A case of alleged police brutality and torture has sparked outrage and calls for justice in Sri Lanka, after a woman who was arrested on suspicion of theft died while in police custody.
The woman, identified as R. Rajakumari, 42, a mother of three and a domestic worker from Badulla, was arrested by the Welikada Police on May 11, 2023, based on a complaint made by her employer, Sudharma Neththikumara, a former television producer and entrepreneur. Neththikumara claimed that Rajakumari had stolen a gold ring from his house.
According to police information disclosed to the media, Rajakumari was brutally assaulted inside the police station by four police officers who are currently interdicted in connection with her death. The matter has been handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) by the Inspector General of Police (IGP).
Rajakumari died on May 18, 2023, while being treated at the Colombo National Hospital. A post-mortem examination revealed that she had suffered multiple injuries and internal bleeding due to blunt force trauma.
The four police officers involved in the case – a sub-inspector, two sergeants and a constable – have been suspended and are facing charges under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act. A number of other police personnel have also been transferred over the incident.
The case has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights groups, civil society organizations and political parties, who have demanded an independent and impartial investigation into the incident and accountability for those responsible.
The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), a rights group documenting alleged abuses in Sri Lanka, said that Rajakumari’s case was not an isolated one, but part of a pattern of torture and ill-treatment of detainees by Sri Lankan police and military. The group released a report on September 13, 2023, detailing the testimonies of 15 members of the minority Tamil community who said they were beaten, burnt, suffocated and sexually assaulted by authorities over the past two years.
The report said that the testimonies showed that torture was “savage” and “endemic” in Sri Lanka, and that there was no political will to address the issue. The report also said that none of the alleged victims had been charged with any crime or given access to legal representation or medical care.
The government has denied the allegations in the report and said that it was based on false and fabricated claims by “vested interests”. The government has also defended its human rights record and said that it was committed to ensuring justice and reconciliation in the country after decades of civil war.
Sri Lanka ended a 25-year civil war between separatist insurgents from the ethnic Tamil minority and government forces in 2009. Rights groups accused both sides of committing atrocities during the war. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has adopted several resolutions calling for accountability and transitional justice in Sri Lanka, but the government has rejected any international involvement or scrutiny.