By Brian Senewiratne –
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe claim that since they took over Government from the Rajapaksas in 2015, the situation in Sri Lanka has changed for the better.
A Report by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) released on 14 July 2017, “Unstopped 2016/17 Torture in Sri Lanka” has a different view.
I have not written this Report. I have only condensed a 89-page document to something that is shorter. If there is a problem with what has been written, contact ITJP, not me.
I will only set out the ground realities that have not been dealt with in the ITJP report since it is of crucial importance.
A Military/Police area
The Tamil North and East of Sri Lanka are under the military and police (99% and 95% Sinhalese). who can do what they want to anyone with no accountability. This includes torture, rape, abduction, interrogation, ‘disappearances’ or anything else. It is a military/police area. With more than 200,000 Armed Forces in the area – it is highly militarised. The ratio of civilians to ‘Security Force’ personnel is about 5 to 1 – a situation that does not exist in any other country. The Sri Lankan government has not given a valid reason as to why such a high militarisation in an area where there is no longer an armed conflict. The legal system has almost collapsed so that it is an exercise in futility for victims of human rights violations to expect justice in courts. None of this has changed with the change in Government in 2015, nor is it likely to change anytime soon, if ever.
Unstopped: 2016/17 Torture in Sri Lanka
International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP)
ITJP is administered by the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa under its director, transitional justice expert, Yasmin Sooka.
The ITJP team of investigators and prosecutors
The ITJP team is made up of seven international investigators from a diverse range of countries, including former prosecutors and investigators from the Ad Hoc Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR), lawyers who have worked for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Timor-Leste Commission, the United Nations, the Special Court of Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court who collectively have decades of experience in investigation of sexual violence and torture, and in many instances firsthand knowledge of investigations relating to Sri Lanka.
The Report is based on sworn testimony from 24 victims of torture who have fled abroad to Europe, mainly the UK. About 3-4 days were spent with every witness with a trusted interpreter in a safe place. The statements taken were translated and read back to the victim in Tamil before it was signed. Statements were also supported by medico-legal reports when possible, psychological reports and documents from ICRC, Migration reports, Courts, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Council, scar photographs and media reports where applicable.
I will quote a few sentences from the Foreword written by Yasmin Sooka.
“The conflict has not ended for many Tamils in Sri Lanka and is still being perpetrated through unlawful abductions, detention and torture. Witnesses describe being tortured and raped by the security forces, some as recently as 2017.
What is shocking is the high number of victims we now see who have been tortured not once but on multiple occasions – in one case as many as five times. Sadly, this is no longer out of the ordinary.
Even more disturbing is the number of torture victims whose very close family members have also been tortured on separate occasions. This has huge implications for any credible future rehabilitation and for individual recovery which requires family support. The revictimisation through the deliberate targeting of the grown-up children of former LTTE cadres, indicates a high level of paranoia and persecution that is utterly at odds with the Sri Lankan Government’s rhetoric of reconciliation. It will also deepen intergenerational trauma and foster new conflicts.
The suicide attempts were so frequent that we had to start a psychosocial trauma project in London to keep witnesses alive, restoring a sense of group identity and hope for their future. Their journey abroad is not about bettering their lives – it’s about staying alive. Even that is a struggle.
This report establishes that in 2016/17 both the military and police in Sri Lanka continue to abduct, unlawfully detain, torture and rape Tamils.
The violations remain systematic and officially sanctioned by command structures within the security forces. Victims describe senior officers coming into their torture chamber. A standard operating procedure continues, involving three security force teams – one abducting, one interrogating and another releasing for money. Once the victim has fled, their family remains under surveillance by the intelligence services in order to keep them quiet.
Corruption is rampant. All the victims are eventually released on payment of money by their families. Security officials actively solicit the ransoms when the families are slow to respond to the abduction.
Half the releases were brokered by a pro-government Tamil paramilitary group, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party [EPDP]. The brokers who secure release often also arrange the human smuggling abroad, instructing the victims to leave the country if they want to stay alive. Victims in 2016/17 describe Sri Lankan immigration officials at Colombo airport being paid off by the smugglers to allow them through without any questions”.
