim," said Father Manatunga, who heads the Kandy human rights office.

"Rita gave evidence in May 2011 as the first witness and was cross examined for three days and called back once again for a re-cross examination in 2015 which lasted two days," said Father Manatunga.

Justice was finally delivered on Dec. 28, last year. By this stage Rita was a married woman with a 3-year-old child.

"The conviction was mostly due to Rita speaking out and for her courage," said the priest.

For their crimes the two men were sentenced to jail for 23 years and were ordered to pay Rita compensation.

What Rita had to endure to get justice should not occur in a country such as Sri Lanka, which respects human dignity, said Basil Fernando, director of policy and programs at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong.

"We should be shameful of a legal system that took 14 years to deliver justice, whereas things could have been concluded within a year or so," said Fernando.

Given the defects of the justice system that systematically discourages victims seeking justice, we can only appreciate Rita's courage.

Even just by looking at Rita's case alone it is obvious that Sri Lanka's legal system is in need of reform.

If reform does occur, it will greatly help move the country forward, especially after the country's 25-year-long civil war, which ended in 2009.

Until Sri Lanka reforms its judicial system, the citizens of the country will continue paying a higher price than what they should for justice.

Most at risk are those in the marginalized communities, such as the Tamils of which Rita belongs to.

Kingsley Karunaratne works with the Rule of Law Forum, Colombo, which is affiliated to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong.

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