In Sri Lanka, torture and impunity remain big problems

Frances Harrison co-founded and runs the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) in London. She’s a former BBC foreign correspondent and author of the book ‘Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War’. This interview has been edited lightly. Following are excerpts.

By Taylor Dibbert

Q: The ITJP has recently published another report. Would you tell us a little bit about it?

 Some of the twists and turns of this story would be better suited to a soap opera or thriller if they were not so tragic. The team that worked on this report kept having what we called “you couldn’t make this up” moments. At one point, the country’s most senior military officer, an admiral who remains in office, was arrested for allegedly attempting to abduct a sailor. He was also accused of hiding an absconding suspect in plain view inside Navy Headquarters while the Police were running around issuing public alerts and Interpol notices for him.

This report is the result of years of intense research. In 2015, the ITJP was the first to identify the existence of a secret underground torture site in the country’s largest naval base in Trincomalee. We published its GPS coordinates and named two alleged perpetrators. Then the UN visited the location and corroborated the site’s existence.

The official police investigation has been underway for a decade in Sri Lanka into the disappearance of 11 men (including a child) abducted for ransom. We examined hundreds of pages of the Sinhala-language police reports presented in court and compared them with ITJP witness testimony from Sinhalese naval insiders and eyewitnesses, as well as Tamil victims who survived detention in the same dungeons. We also laboriously pieced together the naval command structure to examine who was in command and would have known of the existence of the dungeons.

The report finds a large number of top Sri Lankan naval commanders — were complicit in or had knowledge of and, at best, condoned illegal detention, torture, enforced disappearances (and most likely murder) — and, at worst, were in command and control and ordered these crimes. It also describes serious shortcomings in the police investigation, conflicts of interest, political interference, threats to the witnesses and investigating officers as well as a pattern of rewarding, protecting and promoting the key Navy suspects identified by the police.

Q: How can Sri Lanka begin to deal with systematic torture and institutionalised impunity?

 The first step would be to acknowledge the extent of the problem — denial still runs deep. Then stop rewarding, promoting and honouring the alleged perpetrators. It’s an absolute affront to the victims and their families and shows a callous disregard for basic humanity.

The next step would be to stop perpetuating this myth that more international assistance in the form of training and capacity-building will fix the entrenched impunity that’s thrived for decades. Instead, international assistance should be focused on investigating and prosecuting those responsible. It’s clear from this emblematic case that the Sri Lankan criminal justice system is too flawed to achieve this alone, despite some credible and well-meaning individuals trying to do their best. We’ve always said it needs a CICIG-style (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) independent investigative unit.

Q: What are the most urgent recommendations in the report?

 We have a slew of recommendations for everyone but given radical change is unlikely at this point, perhaps the onus now lies on the international community to recalibrate its assistance, cooperation, training of the Sri Lankan Navy given how tainted this institution is.

Q: How would a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency affect systematic torture and institutionalised impunity in Sri Lanka?

 The ITJP is supporting Roy Samathanam and the other 10 Sri Lankan victims in their ongoing civil case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in California. If Rajapaksa becomes president, he will obtain Head of State immunity and that is likely to jeopardise the case, which currently represents the only legal challenge to him regarding the systematic abduction, torture, and sexual violence that occurred while he was secretary of defence. Accountability is essential for what has taken place and it will come, sooner or later.

(Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer and human rights consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

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