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Sri Lanka fails to meet UN deadline on torture report

File photograph: A Tamil torture victim's scars on his back. ITJP.

The Sri Lankan government has failed to respond to a United Nation Committee Against Torture (CAT) report, which called for information on the “establishment of a judicial mechanism” to investigate torture and information on the role of a former Criminal Investigations Department head, confirmed a UN official this week.

Sri Lanka had until December 2017 to respond to the report, which was issued after the state was discussed at the 59th session of the UN CAT in 2016. However, the Tamil Guardian confirmed with the United Nations this week that Sri Lanka is yet to provide a response, though several months has passed since the deadline. Other states such as Armenia, Ecuador and Turkmenistan, which were also discussed at the 59th session, have responded to the global body as required.

The United Nations had amongst other issues, called for information regarding the role of Sisira Mendis, the Deputy Inspector General of Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigations Department from March 2008 to June 2009.

In its concluding report on Sri Lanka, CAT noted that the ‘4th floor’ facility at police headquarters in Colombo, which was under Mr Mendis’ command, is “known as a notorious site of torture” and that a previous UN investigation had reported there were “allegations of widespread torture, including sexual violence, perpetrated against individuals detained at Manik Farm Camp and elsewhere” – areas over which he allegedly “exercised supervisory authority”.

The committee was “alarmed” by Sri Lanka’s decision to include him in their delegation to the Geneva session in 2016, it added. 

“Shockingly despite the comments from UNCAT, the Sri Lankan Government took no action against Mr Mendis in respect of the torture allegations but rather renewed his contract as intelligence chief until June 2018, according to media reports,” said Frances Harrison, a human rights activist with the International truth and Justice Project (ITJP).

 

Above right: File photograph. Sri Lanka Police Headquarters in Colombo, “known as a notorious site of torture” said the UN.
Above: File photograph. Sisira Mendis, who is currently Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for National Intelligence.

Since his appearance at the UN session in Geneva as part of the Sri Lankan delegation, Mr Mendis has had his term as the Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for National Intelligence extended until June 2018. The ITJP's Executive Director, Yasmin Sooka said she was “stunned by this provocative action” at the time and called it a move that showed “utter disdain for victims of torture and the UN system”.

“Why wasn’t he at least vetted; Sri Lanka promised to do this under Resolution 30/1?” continued Ms Harrison. “This is an enormous insult to his alleged victims and is in clear breach of Sri Lanka’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

Sri Lanka’s failure to comply with the latest United Nations deadline, comes amidst continued reports of torture taking place.

“We continue to see cases of torture, including from since this government came to power, and sadly Sri Lanka remains our top country of origin for referrals of torture survivors,” Ann Hannah, Acting Director of Policy and Advocacy at Freedom From Torture told the Tamil Guardian. The London-based organisation has seen hundreds of referrals from Sri Lanka, as Tamil asylum seekers fled the island. In 2016 Sri Lanka was - for the fifth successive year - the top country of origin for torture survivors referred to the organisation, which provides clinical services and medico-legal reports, with 230 referrals in that year alone. An Associated Press investigation with torture survivors late last year, found continued reports of Tamil men who had been raped, branded or beaten repeatedly by Sri Lankan security forces.

Referrals received by Freedom From Torture in the year 2016.

 “The government should share the information requested on Mr Mendis without further delay and should also comply with other commitments it has made to the UN on accountability for past abuses if it is truly committed to dismantling the structures which allow torture to continue,” continued Ms Hannah.

The failure to comply with the UN deadline illustrates the wider lack of will in Colombo in dealing these issues, said Bashana Abeywardena, co-ordinator of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), an organisation founded by exiled journalists.

"The Sri Lankan government failing to meet the deadline shouldn't be a matter for surprise because there was no political will to do otherwise in the first place,” he said.

Sri Lanka has consistently rejected reports that torture remains widespread, with the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena denying the existence of secret detention centres where torture takes place, earlier this year.

Yet, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC), a government appointed body, admitted that the use of torture remains “routine” last year, with reports of undocumented sites across the island. Mr Sirisena’s comments also contradict the findings of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UN WGEID) who in 2015 announced that it had discovered a “secret underground detention cum torture center” located in Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka’s lack of will is a part of denial,” continued Mr Abeywardena. “And denial of responsibility is what earns them legitimacy and stability. So, not meeting the deadline is not diplomatic inefficiency - but the state policy."

File photograph: A Tamil torture victim's scars on his back. ITJP.

Earlier this year torture in Sri Lanka was mentioned once more at the United Nations in Geneva. Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore told the Human Rights Council that “allegations of continuing use of torture and continued reports of harassment or surveillance of human rights defenders are more than worrying”. Yet moves towards addressing that have been painstakingly slow. “It is with much regret that we must report slow progress in establishing transitional justice mechanisms,” she added.

“The Government of Sri Lanka’s failure to provide the UN Committee Against Torture the information they requested over a year ago is another example of their disregard for survivors of torture,” said Ms Hannah.

“Until the government demonstrates political will to address past human rights abuses they are fostering a culture of impunity.”