H.M. Harshi Chitrangi Perera
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Harshi Chitrangi saw the powerlessness many Sri Lankan’s suffer within the criminal justice system, as well as the hope inspired by human rights defenders working tirelessly to address this situation. Her father, Chitral Perera, founded “Janasansadaya (JS)” (The People’s Forum), which provides counsel for torture victims at every stage of the legal process. She was involved in her father’s efforts at a very early age, partly due to the fact that her childhood home was adjacent to the main office of JS. They frequently conducted ad hoc meetings at her home, allowing her to observe and learn from fervent conversations surrounding some of the most pressing human rights issues in Sri Lanka.
Harshi participated in rights awareness campaigns at poor schools in the South of Colombo, and facilitated counseling sessions with victims of torture. During these sessions, she utilized a technique called “Testimony Therapy,” which brought together small Victim Solidarity Groups with the goal of bringing healing through the sharing of experiences.
After she received her law degree, with a specialization in human rights, from the Open University of Sri Lanka in 2008, she began formally assisting JS by responding to human rights violations and cases. She developed a particular passion advocating for the rights of children and women, perceiving these groups as some of the most vulnerable in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan criminal justice system faces a number of problems. There is little rights consciousness, as pretrial detainees are subject to the same prison conditions as convicted prisoners. This contributes to society’s perception of all detained persons as criminals undeserving of good treatment. However, over half of the prison population is comprised of persons awaiting trial. Furthermore, legal stakeholders lack sufficient capacity to uphold justice. The judiciary, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are only nominally accountable and oversight is lacking.. Defense attorneys are poorly trained, and when they volunteer to represent pretrial detainees, it tends to be for the sake of experience. This often jeopardizes the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Lastly, detainees disproportionately come from economically depressed and marginalized segments of society, resulting in a prison population low in literacy rates and lacking sufficient legal rights education.
Harshi is using her $5,000 JusticeMakers Fellowship to build a, comprehensive network of legal resources to alleviate problems facing women in the Sri Lankan criminal justice system. The direct project beneficiaries will be pretrial detainees in the female ward of the Welikada Prison in Colombo. Harshi will conduct educational sessions, informing the prisoners of their legal protections. She also will provide direct legal assistance, collecting documentation for their cases and preparing briefs for pretrial relief. Lastly, she will coordinate and publish a long-term study examining the adverse conditions women endure while languishing in pretrial detention, utilizing the information gathered during the counseling sessions, as well as statistics collected in prison-wide surveys. She hopes to shed light on gender issues within the criminal justice system and provide the impetus for prison reform.