Sri Lanka: Torture continues, perpetrators promoted

Protest against Sri Lankan government human rights abuses in 2013. Photo: Human Rights Watch.

"The indifference to repeated allegations of police torture is shocking and makes a mockery of Sri Lanka’s stated commitment to security sector reform, let alone transitional justice," said Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP).

The ITJP has published a report detailing systematic torture and sexual violence against men and women detained by the Sri Lankan police’s Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) over the past decade.

Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended in 2009, after nearly 30 years of conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The report is based on interviews with 73 victims, who described being beaten, kicked, punched, whipped, suspended in stress positions, asphyxiated with plastic bags soaked in petrol and chili, subjected to water torture, burned with cigarettes, branded with hot metal rods and subjected to rape and sexual violence.

The ITJP's interviews with former detainees were conducted outside Sri Lanka, in five different countries. Where possible, the investigators obtained medical and psychiatric records and other documentation confirming the victims' testimonies.

None of the perpetrators of torture have been punished. Many have been promoted by successive Sri Lankan governments, including the government of President Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power in 2015.

Torture continues under his government. Nine of the victims included in the ITJP report were detained in 2016 or 2017.

The TID is not the only arm of the Sri Lankan state that has carried out torture. The army, navy and police have also been involved.

Torture is associated with financial corruption. Prisoners have been released after their families paid bribes. In other cases prisoners were given better conditions after bribes were paid. Prisoners who are former members of the LTTE have been tortured to discover the locations of weapons caches, and the weapons then sold on the black market.

The ability of the police and armed forces to get away with torture is facilitated by legislation. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) allows arrest without a warrant and indefinite detention without access to a lawyer. It grants immunity to government officials responsible for abuse of prisoners. It allows confessions obtained by torture to be used as evidence in trials. The government has promised to repeal the PTA, but has not done so.

The report notes that the Sri Lankan police have received training and other assistance from various overseas sources, such as the Australian Federal Police. Many TID officers were trained in Britain.

The ITJP report adds to the evidence of human rights abuse by the Sri Lankan government, which has also been condemned by other human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and by United Nations special rapporteurs, such as Ben Emmerson.

The report shows why Tamil refugees fear being sent back to Sri Lanka, and why it is essential to campaign against the Australian government's policy of deporting them or pressuring them to return "voluntarily".

[Chris Slee is a refugee rights activist in Melbourne and author of The Tamil Freedom Struggle in Sri Lanka.]

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