Case of the abused autistic youth No Justice – Just Us Case heard after being stuck in legal backwater for ages

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By 2017-09-26

BY Cassendra Doole

In 2015, there was a report of an alleged rape of a special needs person at a well established eatery in the heart of Colombo. After two years of investigations and preliminary hearings, Ajith's (not his real name) case finally began proceedings at the Colombo High Court this week.

Last Tuesday (19) Ajith, his mother, and several others were called to testify in Courts. To accommodate his special needs, the Courts were equipped with a projector and a computer so, that he could type out his answers. This is the method of communication that he is most comfortable with. Objections were not made, and the prosecutor asked for the projector and laptop to be double checked.

The first to be called to the stand was Prof. Hemamali Perera, a consultant Child Psychiatrist who also happened to have diagnosed Ajith with autism nearly 22 years ago.

The System and Ignorance

Many people in Sri Lanka are ignorant about various developmental disorders such as Autism and find it difficult to deal with individuals affected by them.

Prof. Perera was asked to elaborate on what Autism was and highlight the major symptoms that help identify it.

Originally identified by Leo Kanner in 1943, Autism has been characterized by challenges in communication, social ability, and behaviour, although there can be great variability in the extent to which difficulties are manifested. In addition to autism, there are a spectrum of disorders related to autism such as, Asperger's Syndrome, Rett's Syndrome, Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD – NOS) and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) (APA, 2000). In total, these four disorders are referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).

Following the questions posed by the prosecutor, the defendant's counsellor, President's Council Anuja Premaratne asked if Prof.

Perera had done any research on hallucinations, to which she replied "Yes, I have, but not in relation to Autism because there is no relationship whatsoever between Autism and hallucinations."

After nearly two hours of examination of expert evidence, Ajith was called to the dock.

The Courtroom was set up with the equipment necessary for him to testify.

"He is always more comfortable communicating through technology," his sister stated, adding "We asked if it was possible for him to type out his answers on a laptop instead of answering them verbally. They said that it was possible."

Nervous, but looking confident enough to take on the world, Ajith walked in. Then, the issue of whether or not he is able to answer the questions verbally was taken up. When asked to state his name and age, he promptly typed out the answer before he was interrupted.

The Judge wanted to know why he could not answer verbally. "He is not dumb. He can talk."

The ensuing debate on whether Ajith could testify verbally was long drawn and saw the Court proceedings being adjourned until the following day.

On the second day, prior to the examination of evidence from the witness, a motion was made by the Court to close the proceedings for the public, based on the sensitivity of the witness's evidence. Accordingly, it was reported that Ajith gave evidence, led by his counsellor before the Courts.

On the third day, also closed to the public, Ajith was present with his current employer, D. Gamage. Here, he was cross examined by the defence who went on to ask questions in the form of multiple choice. However, the presiding Judge objected to this move and asked the defence counsellor to ask his questions in a 'simple and clear' format. Following the conclusion of the cross examination, the case was adjourned till next month.

"He had been working at a well known Colombo eatery for three years when on 12 June, 2015 he finally broke his silence and told us about how he had been repeatedly raped and abused by four fellow employees, while at work. Ajith doesn't understand the concept of time and when asked for how long it had been happening all he said was 'for a long time.' He was clear about the fact that it happened on Saturdays and he gave us very detailed descriptions of what they had done to him," his sister said.

He underwent verbal and physical abuse at the hands of his co-workers, and was repeatedly raped at work.

He had finally informed his sister via SMS, another method of communication he is comfortable with, about his terrible ordeal at the hands of his co-workers. He had said, 'I have to leave my job. I am at home'.

"This is when he told me what happened. See, he is more comfortable communicating through text messages or on Facebook rather than face to face, due to his condition," she explained.

"My parents sacrificed a lot to bring up my brother. After my father died, my mother, sister and I did everything possible to help him integrate, and we were finally able to bring him to a position where he would be a part of the society. He enjoyed doing what he liked. He loved cooking and he loved his job," she added.

According to his mother and other associates, Ajith was able to travel in public transport as well as hold a job, despite his condition.

Autism is a condition where social interactions are challenged to a point where some rarely even interact with their own parents. Ajith was one of the exceptions.

Life Disrupted

It is quite unusual for autistic individuals in Sri Lanka integrate into society, let alone hold jobs, and Ajith seems to have managed both, quite well. Therefore, what was done to him, brought down his carefully constructed world to the point wherehe was afraid to do what he loved.

His mother, talking to Ceylon Today said, "It took us more than a year just to talk him into working again."

D. Gamage, who taught Ajith how to make fresh pasta, offered him a job a year after the incident, at his restaurant.

"We only sent him back to work because he loved cooking and we knew his employer personally," she said, adding "But he came out after a few minutes and said 'There are a lot of boys, I can't go there'.

With a lot of help from the other employees and Gamage himself, we were able to show Ajith that he was safe now. He works there from 11 to four."

He does not use public transport anymore. A boy who was born with special needs and tried his best to integrate into society has now become too afraid to take part in day to day activities.

"He does not use public transport alone any more. He walks over three km to my workplace after his shift," she said, adding, "It is one thing that he really took pride in – travelling by bus alone, and it has been stripped off him by the people who abused him."

"He still thinks that it is somehow his fault, so we are working hard to reassure him that it's not his fault".

Ajith's case has gained serious attention on social media with the public showing interest and support in many ways. During a preliminary hearing in September 2015, members of the public stood outside the Gangodawila Magistrates Court in a show of support, calling for the rights of differently-abled citizens in a Court of law. But, of course, that did little to move the law. His case will continue next month.

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