The torture camp – Joseph Camp
“The Vanni Security Force Headquarters in Vavuniya, known as Joseph Camp, continues to be a site for torture and rape in 2016/17, including by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the police.
The ITJP has an entire publication on the Joseph camp (on 16/3/17). Here are a few sentences from this important publication.
“This is a case study in one of Sri Lanka’s many known torture sites and is based on 46 detailed testimonies from survivors and a wealth of supporting documentation. The repost documents horrifying physical and sexual abuse by the military and interrogation rooms equipped with manacles, chains, pulleys and other instruments of torture. Several of the violations occurred when General Jagath Jayasuriya was the commander of the site. Instead of being held accountable for the serious crimes, he was promoted and rewarded by becoming the Army Commander in July 2009.
After the change of government in 2015, he was given a diplomatic posting to Brazil from where he is also accredited to Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia and Surinam”.
What this shows is that nothing has changed after the Sirisena government replaced the Rajapaksas in January 2015.
As has been mentioned earlier, this report is based on 21 cases of abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence by the Sri Lankan Security Forces in 2016, and an additional 3 cases (so far) in 2017. To this will have to be added victims in 2015 (the year Sirisena took office).
There are also another 34 additional recent victims which ITJP has not yet been able to interview. This could potentially bring the total estimate to 103 people tortured after Sirisena became the President of Sri Lanka.
Family members detained in 2016
“Three survivors interviewed by the ITJP recounted the illegal detention and torture of their close family members in 2016, and a fourth described the attempted abduction of his wife at night from her home by the security forces”.
Of the 2015 torture cases the ITJP interviewed, 16 individuals have already been granted asylum in the UK or Europe, and also, two of the 2016 cases. This means their accounts of torture under the Sirisena Government were found credible by European immigration authorities who are increasingly raising the bar for entry. It also means they were deemed still at risk if returned to Sri Lanka
Nothing has changed
One of the victims interviewed put this better than I can. Here is what he said:
“The international community is wrongly under the view that the change of government has improved things for the Tamils but in reality if there is any hint of political activity then the government responds in the same way, by torture, detention and people going missing. I want to tell people about what happened to me so that the international community can see that nothing has changed and can intervene and provide a solution for us”.
Abduction and their ‘crimes’
Nine Tamils were abducted in 2016/17 after involvement in commemorations and low level political work for local Tamil MPs. Some had been involved in distributing fliers and posters, soliciting signatures for petitions or collecting the names of the Disappeared. This trend is similar to earlier patterns observed in cases of torture that occurred in 2015.
The Edward Julian (‘Ramesh’) Case
A former LTTE cadre Edward Julain (‘Ramesh) was arrested in Kilinochchi. A number of his acquaintances traced through his cellular telephone were targeted and five were arrested in Vavuniya and Mannar. The mode and scale of these arrests have raised much concern among family members who have not been informed of the reasons for their arrests. They were simply ‘abducted’ by officers in civil dress and taken away in vehicles. The modus operandi revived fears that the “white Van” culture prevalent in the Rajapaksa regime had re-commenced under President Sirisena.
Returning from abroad
Eight of the 2016/17 victims had returned to Sri Lanka from abroad, either as students going home to see family or because they finally thought it would be safe to go back to the country after many years waiting abroad after the end of the war.
Here is a direct quote from a victim:
“I thought that it would be safe for me to go home as my family in Sri Lanka told me that it was as there was a new government”.
The report goes on: “This follows a similar pattern to 2015 cases. Once detained, victims were asked for information about Tamils in the UK….. Another victim who had returned to Sri Lanka after being refused asylum in a European country was asked all about his activities abroad.”
“Seven victims…….were told they should have gone into the Government’s “rehabilitation” programme, even though persistent allegations of torture led the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, to recommend in 2017 that the whole programme be closed down34. Although the interrogators accused these victims of having evaded “rehabilitation”, no attempt was made to enrol them in the programme; instead they ended up being brutally tortured”
White Vans continue
“All the 2016 and 2017 cases involved individuals who were abducted in vans, all of them bar three in white vans. Of the 33 cases involving torture in 2015, 20 were abducted in white vans and 8 in vans of other colours and one in another sort of vehicle”.
To be continued …