The brutal gang rape and murder of 18-year-old schoolgirl Sivaloganathan Vithya of Pungudutivu, Jaffna continues to evoke strong feelings of anger and disgust all over the country. Nine suspects who were arrested in connection with the crime are currently in remand custody. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has taken over the investigation. The CID meanwhile, is conducting a separate inquiry to probe the subsequent violent protests that took place following the murder. Police arrested 130 individuals for engaging in violent protests where the Jaffna Court was damaged. They are due to be produced in court again next week. The CID will be looking into whether some elements had tried to use the murder as cover to carry out acts aimed at destabilizing the Jaffna Peninsula.
President Maithirpala Sirisena visited Jaffna on May 26 where he met with the victim’s family as well as officials and area residents, including schoolgirls. He assured justice will prevail and that the suspects would be tried by a special court if necessary.
However, the violent protests and subsequent comments made by various politicians in both the North and South have also raised fears whether the crime itself is being pushed into the background in favor of other issues. Rights activists have expressed fears that with the crime being seen in various social and political perspectives will ultimately distract from the process of ensuring justice for the victim.
Matters were not helped by the surfacing of a video shot during one of the protests where a senior police officer is shown telling an elderly Tamil protestor ‘they (Tamil women) should ensure that their men behave’. The video quickly went viral across the web, sparking more anger.
It has been reported that the victim’s family had gone to the Kayts police at around 6.00 pm on the day she had gone missing, but that police had not recorded their statement until around 11.00 pm. Even then, police had allegedly been of the view that the victim had likely eloped with her boyfriend
The tense situation that prevailed in the Jaffna peninsula in the days that followed the incident eased out during the latter part of last week, according to residents in the region.
The relatively calm situation was attributed to the visit of President Maithripala Sirisena and his assurance that those guilty would be duly punished.
However, according to government officials, the need of the hour was to provide psychological assistance to the family and relatives of Vithya.
District Coordinator for Women’s Development in Jaffna, Uthayani Navaratnam speaking to The Nation stated that the continuous reportage of the incident along with graphic images had affected the family members.
“We have to ensure that the family members do not become vengeful. That would become a serious issue in the future, if we do not provide the necessary psychological assistance,” she said.
In the meantime, area residents stated that there continued to be a fear factor among girls, women, and especially women headed households on their security and safety.
Sources said that those who reside in interior villages continue to be scared following the incident.
Further, government officials have sought measures to control the distribution and publication of graphic images, especially in social media platforms citing that such instances would tarnish the dignity of the victim, while also create psychological problems to family members.
Senior Lecturer at the University of Colombo’s Faculty of Law, A. Sarveswaran, who is from Jaffna, expressed concern that such crimes would impede resettlement of displaced persons in the Jaffna Peninsula. He pointed out that any displaced family that had young girls and women would naturally think twice about going to resettle in areas that are deemed ‘unsafe’ due to the fear that such crimes may occur again.
The issue of ‘local rowdies’ that were engaged in various illegal activities such as selling and using drugs had been a problem in Jaffna for some time. The police, for reasons best known to them, were reluctant to take action against such elements, he alleged.
It has been reported that the victim’s family had gone to the Kayts police at around 6.00pm on the day she had gone missing, but that police had not recorded their statement until around 11.00pm. Even then, police had allegedly been of the view that the victim had likely eloped with her boyfriend. Stressing that police should have been far more vigilant and taken the matter more seriously, Sarveswaran pointed out “The harm has already been done now. This will also seriously impact the reconciliation process.”
The best way to prevent such crimes from occurring was for there to be better communication between the police and local residents, he opined. “There should be more police officers who are conversant in Tamil. More Women Police Constables (WPCs) are also needed as well. In addition, it would also help if people were made more familiar with emergency telephone numbers that they can use to contact law enforcement,” he elaborated.
However, Sarveswaran said this would also raise the issue of whether it would be more appropriate to grant police powers to provincial councils in order to more effectively tackle local crime.
Sarveswaran added it was deeply unfortunate to see many people trying to capitalize on the issue for their own personal gains. Ultimately, this diverts attention from the crime itself, he pointed out.
State Minister of Children’s Affairs Rosy Senanayake said her ministry and the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) were monitoring the situation in order to ensure that justice prevails. She praised President Maithripala Sirisena for visiting Jaffna and for assuring that the alleged rapists would even be tried by a special court if necessary.
She pointed out that the Inspector General of Police (IGP), who had visited Jaffna on instructions from the government, had taken swift action to transfer senior police officers who were accused of being slow to act during the matter. The government was alerted to the gravity of the matter and acted swiftly to defuse the situation, she argued.
Regarding the protests that engulfed the region soon after the crime, the state minister said the protest demonstrations were also an indication that democracy now prevailed in the country. “Such crimes had become almost a mundane thing before, but the people never had a voice to call for justice and make their voices heard. As such, it also shows democracy now prevails. Of course, justice also does not mean taking the law onto their own hands,” she added, stressing no one can condone the violence that broke out.
Minister Senanayake said the government is also working to finally introduce a ‘National Policy on Child Protection’ in order to ensure better protection for children. She also revealed that a request will be made for the setting up of a special Police Division under a DIG with specially trained officers to handle complaints related to women. Accordingly, after the necessary infrastructure is put in place and the unit properly established, it is requested that all women’s desks that are in place at police stations island-wide be brought under this special unit, Senanayake elaborated.
For now, calm has returned to Jaffna and the north. However, it is an uneasy one. A lot would depend on what happens in the coming days. The government meanwhile, has the task of ensuring that people feel safe and of preventing a tragedy from being used to advance various other agendas.