From Victim To Suspect
By Raisa Wickrematunge
In a bizarre turn of events, the victim has become a suspect in the Wijerama rape case.
Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said that the four suspects who were initially arrested had made the claim that the 47-year-old woman was a prostitute.
The men claimed that they had had many assignations with this woman for money, Jayakody said.
The police in turn had become suspicious, as the woman was not a resident of Ahangama as had previously been reported. Instead, she is said to be a resident of Maharagama, and therefore should have been familiar with the Pamunuwa area, where she was said to be going.
As such, Jayakody said, the police were now looking into the victim’s background and assessing ‘where she went and how she behaved” to determine whether the rape charge was false. “We are conducting an investigation to find out the truth,” Jayakody said.
According to the original statement given by the woman, however, she was traveling by bus on January 24, and had alighted at Wijerama Mawatha. While she was walking near a petrol shed, a trishaw driver had arrived and offered to show her the way to her destination. The driver had then taken her to a secluded area by a well where the four men had forced themselves on her. However, the well was surrounded by several houses, and the woman should have asked for help if it was a genuine rape case, Jayakody said.
Two men were almost immediately arrested as suspects, while two more were arrested three days later, police spokesman Jayakody confirmed.
While the police remained suspicious, women activists are adamant that the woman is a victim. Chairperson of the Eksath Lak Vanitha programme, Shanthini Kongahage said that according to information she had received, the four who were arrested were employees of the nearby university in the area. “The university has said it is not happy with what has taken place, and have pledged to take action. But up to date, there has been no action taken,” she said.
Kongahage said that it was up to the police to mete out justice towards the suspects, especially as they were working in the vicinity of a university where young girls were often found. Similarly, if the woman was indeed a prostitute as the suspects claimed, police should have been aware that there was such a woman loitering near a university, Kongahage said, just as they should have knowledge of the character of the trishaw drivers in the area. She alleged that there were indeed witnesses to the rape, saying that it was these witnesses who had dialed 119 and alerted the police.
However these witnesses were now not coming forward to give evidence, as they were afraid they would put themselves in danger, she said.
Kongahage said that the Lak Vanitha unit was monitoring the situation from afar to see how the investigation was to be conducted.
Even if the woman was a prostitute, Kongahage added, the four men had no right to force themselves on her. The woman had subsequently been admitted to hospital, but the medical report would only be shown to police.
“Let the university take responsibility. We are waiting to see after 2 weeks how the investigation is conducted,” Kongahage said. She added that she had personally gone to the Mirihana police to request that the case be handled properly.
“We can’t allow men to rape women like that, especially so close to a university,” Kongahage said, adding that parents and the public should unite to condemn such an act. Yet Sri Lankans were keeping silent when there were so many rape cases each day, she said. Kongahage referred to the situation in India where people were “still fighting.” As such, she continued to demand that justice be done.
Sepali Kottegoda of Women’s Media Collective said that a woman’s occupation did not justify her being raped. “Under what law does it say that you can be raped if you are a sex worker?” Kottegoda asked. She added that as the victim was initially found to have been gang raped and admitted to hospital, it had to be queried why the investigation had taken a different turn. Lessons should be taken from India which had responded with such outrage to a similar incident of gang rape, which had taken place on a bus, she said. However, policy makers often turned a blind eye towards incidents of sexual violence against women, and it was left to women’s organizations to campaign against such incidents.
“This is a social issue which has a criminal impact, if a woman can’t walk on the street alone. It could be anyone’s mother, sister or daughter,” Kottegoda said. Despite the gravity of the issue it was often left to women’s organizations to campaign for investigation into incidents such as the Kahawatte murder and rape cases, which have “disappeared into the woodwork.” Equally interesting was the state response on the incident. The Minister for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, Tissa Karaliyadda declined to comment on the incident, as did the Chairperson of the National Committee of Women, while members of the Women’s Bureau were not available for comment.
Secretary to the Ministry for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, Eric Illayapparachchi said that the case was now a police matter, while adding that in the meantime steps were being taken to implement the Human Rights Action Plan that will safeguard the rights of women. As a preliminary step, he added, 335 children and women’s development units had been established, five in each district, devoted to safeguarding the rights of women. “We have flagged this as a serious incident, and it is in the hands of the police. But in the long run, we must take national level measures to safeguard women,” Illayapparachchi said.
Despite these reassuring words it remains to be seen whether the woman concerned will receive justice or see herself becoming a suspect in the case- accused of raising false rape charges against the four who have been arrested. While police do have a duty to investigate the claims made by the suspects, it was chilling to observe suspicion turn towards a woman who had been hospitalized following the incident. The outcome of the investigation is yet to be seen, but women’s rights organizations continue to hope that justice will be served for the woman, regardless of her occupation.