‘HUNDREDS of people languish in arbitrary, illegal and often incommunicado detention in Sri Lanka, vulnerable to torture and extrajudicial execution, despite the end of the country’s long conflict’ says a new report from Amnesty International.
‘Arbitrary and illegal detention and enforced disappearances remain routine in Sri Lanka, where human rights abuses of all types go uninvestigated and unpunished,’ says ‘Locked away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees.’
The report says: ‘For years, the Sri Lankan government justified this legislation as necessary for combating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and counter-terrorism legislation allowed authorities to arrest people without evidence and to hold them without charge or trial for extended periods.
‘A lack of accountability for alleged war crimes gives the green light to Sri Lankan authorities to act with impunity. Meanwhile, the message coming from the Sri Lankan government is that those who dare criticise it risk harassment, or even disappearance,’ Amnesty adds.
Tamil activists, however, questioned the reluctance of Amnesty to describe at least a selective group of Tamil prisoners as Prisoners of War, pointing out that:
l the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 February 22 had recognised the LTTE as a Party with armed forces, and
• the Geneva Convention Article 4.1 defines Prisoners of War as ‘Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.’
The Tamil activists argue that these prisoners should be accorded the same rights as those given to Prisoners of War (PoW).
The Sri Lankan Army continues to have a large presence in the north and is deployed for civil policing, Amnesty noted, adding: ‘the Special Task Force (STF), an elite police commando unit with a history of human rights violations, remains active across the country.’
Amnesty adds that former detainees have been harassed and rearrested, and physically attacked. Killings and enforced disappearances of newly released detainees have also been reported.
And they state: ‘The war crimes alleged in Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war are of such magnitude that, if unchallenged, they risk fundamentally undermining international justice mechanisms – the UN must support an independent international investigation into these alleged crimes.’
And Amnesty reminded the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council to pass the resolution against Sri Lanka tabled by the US and thereby intervening in the island to establish accountability and justice.
The spokesperson for Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), an activist group that seeks legal redress for Tamil victims of war, said: ‘while it is clear that Colombo is complicit in several forms of gross rights violations, TAG believes that white van abductions, torture, illegal detention, and disappearances are linked in the majority of cases, and a criminal network comprising selected prisons, ex-military men, prison officials, military intelligence, and even certain courts, with tacit authorisation from the highest levels of government executes the crimes in a systematic fashion.
‘While the (Amnesty) report’s focus on individual types of rights violations is extremely effective, it fails to expose the highest and the most sinister level of organised crimes orchestrated by Colombo,’ TAG said.
The Conclusions of the Amnesty report were . . .
‘Arbitrary and unlawful arrest and detention have been longstanding problems in Sri Lanka, where authorities have grown used to cutting procedural corners where arrests and detention are concerned.
‘Impunity thrives in this atmosphere; human rights violations of all types go uninvestigated and unpunished, innocent individuals are denied justice, and people who may be guilty of crimes are not held to account.
‘This includes people who may be guilty of gravecrimes, such as those that Amnesty International has documented, which were perpetrated by the LTTE against civilians such as killings, torture, forced recruitment of child soldiers and the use of civilians as human shields.
‘Many people in Sri Lanka have been detained without any evidence of wrongdoing and should be charged or released; others who face credible charges should be prosecuted.
‘Regardless of their guilt or innocence, the individuals whose cases are described in this report and thousands like them have been the victims of grave human rights violations.
‘They, or the loved ones they left behind, deserve redress.
‘While the Sri Lankan government has the right and the duty to take lawful measures necessary to protect the rights of the country’s population, including their security, it must never do this in violation of their human rights.
‘The right to liberty, including freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, is a key human right, provided in international treaties binding on Sri Lanka, as well as its own Constitution.
‘Despite this, arrests and detentions under the PTA, and previously under the Emergency Regulations, constitute arbitrary detention without charge or trial, or where prosecutions did take place with no guarantees of a fair trial.
‘Sri Lanka must end its reliance on the PTA and abolish the system of administrative detention.
‘The damage done to Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system by decades of unlawful arrest and detention practices is immeasurable.
‘Such arbitrary detentions have all too often been accompanied by other human rights violations, in particular, incommunicado detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.
‘Irrespective of steps to end arbitrary detentions, the authorities must urgently take measures to root out these violations.
‘If the Sri Lankan government is serious about upholding its international obligations to end human rights violations and impunity, and ensure accountability, and is committed to reconciling communities torn apart by armed conflict, then justice and human rights must be part of that equation.’
One case contained in the Amnesty report was of a man who was detained for two years without charge and was tortured.
According to confidential correspondence with Amnesty International and an account provided to his lawyer, ‘Roshan’ (a pseudonym), a man in his thirties from central Sri Lanka, was arrested abduction-style in June 2008 on his way to submit a medical report to join the crew of a ship scheduled to dock at the Colombo Port.
‘He was detained and tortured. “Roshan” was handcuffed, blindfolded and forced into a van by unknown assailants he later learned were plainclothes police. He was beaten severely before being locked in a room where his captors removed his blindfold and handcuffs.
‘He told his lawyer in Colombo that he realised he was detained somewhere near the harbour because he heard the sound of ship engines and horns. “Roshan” was detained for 28 days without being produced before a Magistrate.
‘The police told him they thought he was a member of the LTTE and had links with the LTTE military intelligence wing, accusations he denied.
‘He admitted to having been abducted by the LTTE in 2002, but denied that he had engaged in any subversive activity. He was tortured during interrogation: bags soaked in petrol were put over his head; he was beaten with blunt objects, including on the soles of hisfeet.
‘He was also tortured with electric shocks and his penis was burned with an electric heater. He suffered from acute spinal trauma, including a crushed tail bone, and severe pain in his feet and ankles.
‘The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the facility during his detention and informed his family of his whereabouts. Thereafter, once a week he was brought to the Grandpass police station blindfolded and handcuffed to see his family members and then taken back again to his place of detention near the harbour.
‘When his family was first permitted to see him on 27 June 2008, he was unable to walk as a result of the torture. On 22 July 2008, “Roshan” was finally produced before the Colombo Magistrate’s Court and remanded to the Colombo Remand Prison.
‘On 18 November 2008, he was transferred to the Magazine Remand Prison in Colombo. On 13 November 2009, he was among eight Tamil prisoners who were attacked and brutally beaten by a mob of Sinhalese prisoners.
‘He told Amnesty International in a letter that the prison authorities were complicit in this attack; they had read out a list of eight names and handed the prisoners over to the mob of Sinhalese prisoners to be beaten.
‘ “Roshan” filed a successful fundamental rights application to the Supreme Court challenging his detention and the attack inside the Magazine Prison despite pressure from prison authorities to withdraw the case, including threats to his family. On 22 June 2010, he was released from the Magazine Remand Prison after over two years in detention.
‘ “Roshan” and his family continued to face threats and harassment from the police and he eventually fled the country.’