Sri Lanka must stop torture


“I was questioned and tortured by Sri Lankan army personnel and some were in uniform. I was raped many times. I cannot recall how many times. I was kept in detention for 15 days”. This ghastly confession from a Tamil woman is part of a 2013 Human Rights Watch report on the use of torture and rape by the Sri Lankan security forces. This woman is far from being the only one to describe such violence. Other reports and testimonies depict the frightful acts committed by the Sri Lankan security forces.

After the end of the civil war in 2009, the police and army started targeting members of the population they suspected to be linked with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). During the civil war, the LTTE fought the government in an attempt to create a Tamil state. This attempt definitively failed with the end of the conflict in 2009. Since then, the government, predominantly composed of members of the Sinhalese ethnic community, has remained silent about the numerous unlawful detentions, abductions and tortures the security forces have imposed on suspected members of the Tamil minority.

Dozens of Tamils have described similar situations. There are numerous stories of individuals being apprehended on the street or in their homes, then being blindfolded or hooded with their hands tied and transported in a van to a cell, where they were tortured and raped for information. They endured a wide variety of tortures, some report beatings with pipes and batons, whipping, kicking, burning with cigarettes, and even experiencing various forms of asphyxiation. In addition, detainees were also raped, and forced to withstand different acts of sexual violence and humiliation. Torture was used as an interrogation technique to extort information about the LTTE and to force confessions.

A Tamil man testified:

“The officials would furiously say some words in Sinhala when they sexually abused me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They abused me in Tamil and used slang words. I was sexually abused many times during my detention. On some days, the army official who had arrested me sexually abused me during interrogation. On two nights, I was raped by prison guards. The sexual abuse by the officials stopped after I signed the confession.”

More recently, after the Easter Sunday attacks, the Muslim minority, as well as refugees and asylum seekers, have also been targeted by such types of arrests, often with no proof of any connection with the terrorist attacks of last April. These arrests have been carried out under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which contains many components that fail to provide the respect for basic human rights. The PTA allows the police to detain suspects of terrorism without charges or trial, and the judiciary system admits confessions obtained under duress.

In 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored the 30/1 resolutions with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and committed to repealing the PTA. Since then, the government has drafted the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which represents a significant improvement over the PTA. For example, under the CTA, a magistrate will be required to meet with the suspect in private, to limit the possibility of ill-treatment. Yet, some issues remain: although the bill narrows the definition of terrorism, it is still too broad for international human rights standards. For instance, “interference with any automated or electronic or computerised system” can be considered as a terrorist offence, and suspects can be detained for up to 14 days without seeing a magistrate. In addition, the CTA has not been voted for yet and could still be amended by the parliament.

Other concerns remain: Recent governmental plans to restore the death penalty for a wide range of crimes bodes poorly for Sri Lanka’s intentions to ameliorate the judicial system. Besides, in spite of the HRC and the EU’s demands, the Sri Lankan government has not investigated the ongoing acts of torture and sexual violence reported during detention, and has failed to hold the perpetrators accountable. Action from the government is necessary if Sri Lanka aims at building long-lasting peace. Remaining silent on the continuing torture perpetrated on the Tamil minority will not bring a positive sustainable peace.

In 2017, the EU granted Sri Lanka a Special Incentive Arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance status (GSP+). In their GSP+ report from 2018, the EU has called for the cessation of all acts of torture, the repeal of the PTA, and accountability from the government on these consequent human rights violations. On top of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status, the EU has also provided a total of approximately EUR 760 million in assistance to Sri Lanka over the past ten years to support development in the country. The GSP+ status is conditional to the respect of human rights, which are a founding value of the EU. Therefore, the EU’s advantageous position could be used to pressure Sri Lanka to repeal the use of torture and sexual violence during detention.

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