Scars criss-cross the back of an ethnic Tamil man, who was tortured by Sri Lankan security forces in Batticaloa in September of 2012 (Photo by Will Baxter)
Jesuthasan Rojananth, a 23-year-old Catholic Tamil from Mannar, heard that the security situation in Sri Lanka had improved for ethnic Tamils. So when he had problems renewing his student visa in Malaysia earlier this year, he decided to return to his home country.
He’d been away from Sri Lanka since February of 2010, when he fled the country for security reasons, and was looking forward to seeing his family.
But the happy homecoming would be short lived.
On January 28, a little over three weeks after he’d returned, he was abducted by a group of armed men in a white van.
“They accused me of being an LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] member who had come to Sri Lanka to regroup the LTTE,” he said over the phone from the United Kingdom, where he has claimed asylum.
When Rojananth repeatedly denied these accusations, the men began torturing him.
“They beat me on the soles of my feet with pipes and electrical wires, and they beat me with wires and plastic pipes filled with sand on my back,” he said. “They submerged my head in water and held me under until I suffocated.”
The next day he was hung upside down and the torture continued.
“I was severely beaten,” he said. “My head was covered with a petrol-sprayed polythene bag. I was suffocating and eventually became unconscious.”
“When they asked questions or interrogated me, they burned me with cigarettes on the chest, shoulders and back,” he added.
Rojananth admits that he had “helped” the LTTE from 2007 to 2009 after being forcibly recruited, but says that he has had no contact with the now-defunct rebels since moving abroad.
“[During the war] I was engaged in supporting activities like distributing food, building bunkers, evacuating the injured LTTE cadres and taking food to the fighters at the front lines,” he said.
Rojananth was tortured over a period of nine days, until an uncle was eventually able to pay a bribe to secure his release.
Rojananth’s experience is not unique according to Freedom from Torture (FFT), a UK-based rights group which has forensically documented 120 cases of torture in Sri Lanka since the country’s civil war ended in May 2009.
At least 12 of the cases took place in 2012 and 2013, said FFT director Keith Best.
“This data conclusively proves that torture is still occurring in Sri Lanka – and that it is not restricted to just a few isolated cases,” Best said via email. “Our data also shows clearly that ethnic Tamils are particularly targeted.”
FFT has worked closely on this issue with Human Rights Watch, which also released reports on torture and gender-based violence committed against Tamil detainees by Sri Lanka’s security forces, in September 2012 and February of this year respectively.
In May, the United Nations Committee Against Torture repeated its concerns about reports of ongoing torture during interrogation by police and the military in Sri Lanka, which this week is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
“Visiting Commonwealth dignitaries must press the authorities in Colombo to dismantle their torture apparatus and emphasize the importance of accountability for and prevention of further torture in the country,” said Best.
The Sri Lankan government, however, has repeatedly made blanket denials of such torture allegations.
Military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya said via email that “torture was never permitted as a punishment or means in interrogations” in Sri Lanka.
He went on to paint a utopian picture of life in the country’s former conflict areas and the relationship between the local Tamil population and military.
“People in the north and east who were the victims of terrorism know that such [torture] allegations are baseless,” he said. “They actually live there and know what the armed forces have done to liberate them and what the armed forces are doing since the end of [the] conflict to give them a better life.”
“Our people are more intelligent than some rights groups think,” he added.
The government has repeatedly cited a lack of evidence when its security forces have been accused of torture.
“The accusations by rights groups are simply allegations and are not substantiated with facts and therefore they lack credibility,” said Wanigasooriya. “Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? Where have these incidents taken place?”
“We have conclusive medical evidence to confirm beyond any doubt that they were tortured,” said Kulasegaram Geetharthanan, a lawyer with Jein Solicitors, which provides legal council to Tamil torture victims in the UK.
Most cases are corroborated with detention attestations from the International Committee of the Red Cross and official documents issued by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Rehabilitation that confirm each victim’s period of detention and rehabilitation, he said.
“The ageing of the scars and injures makes it clear that the ill-treatment took place during the period they were detained,” he added.
Geetharthanan said that many of these individuals faced difficult transitions once they escaped to countries such as the UK.
“The Tamils who were subjected to torture are left with permanent scars both physically and mentally,” he said.
Many suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, and have difficulty socializing, continuing their studies or finding suitable employment, he added.
Best said it was imperative that the Sri Lankan government adhere to the international Convention Against Torture, which it ratified in 1994.
“It should also disclose all unofficial detention sites and facilitate effective and independent monitoring of all its detainees to ensure it is meeting its human rights obligations,” he added.
Murugan (a pseudonym), a 35-year-old Tamil who asked that his name be withheld, was detained at Colombo’s international airport in January when he returned to Sri Lanka from the UK, where he had been studying a management course since 2008.
He too was accused of links to the LTTE and then taken to a room in the airport where he was beaten unconscious. He was later transported to another location, stripped to his underwear and whipped with electric cables, and beaten with rods and rifle butts over the course of the next five days.
“I had heard rumors that the Sri Lankan government was still targeting and torturing Tamils but I didn’t believe it was true until it happened to me,” said Murugan. “The Sri Lankan government is telling the world that it is peaceful there now, that things are okay for the Tamil community.”
“I am living evidence that that is a lie,” he said.