Torture of Tamils Continues in Sri Lanka

Despite generally high marks for its attempts at reconciliation by the Sirisena government in Sri Lanka from one of the world’s longest and bitterest civil wars, Tamil citizens continue to be abducted and tortured by security forces, according to a new report by the International Truth and Justice Project.

The report details the suffering of 20 victims who have allegedly been kidnaped during the past year during the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, who promised a new era for the country on the ouster of the previous president, Mahendra Rajapaksa, who ended the civil war in brutal fashion in 2009 after 26 years of war, defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which had been fighting for a separate homeland in the north of the country. Up to 40,000 Tamils were said to have been massacred as the Sri Lankan army drove into Tamil territory to finish them off.

It is unsure whether the Sirisena government condones the attacks, or if the security forces are outside the government’s control. In dramatic fashion, Sirisena has vowed to pursue reconciliation efforts with the Tamil minority. The country’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said a political settlement with the minority Tamil community is a prerequisite.

“If you want a stable and secure country, we must have a political solution with Tamils and move forward,” Wickremesinghe said in an address in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in October.

Nonetheless, according to the truth and justice NGO, the practice continues of “white vanning” – in which luckless victims are collected up by white vans and tortured or raped.

“The Sirisena government in Sri Lanka was elected one year ago, on 8 January 2015, on a promise of change,” according to the report, which outlined the country’s plan for a national consultation with victims, a Truth Commission, a Special Court, an Office of Missing Persons and a reparations body.

The US and other nations have continued to insist on UN investigations of military war crimes. However, neither the government nor the United Nations has completed any investigations to apprehend the guilty. A recent preliminary report of a UN investigative panel confirmed that the Sri Lankan troops deliberately targeted civilians, hospitals and aid workers, arbitrarily executed prisoners, and committed mass rape, all contrary to the Geneva Conventions, which were ratified by Sri Lanka.

“On paper the plan looks impressive but the reality on the ground in the former conflict areas tells a very different story,” the report said. “Human rights violations by the security forces continue with impunity and a predatory climate against Tamils prevails. Tamils with tenuous links to the LTTE or low-level cadres continue to be targeted, along with their families. Victims and witnesses rightfully fear that coming forward will endanger their lives and those of their families.”

Given the continued abductions and reprisals, according to the report, the chances of persuading witnesses to testify to a Truth Commission, let alone implicating members of the security forces in court, are slim indeed.

Although Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, promised the Human Rights Council in September that clear instructions would be given to all security forces regarding a zero tolerance for sexual violence, according to the report, those instructions have either never been issued or have been ignored.

“Security forces continue to detain, torture and sexually violate Tamils in a network of sites across the island. ITJP’s experienced war crime investigators have taken sworn statements from post-election survivors of torture and sexual violence that continues to occur in a network of known army camps and police stations as well as in secret sites not only in the north but also across the island,” the report continues. “Some torture sites appear to be inside or adjacent to army camps. In other cases the perpetrators go to considerable lengths to hide the locations from the victims and their families, all the while not being concerned that their own identities are revealed to the victims or their families.

In particular, the security forces have been collecting up young Tamil expatriates who were members of the vast diaspora that left the country during the civil war.

“The change of government led many young Tamils with tentative past links to the LTTE and low level cadres to think it was safe to return to Sri Lanka or to come out of hiding and return to their home villages,” the report said. “Some were abroad. Others spent the last six years lying low in towns like Vavuniya or Jaffna.”

“Assuming that I would not have any further trouble at the hands of the Sri Lankan authorities under the new government, I decided to move back to my home village and live with my family,” an anonymous witness told investigators. “As it turned out, it was the worst decision of my life - one that will impact me forever.”

The witness was quickly identified by the security forces, abducted in a white van and repeatedly tortured and raped, he said. “This phenomenon of Tamils thinking it is safe to return home is similar to the spate of Tamil students abroad with LTTE links who either voluntarily returned in 2012 after President Rajapaksa had said it was safe to come home or were forced to return after their asylum claims failed on the basis that the respective foreign government determined that it was safe to go home. It was not. Many lived to regret it.”

Intimidation of witnesses and victims’ families has continued unchanged, investigators say. Those abroad are refusing to give interviews to Tamil TV stations in London or Chennai, or elsewhere without risking the lives of their parents in Sri Lanka.

“These cases reveal not only that torture and repression continue in Sri Lanka but that they remain widespread and systematic,” the report concludes. “They are the work of a well-organized machine which continues to thrive within the Sri Lankan police and military, fueled by extortion. It is responsible for terrorizing and oppressing Tamils. This is therefore not a question of a few rotten apples in the system, as the new government so often suggests, but rather the result of structures that have long been corrupted.”

Despite the promises of the new government, the culture of impunity in the security forces remains virtually the same as under the previous Rajapaksa government. Perpetrators, who make no attempt to hide their faces, are operating in an identical fashion to previous years.”