Last week, the Australian government decided not to co-sponsor a UN inquiry into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government praised its “bold” decision, and defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa posed for a celebratory shot with Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison as the former handed the latter a premium box of Dilmah tea.
The deal – which is essentially the Australian government turning a blind-eye to the torture of Sri Lankan citizens, among other abuses – has been criticised as placing Australia “on the same team as China, Russia and the Congo in opposing the investigation”. The agreement is apparently based on the excellent relations between the two countries, which – of course – doesn’t justify it in any shape or form.
The news comes a few months after Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended Sri Lanka’s human rights record by stating that “sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”. That ethical apathy wasn’t exactly surprising from a man whose government has been adopting an increasingly militarised stance towards “defending” the country from anyone with brown skin,locking refugees and asylum seekers away in offshore detention camps.
Many of the alleged human rights abuses took place during the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009 when government forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE; widely known as the Tamil Tigers) after more than two decades of conflict. The end of the fighting also ended the Tigers’ hope of establishing an autonomous – or, at least, semi-autonomous – Tamil state in the north and east of the island.
The Tigers have been linked to numerous massacres and assassinations, and a source told me that during their bus-bombing campaign in the island’s capital city, Colombo, mothers and fathers would often travel separately to avoid orphaning their children should their bus be blown up. Of course, the UN inquiry isn’t just into Tamil activity – it’s also investigating abuses allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan government, which is why Australia’s collusion has rattled so many critics.
“Pugal” (whose name has been changed to protect his family still in Sri Lanka) is a 27-year-old Tamil from eastern Sri Lanka who was recently granted asylum in the UK after being tortured in Sri Lanka, and is now receiving treatment from the charity Freedom from Torture. I met him at the charity’s offices in Finsbury Park, where he told me about the abuses he’d suffered at the hands of people he is convinced were soldiers under the direct control of the Sri Lankan government. Here’s what he had to say:
My brother had sent two people to Colombo. I kept them in my house, supported them and looked after them between 2008 and 2009. When they first arrived, my brother told me they were students and I believed him. But, after two months, I found weapons. They had a couple of pistols and also something that looked like a bomb – they were LTTE members.
Soon after the war ended in May of 2009, the government started a huge campaign of arresting very important people who had helped the Tigers in Colombo. They were checking all the Tamil homes to see whether anyone had arrived there recently. During that check was when they first took me to the police. They checked all the registration but sent us back, saying everything was in order.
After that, these two LTTE guys left my home, but didn’t tell me anything. I couldn’t contact my brother because I didn’t know how to contact him. These guys had left without telling me, and I realised I was in some kind of danger, so I started sleeping at an aunt’s house in a suburb of Colombo. I spoke to a Tamil pastor at the church I used to go to and discussed this problem with him.
He advised me: “Why don’t you just get out of this place? Why don’t you leave the country?” I quickly applied for the student visa to come and study in London, but it was refused.
The second time I applied, I got the visa, but on the night of the 1st of April they came and knocked on my aunt’s door. My uncle asked, “Who is it?” and they said, “We are the police,” but it was the army, not the police. They checked everyone’s ID cards. They checked mine and said they had to take me away for inquiries.
My uncle asked, “Where are you taking him?” But they hit me on the chest with the butt of an AK-47, and with that one hit I fell against the wall. They bent my arm around my back and put me into their jeep. Then they blindfolded me.
They took me somewhere and I didn’t know where it was. They untied the blindfold and I saw that there were already another five people there. One of the guys was an LTTE member who had been living in my house. He was all bloody and it was obvious that he’d been beaten. Then three army guys came in and took me out of the cell. They took me to another room nearby. I knew what was going to happen to me, because everyone knows what happens to Tamils in that situation.
They took my clothes off me and tied my hands to a metal bar. They started asking me questions and beating me. They used iron girders and PVC piping filled with sand and dirt. It hurts like hell, but it doesn’t leave marks. That was the first time I’ve ever been beaten in my entire life. I couldn’t bear the pain. I was screaming. I was crying. It was the first time in my life that I saw in front of me not a man but an animal. I begged them to stop beating me but they wouldn’t. They were inhuman. I felt lifeless at the end of it. Afterwards, they took me to the cell, but they didn’t untie me. My back was throbbing with pain. I would lean against the wall and push myself against it to numb the pain
The next morning, they came to get me again. They put a number around my neck and took a photograph and fingerprinted me. They brought me back into the cell, untied me and gave me a bun and a milk packet. That night, three army men came and took me. I thought I was going to die.
One guy plugged an iron in and then came and said, “If you don’t tell the truth, we will burn you.” I didn’t know how much to tell them – I just kept saying that I didn’t do anything. Even with that, they burned me on my hand. With each question, they burned me on my thigh.
I was tortured for just over a week, and on three different days they tortured me sexually. They raped me and they put their penises in my mouth. They were fully drunk, all three of them.
I’d only had my underpants to wear the whole time I was there.
On the last day, two officers asked me to come out. They blindfolded me and put me in a vehicle. I thought, ‘Okay, they are going to take me to finish me off.’ Because I’m a Christian, I began to pray. I was certain I was going to die. I prayed to God, saying, “I’m surrendering my spirit to you – I’m now going to die.”
Suddenly, the van stopped. Then they made me get down on my knees, so I thought this was where they were going to shoot me. But the guys took me out from the vehicle and made me get into another vehicle.
The guy who was in that vehicle undid my blindfold. To my surprise, the guy who untied me was my wife’s father-in-law’s friend. They had contacted an agent [a fixer who can bribe officials and organise foreign travel] and given them a huge bribe and got me out. In total, the bribes – including what I later gave to my agent to help me get to the UK – were 5 million rupees, which is around £25,000. In Sri Lanka, that’s someone’s life savings – enough to buy a modest house. People who don’t have the money to do this – they just die.
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