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3.3 Missing Persons Unit of the Attorney General’s Department (MPU)

The zonal Commissions recommended, among other things, that a special unit be established in the Attorney General’s Department to study the evidence unearthed by the Commissions indicative of the persons responsible for disappearances, and ensure that such persons are brought to book. Consequently, in July 1998, a Missing Persons Unit (MPU) was established in the Attorney General’s Department with these functions. It had to examine about 3,000 cases that the zonal Commissions had investigated where prima facie evidence of responsibility was available. The unit is headed by a Senior State Counsel and consists of five attorneys-at-law recruited on contract. It comes under the direct supervision of the Attorney General and the Senior Additional Solicitor General in charge of the Criminal Division of the Department.  Three State Counsel assist the unit.

The MPU has categorised the cases as follows: those in which indictments could be filed straight away before the High Court; those which needed further investigation to tighten up the evidence; and those where the evidence was inadequate to establish proof beyond reasonable doubt, but was adequate to initiate disciplinary proceedings.

The MPU has initiated legal proceedings against over 500 police and armed forces personnel, but it will take several years for these cases to reach a conclusion. However, even though the provisions of the Establishment Code make it mandatory for the heads of departments to interdict these officers from service and commence disciplinary proceedings, no such action has been taken either by the Police or the Army Headquarters. However, in respect of some gazetted officers,[1] the Public Service Commission (PSC) has taken disciplinary action. Discreet inquiries made by the writer revealed that the PSC has not taken action because neither the Police nor the Army Headquarters have forwarded the names of those concerned to it. Consequently, these personnel continue in service while their cases are pending in the courts. It is yet to be seen whether any of these cases will result in a conviction. 

The cases in which legal action has been initiated are only those where there was already direct evidence of responsibility for abduction. Those where circumstantial evidence was available have not yet been taken up, because they would require a greater effort by the prosecutor.

It should be noted that causing disappearances is not a punishable offence under Sri Lanka’s Penal Code. Thus, the most serious charge that can be levelled against persons responsible for disappearances is abduction with intent to murder.[2] As bodies have not been found in most cases of disappearance, it is very difficult to sustain a charge of murder.

Most of the cases that have been filed so far are against junior officers. This is because the Disappearances Investigation Unit within the Police Department (see below) simply does not return files relating to senior officers to the  (MPU), claiming that its investigations are not yet complete. The MPU is then helpless to expedite action in these cases. The ‘delays’ on the part of the Police Department are said to result from ‘considerations of brotherhood’, which leads the investigators to protect brother officers, especially the seniors at the expense of the juniors.

It has been suggested that the establishment of a Special Unit and a Prosecutors’ Office, on the model of the Bribery Commission would help to overcome this problem. However, this suggestion has not received serious consideration.


[1] A category of officers whose appointments take effect with a gazette notification.

[2] Section 355 of the Penal Code, Cap 25 of the Legislative Enactments of Sri Lanka

Posted on 2003-06-15


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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