Abductions, torture and sexual abuse of Tamils by Sri Lanka's security forces continue under the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena, according to a new report released on Tuesday, which calls on the UN to refer its reports to the International Criminal Court for further action against those responsible for the crimes.
|Location of a secret torture camp in Trincomalee - International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka report|
The report, by the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka (ITJP), says 100 so-called "white-van" abductions occurred between 2009 and 2015, one from as recent as this month, and describes torture and sexual violence by military forces and police against Tamils in locations across the North-East and Colombo.
ITJP in its report published 41 locations on the island where victims say they were tortured since the end of the armed conflict, revealing the GPS coordinated for the notorious intelligence detention facility in the Trincomalee Naval Dockyard. The locations include 15 military camps, 15 police stations, 10 "Rehabilitation Camps" and Menik Farm internment camp.
The group also said it identified several military officials, with photographs, who were directly involved in rape, torture and abductions in Vavuniya's Joseph Camp, and several other sites. The report points out that the 41 sites identified represent "only a fraction of the total number of torture sites", as many of the witnesses were unable to recognise the location they were at.
"Among the 180 cases documented in this report, the pattern is that the young are detained, tortured and raped, the elderly forced into debt to save them, while none can safely exercise even their most basic rights or feel safe," the report said, adding that "on-going harassment and intimidation of the families in Sri Lanka of torture survivors who have fled abroad has continued unabated throughout 2015".
The "structures of cruelty" used for ethnic persecution and political repression have not been dismantled, with a thriving "torture industry" by the security forces , seemingly unaffected by the change in government earlier this year, said the group, which is led by former member of the UN Secretary General's Panel of Experts Yasmin Sooka.
ITJP further points out that the proposed UN involvement in an inquiry into abuses "envisages consultations with law enforcement agencies that are not just responsible for past violations, but are alleged to be still committing crimes and attempting to silence witnesses".
Clear and concise calls for international action
The report called on the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, International Criminal Court Prosecutor, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the international community to take concise action:
- We call upon the UN Security Council to refer both reports, which indicate reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity are occurring in Sri Lanka, to the persecutor of the international Criminal Court
- We urge ICC Prosecutor to explore the case of individuals who bear the greatest responsibility. We also call upon States who are signatories to the Rome Statute to refer these cases to the ICC Prosecutor urging her to open a file.
- We call upon the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the Special Rapporteur on Torture to arrange a visit to Sri Lanka and initiate a special inquiry into rape and sexual violence.
- We call on the UN Department of Peace-Keeping Operations to immediately suspend Sri Lankan police and military involvement in UN peacekeeping missions, pending an independent international inquiry into allegations fo current, systematic and widespread sexual abuse by security forces in Sri Lanka, noting that it is not sufficient to screen individual officers when there is a large body of evidence of a pattern of widespread and systematic sexual abuse of detainees by members of security forces and collusion amongst multiple branches of forces at high levels with the Government of Sri Lanka.
- We call upon international bodies such as OHCHR and ICRC not to offer Sri Lanka government technical assistance on human rights without at the very least an effective monitoring mechanism, such as the appointment of a Special Rapporteur or a Special Envoy. Given level of threat to witnesses, recommendations should take account of internationally accepted witness protection standards that would not only protect witnesses but also their families remaining in Sri Lanka.
- We call upon Member states having universal jurisdiction over torture, rape and sexual violence to initiate prosecutions against identified perpetrators who bear the greatest responsibility, taking note the need for witness protection measures as set out above.
The report includes harrowing testimony from victims of torture and sexual abuse and by witnesses, including witnesses described as "security forces/government insiders", who provided details about the abductions and detention camps operate. Several of the witnesses were subjected to the abuse after the new government came into power.
One victim, a young Tamil man said to have been conscripted by the LTTE, was abducted and tortured in May 2015.
“I was beaten on the soles of my feet while lying face down on the bench with my hands tied in front. I was petrol bagged twice – it was a terrible burning sensation. I became unconscious. My head was submerged into water; when I was standing on the floor they dragged me on the floor and put me in the water. I became unconscious after the water torture... I was also sexually abused in the room where I was kept after the torture. They were drunk. They were in civilian clothes. Two men were involved. There were two incidents each with two men. They touched me on my private parts – they forced me to have anal and oral sex with them. They were using filthy words and said, ‘Why did you join Prabakharan? He killed all these people’. While beating me they were using filthy words like ‘son of a bitch and bastard’. I don’t know how to say those things but they were talking about Tamils in a very bad way. They said ‘Tamils are dogs, and Tamil women are bitches’.”
Military insider witnesses describe horrific torture and mutilation of dead Tamils at the end of the armed conflict in 2009. One described that senior military officers were present and did nothing to stop the behaviour by security forces personnel.
"I saw army soldiers continue to drink arrack and dance. They were dancing because they were very happy after the victory. They were kicking and stepping on the dead bodies of the LTTE fighters or civilians. There were officers there but they did not do anything... Two captains just stood there talking while their men were doing that. Some of the solders then came and stomped on some of the bodies with their boots then posed for photographs with a boot on a body and holding their rifle up posing like a hunter standing over a trophy with smiles on their faces."
Another military witness said Major General Shavendra Silva, now a diplomat at the UN, and Lt Gen Krishantha de Silva were present during the capture and murder of female LTTE cadres, followed by mutilation of the bodies.
The report further implicates former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in abductions.
An operator of a white van, who provided evidence to the report, said his team abducted "several hundred":
“When we abducted people, they were taken to a number of secret locations that our group had in or near XX. They were then treated according to the instructions from Gotabaya. These included beatings, interrogations and physical torture. In all cases when a person was arrested/abducted by our group they were killed - either immediately or after a prolonged torture. Often persons would die during the torture… The youngest I can recall was a 15 year old Tamil boy sent by the LTTE and the oldest was 60 years old. They would include both men and women. On occasions, if we could not abduct the actual person, we would disappear a family member to send the same message.”
Witnesses also reported continuing intimidation and threats once they were released from custody, or even where they had fled abroad. One witness from the UK described how the CID visited their house on the island, showing a picture of them being at Heroes' Day and carrying the Tamil flag at a protest. Another witness said their parents went missing after being shown pictures of them at a demonstration in London. Five Tamil men, involved in the demonstrations against the government during Prime Minister David Cameron's visit, were abducted in white vans and tortured and sexually abused, the report says, adding that relatives of diaspora Tamils who took part in protests were also attacked
The report also highlights the use of sexual violence by the perpetrators to silence witnesses, as they are aware of the stigma attached to survivors of sexual violence in the Tamil community, but pointed out that many Tamil men have defied the social stigma by marrying victims of rape.
"It matters not whether she lost her virginity willingly or was raped. If she is raped after marriage, as so often happened in the war by the security forces, in most cases she will be rejected by society, including in-laws, husbands, neighbours and in many cases their own families. Even if a girl is called into the local police for interrogation the community will assume that she was [sexually abused], even if she was not, and she will be shunned. Even the family of such a girl will be stigmatised. The victim is abandoned by those whose support she most needs at the worst time of her life, hence the reason not just for so many suicides attempts but actual suicides,” one witness told ITJP.