A Sri Lankan asylum seeker who claims he once built warships for the Tamil Tigers says he will be tortured and possibly killed in his home country if he is deported by the Australian Government on Thursday.
Santharupan Thangalingam, 46, said he was a senior leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant terrorist organisation, which waged a bloody insurgency against the Sri Lankan Government for more than a quarter of a century.
His claims have been backed by two former fighters who fought alongside him. Both have been granted asylum in Australia because of their association with the Tamil Tigers.
The Australian Government is sceptical of Mr Thangalingam’s background and argued there is no evidence he was trained by the Tamil Tigers or that he was in charge of the group’s shipyards.
But the Tamil Refugee Council (TRC) said there was no question Mr Thangalingam’s life is in danger.
“If Santharupan is deported, we fear he will face torture or forced disappearance at the hands of Sri Lanka’s security forces,” TRC president Aran Mylvaganam said.
“It’s happened in the past and it continues to happen.”
The Sri Lankan Government has denied that there is a culture of torture or reprisals against suspected former rebels.
‘Leading role’ with Tamil Tigers
For decades, the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government waged a brutal war over the creation of an independent Tamil state in the country’s north and east.
According to his former comrades, Mr Thangalingam was among those who signed up to fight for an independent state as a 19-year-old, assuming the nom de guerre, Iniyavan.
His credentials have also been backed a former Sri Lankan member of parliament, M. K. Shivajilingam, who describes Iniyavan as playing a “leading role” in the Tamil Tigers.
They said Iniyavan was involved in the administration of the Tigers’ shipyard, in Sri Lanka’s north.
It is unclear how else he participated during the war.
“He was a senior member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and he was in charge of the boat unit,” his former comrade Manoharan Thanapalasingam said, through an interpreter.
The pair met while Mr Thanapalasingam was travelling between Tamil Tiger bases to meet cadres and hold political classes.
Mr Thanapalasingam has since received asylum in Australia because of his own connection to the Tamil Tigers.
He is worried about what will happen if his friend is deported.
“[I] believe 100 per cent that he’ll be tortured and [I] will not be surprised if he’s arrested right at the airport … and then taken to military camps … and that he’ll be tortured indefinitely,” he said.
Another former Tamil Tiger and friend Jegatheeswaran Krishna holds the same fears.
He has also been granted asylum by Australia and has known Mr Thangalingam since meeting him at the Sanmugam shipyards in Sri Lanka’s north.
“I am certain his life will be in danger if he is returned to Sri Lanka,” he said.
UN unable to substantiate claim
Following the end of the war, Mr Thangalingam fled Sri Lanka by boat and arrived in Australia in 2012.
He applied for asylum from the community, but was rejected and failed to appeal the decision in time.
He was then arrested and taken to immigration detention.
After two years in custody, the Australian Border Force (ABF) announced earlier this week that he would be deported on Thursday.
In his deportation notice, ABF officers said his personal information may be disclosed to foreign governments or agencies as part of his removal.
From detention, he challenged the deportation with the United Nations Committee Against Torture and was granted a temporary stay, but on Monday that was lifted.
“They have simply said they haven’t been able to substantiate his claims,” Mr Mylvaganam said.
He is calling on the Australian Government to meet its human rights obligations.
“There are international laws that protect people who had involvement with the Tamil Tigers and all we’re asking the Australian Government to do is to follow the international laws and give protection to this man,” he said.
Sri Lanka ‘still a danger’ for Tamil Tigers
In its correspondence to the United Nations, the Attorney-General’s department has maintained its opposition to Mr Thangalingam staying in Australia.
“There are not substantial grounds for believing [Mr Thangalingam] faces a real risk of irreparable damage if returned to Sri Lanka,” it said.
But Dr Ian Cook, who is a global politics expert from Murdoch University, said there was still a culture of “score settling” within elements of Sri Lanka’s Government.
“The idea that it’s all well and good and everything’s settled down in Sri Lanka I think is a sort of naive perspective,” he said.
“There are still people in the government who have agendas, who are concerned about the oppositional movements. There is still a danger for people being returned to Sri Lanka.
“I don’t think it’s safe for people like him to be returned.”
In December 2017, Sri Lanka formally acceded to the Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture, a treaty adopted by the United Nations.
The ABC contacted the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
A spokesman for his department said it did not comment on potential removal operations.