Sri Lankan authorities have been accused of allowing continuing human rights abuses, including torture and illegal detention, exactly one year after Maithripala Sirisena took power on a reforming ticket in a surprise election win.
International campaigners say they have documented 27 individual cases of serious human rights abuses occurring in the last 12 months.
Freedom from Torture, a UK-based organisation offering medical aid to survivors of torture, said it had been involved with eight cases. The victim in each was from Sri Lanka’s largely Hindu Tamil minority and the alleged perpetrators were members of the country’s intelligence services or military, which are dominated by the island nation’s largely Buddhist Sinhala majority.
Sri Lanka suffered a crippling 26-year civil war pitting government forces against violent Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which ended in a series of bloody battles in 2009. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president during the final years of the war, was defeated after calling a snap poll.
On his election, Sirisena pledged widespread reform and reconciliation between Sri Lankan communities. The veteran politician specifically promised an end to abductions in his maiden speech.
Sonya Sceats, director of policy and advocacy for Freedom from Torture, said Sirisena’s repeated recognition that reconciliation in his nation required accountability for serious human rights abuses was a welcome change. “But having set a new tone, the president must match his rhetoric with a clear blueprint for rooting out torture from Sri Lanka’s security sector and putting perpetrators on trial, no matter how powerful they may be,” she said.
The NGO says it has medical evidence of torture by the Sri Lankan military and intelligence services since Sirisena came to power which, it said, suggested that “an abusive ‘deep state’ is still terrorising communities and impeding Sri Lanka’s post-war revival”. Military authorities and the police have always denied any wrongdoings and human rights abuses.
Two of the survivors referred to by Freedom from Torture identified a well-known military camp in the northern town of Vavuniya as the site of their detention and torture. Others reported abuse at a makeshift jungle camp. Many have scars of branding with heated metal rods and have reported sexual abuse, the NGO said.
A second group has also revealed new evidence suggesting ongoing torture and sexual violence by the Sri Lankan security forces and police, including alleged abductions by unidentified men driving white vans as recently as last month. These “disappearances” became notorious under the repressive rule of Rajapaksa.
“Sadly, it’s very much business as usual,” said Yasmin Sooka, of the International Truth and Justice Project. The ITJP’s report, based on the testimony of 20 survivors of torture who are now outside Sri Lanka, also names the main military camp in Vavuniya as a site of torture. One case was investigated by both groups.
Almost all the survivors interviewed by the ITJP were members of the LTTE, though almost all were forcibly conscripted as footsoldiers. Several were under 18 at the time of their recruitment into the organisation and, having spent only weeks within it, did not declare themselves to authorities as former combatants at the war’s end. Several were involved in political activities such as election campaigning as volunteers or campaigning for the disappeared before their abduction. Five of them are women.
Several described torture chambers equipped with cables, rods and batons for beating victims, water barrels and a pulley system for hoisting them upside down. There were repeated and detailed accounts of severe sexual abuse of both male and female detainees. Many were accused by their interrogators of wanting to restart the LTTE – destroyed as an organisation by the end of the war.
The ITJP said medical reports by court-recognised experts in scarring corroborate accounts of injuries, while the cross-referencing of details common to witness statements supported descriptions of individual locations of alleged torture. “Almost all the statements are taken by lawyers with deep expertise and experience in assessing a survivor’s credibility and if anything was doubtful it would be excluded,” said Frances Harrison, spokesperson for the organisation.
Sirisena is already under pressure on human rights. In September the United Nations said it had found evidence strongly indicating that war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka in the closing phases of its civil war, and called for the establishment of a special “hybrid” international court to investigate individuals responsible for the worst atrocities.
Unveiling a 220-page, two-volume report in Geneva, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said it described horrific abuses including torture, executions, forced disappearances and sexual abuse by security forces, as well as suicide attacks, assassinations and recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE. The report found that both sides “most likely” committed war crimes.
Pressure for an international investigation grew when it became clear that domestic inquiries set up by the then government of Sri Lanka were partisan and ineffectual. The recommendations of a “lessons learned and reconciliation committee” went largely unimplemented.
Click here for the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka Press release – 7th January