31 May 2014

A death that speaks of our larger incarceration*

[This was written in 2006.  There's a warning embedded here.  Have things changed over the last eight years?  I think not.  The lesson is therefore still relevant]

In a perfect world there would be no wars, no threats, no fear of sudden and violent death being encountered on the way to work, on the way home from school. In a perfect world there would be no criminals, no law-enforcement officers, perhaps no need for laws and of course no prisons. 

Perfection is always a place one can at best be travelling towards, never a residency. And so, in the imperfection that we all inhabit, there are transgressions of norm and law and perforce mechanisms to prevent and minimize the harm that the transgressor can cause the rest of society. These mechanisms, captured in the broad canvas called the judicial system, are themselves imperfect, which is why societies often come up with countervailing institutions and mechanisms to ensure due process, the safeguard of fundamental rights and so on.

We know that transgression is not the private property of pickpockets, petty thieves, smugglers, thugs, murderers and terrorists alone. Even a cursory glance at Supreme Court decisions on applications pertaining to the violation of fundamental rights would tell us that of the government officials found guilty, those responsible for upholding law and order have often acted in ways that make us wonder who the worse transgressor is. This is why Joan Baez, in her song
Prison Trilogy, cries out, Were gonna raze, raze the prisons to the ground! This is why young and idealistic revolutionaries cannot be faulted for asking, why should we respect the law when the law-makers and law-enforcers themselves violate their own laws?

We are talking about prisons here, and one prison in particular, the Kuruwita Remand Prison, where Sunil Perera was tortured. Sunil Perera, a man with no known record of any criminal activity, was arrested and held in the Kuruwita prison from June 29 to July 4 on suspicion of having given a nuisance call to Mihindu Maha Vidyalaya, Kuruwita,
warning of an imminent bomb attack. Sunil Perera was released after his innocence was established through relevant records of phone calls. Someone erred when he was arrested. That error could be put down to understandable human fallibility. After all, mistaken identity has resulted in worse consequences than mere arrest, as in the case of the West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot some 44 times by New York policemen who had been repeatedly decorated for service excellence. The unforgivable error occurred after the arrest. 

Even if Sunil Perera was guilty, he could cause society no harm from within the prison. Even if he had information that would lead to securing society from other such hoaxes, torture is not a sanctioned form of extracting it from the man. Sunil Perera died and although it is not established conclusively that he succumbed to his injuries, that is a mere detail. The point is, he very well may have; he may have been one well-directed blow away from a death attributable to assault! He was robbed of the right to due process. This robbery was not a petty crime, it was a theft of a much higher order for the transgressors are none other than people sustained by the tax payer to preserve the peace and to protect the citizenry from these and other violations. 

Admittedly we live in times when all social life is enveloped in the fear of terrorist attacks, for we are living with a tyrant who does not think twice about massacring civilians, destroying economies and livelihoods and disrupting day-to-day life. As such it is only human to be edgy, to act without circumspection and to let passion overrule reason. The arrest can be justified under such circumstances, but taking out other frustrations on the suspect is nothing but deplorable and indeed criminal. 

Sunil Perera obviously did not have the political or social connections necessary (unfortunately) to protect himself from assault, battery and other humiliations as such are perpetrated in prisons. There have been numerous instances where the connected’ got off scot-free after committing punishable offences, where detention was based not on suspicion but on established fact of transgression. What does Sunil Pereras fate tell us about the protection that Sunil Pereras of this country can expect from the police and indeed the judicial system? Why is it that people try to contact someone of influence in any dealing with the police, even to lodge a complaint? The simple answer is people are not sure if theyll come out alive when they enter a police station. Many are to blame for this state of affairs, including the police itself.

And what does the behavior of the law enforcement officers in this case tell us about ourselves? If the police cannot rein in frustration when encountering a detainee who has absolutely zero capacity to harm, does this not indicate that a mob, if similarly frustrated, is probably capable of causing mayhem and more?
We do not live in a perfect world, we know. This, however, does not prohibit the search for perfection or, in the very least, a commitment to ferret out imperfection and institute remedial measures. Sunil Perera
s story must sober us all about the unexpected but probable consequences of living in these times. It should embolden all of us to exercise discretion to the utmost and that a concerted effort should be expended to ensure that we do not succumb to the instinct to panic. But more than all this, it should alert us to the fallibility of the human being, a condition that should be read as I may not be right, and therefore persuade us to think not twice, but many, many times over, before we act in such situations. 

In our imperfect world there are wars, threats, there is fear of sudden and violent death being encountered on the way to work, on the way home from school. In our imperfect world there are criminals, law-enforcement officers, a need for laws and of course prisons. In our imperfect world we have to understand that while being careless about our security is dangerous, a million times more dangerous is being negligent about our freedom. 

Maybe this is what Sunil Pereras tragic story tells us. It is a small consolation and perhaps of no consequence to his wife Chitra and sons Anoj, Lashan and Ashan, and this too we should not forget, for if we do we would only be feeding that primordial instinct to destroy all prisons, something that, unfortunately, has no logic, living as we are in an imperfect world. 

s Sunil Perera could be you, dont forget. The IGP, the Prisons Commissioner and all of us have our work cut out. We cannot afford to do nothing. Not if we dont want to be tomorrows tragic headline.

*First published in 'The Nation' on July 9, 2006


sajic said...

We did nothing in 2006. We continue to do nothing, or less than nothing, in 2014. We had the 'so-called' excuse of a war then; not now.
Perhaps a look in a mirror will show us the answers.

Anonymous said...


"Perhaps a look in a mirror will show us the answers."

The author has done his best then, does his best now. There are others like him. Perhaps those who think they should feel guilty should not include the rest of the world in their fold.

sajic said...

Oh, I agree. I was not vilifying the author, whose work I respect very much. I only suggest that all of us are guilty to some extent, although we think we are innocent.

Anonymous said...


Ok. Thank you for clearing that.