By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), a legal documentation group administered by the Foundation for Human Rights, has gathered testimony from 71 Sri Lankan Tamils across Europe who claim they were tortured between 2015 and 2017.
Yasmin Sooka, Director of ITJP, responds to several questions posted to her by email.
Excerpts of the interview:
Sri Lanka has this notion that many who seek asylum overseas do come out with such claims in order to get asylum in Europe.
How authentic are these claims and how do you ensure these incidents occurred between 2015 and 2017?
A: At least, 12 of the 71 men and women tortured in the last two years whom the ITJP has interviewed, tried to kill themselves once they escaped Sri Lanka and arrived in the UK – That’s hardly the action of an economic migrant who just wanted a better life. These are desperate people being rushed to hospital in ambulances to have their stomachs pumped – not crafty cheats who want to exploit the refugee system.
The ITJP’s team of investigators are a diverse group, with enormous experience documenting and investigating torture and sexual violence for criminal accountability. ITJP investigators spend many days with a witness recording testimony regarding crimes about which they have never spoken in detail because of fear and stigma. The ITJP has a database of 290 statements on Sri Lanka, against which to cross check and triangulate data. 51 of the 71 case files documenting violations under the period of the Sirisena Government are supported by expert medico, legal reports done by forensic experts who are required to give independent opinions to the UK asylum tribunals. The remaining twenty cases don’t have these reports yet, because they only just arrived in the UK and are on a waiting list to be examined.
Were any of these cases such as abductions between 2015 and 2017 reported in the local media? Any family‘s members lodged complaints in Sri Lanka?
A: Yes, in a few cases that happened – in the Tamil press. A proportion of the families also filed complaints of enforced disappearance with the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka and the Police, and some go to their local political representatives, too, for help. But the majority – whether it’s under the Rajapaksa Government or this one – do not even go home to say goodbye to wives, mothers, children but hide and flee immediately. They don’t hang around to talk to NGOs or journalists – they are bruised and burnt and bleeding, crushed and traumatized.
Can you quote one particular incident where someone was taken by the armed forces, where and when it took place between last year and July this year?
A: Within the last six months, a young Tamil man was abducted off the street in the north of Sri Lanka by men in plain clothes who checked his name and asked if he still worked for a Tamil politician and attended disappearance protests. He was pushed inside the van, his hands tied behind his back, and blindfolded, lying face down on the floor with the feet of his captors on top of him, periodically kicking him while they talked in Sinhala. He felt the van slow down to go over two speed bumps and drive on for a few minutes. Taken out of the vehicle, he was led over a smooth surface and then down 10 to 12 steps on to a flat surface and then into a room where he was pushed on the floor. Untied, he was told to strip to his underpants.
“About three or four times during the night someone walked in and urinated on me. That night someone also threw buckets water on the floor a few times to prevent me from sleeping. I was very scared and felt powerless,” he recalled.
The officer who took him to the toilet in the morning was wearing a military uniform and carrying what he thought looked like an AK47. He heard helicopters taking off and landing and people speaking loudly in Sinhala. Interrogation occurred in another larger room, with blood stains on the wall and a large framed picture of President Sirisena wearing a long sleeved white shirt. After being photographed and fingerprinted, the victim was moved to another room with even more blood spatters but no furniture.
“In the corner of the room, I saw wooden batons, nylon ropes, plastic wires, plastic pipes, three short cricket wickets and barbed wire. There were chains hanging down from the ceiling. I cannot remember how many but there were more than two. There were also handcuffs and shackles lying on the floor as well as two or three pairs of pliers,” said the victim.
Beaten with thick plastic wires and a baton, the torturers kept saying: “You are a Tamil dog” and “The Tamils are the slaves of the Sinhalese”. He was beaten on the soles of the feet and his head repeatedly submerged in a barrel of water.
Two days later, he was removed from the cell by a guard to the torture room and two men, who were drunk, burned him on the arms with their cigarettes while calling him a “Tamil dog”. A few hours after being returned to his cell a guard came and orally and anally raped him. This happened on five more occasions.
Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Prasad Kariyawasam responded to these allegations saying, that the Government will ensure that allegations of torture committed in the country will be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law and urged the relevant parties to assist the Government to conduct investigations into those claims. What is your opinion?
A: I find it difficult to believe that anyone really believes the Government any more when it says that it condemns torture. Has anyone been charged and prosecuted for the crime of torture or sexual violence in Sri Lanka since this Government came to power?
The UK appeal court said there is a probability that torture claim victims in the West in fact were self-inflicted or self-inflicted by proxy? How do you challenge this claim?
A: The Court of Appeal (majority of the judges) found that in this particular case of KV the Tribunal (lower Court) was entitled to find that it was reasonably likely that the scars on the Appellant’s body were caused by Self-Infliction By Proxy (SIBP). But, they rejected the notion that it was a widespread practice amongst asylum seekers and advised medical experts that they do not have to consider the possibility of SIBP routinely when writing medico-legal reports. The Appellant has made an application to the Supreme Court for permission to appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment. It’s likely that the Supreme Court will make a decision on this application shortly.
Army refutes allegations of torture
Army Spokesman Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne in response to these allegations of the recent abduction and torture of a man picked from the North, said, the law and order of the country is maintained mainly by the Police and it would have been better if that person had complained to the Police and the Army in no way has been part of any abductions or torture.
“In fear they did not want to lodge complaints? How can that be because they are supposed to go to the Police Station and the Police will look into their allegations?”
He noted that the Army Commander has already categorically denied all these claims and in fact, the Sri Lanka Army should not
comment on it further.