Torture in Sri Lanka since May 2009
“I nearly died in my torturers’ hands. Torture ripped my family apart. Sri Lanka’s sophisticated intelligence operation means that they watch us and monitor our whereabouts even when we are outside the country. I have first-hand experience of this after I was tortured following my return from the UK after the conflict ended. The culture has not changed just because the conflict ended.” Sri Lankan survivor of torture
Tainted Peace: Torture in Sri Lanka since May 2009
- Full version
- Summary version
- A summary version translated into Sinhala
- A summary version translated into Tamil
Torture has long been used in Sri Lanka to persecute minorities, crush dissent and stifle civil society. It is deeply entrenched in the fabric of the state and has persisted across the decades regardless of changes in political leadership.
Tainted Peace: Torture in Sri Lanka since 2009, a new report by Freedom from Torture shows that one of the most urgent tasks facing the country's new leadership will be to eradicate torture by the military and police, which is deeply entrenched and has tainted the country's peace since May 2009.
Since Freedom from Torture was established in 1985, more than 5,000 Sri Lankans exiled in the UK have been referred to us. In 2014, for the third year in a row, Sri Lanka was the top country of origin for our clients.
Our doctors' forensic reports (medico-legal reports or MLRs) of the physical and psychological consequences of torture document the ongoing suffering of people at the hands of the Sri Lankan military, police and intelligence services. Together these MLRs show that torture did not end when the fighting stopped.
'Tainted Peace' is based on a detailed study of 148 of these MLRs of men and women who were tortured in Sri Lanka between May 2009 and September 2013. Freedom from Torture has continued to receive referrals for Sri Lankans tortured more recently, including in 2014 and 2015.
The Sri Lankan government and the United Nations and wider international community must take urgent action to protect people from torture in Sri Lanka and end impunity for perpetrators.
Watch these videos of our experts talking about 'Tainted Peace': Sonya Sceats, Dr Juliet Cohen and Dr William Hopkins.
Of the 148 people whose MLRs we reviewed, 125 were men and 23 were women. Most were aged between 26 and 40, though there were a number of younger men aged between 18 and 35, and some men and women aged between 41 and 60.
The overwhelming majority (139) were of Tamil ethnicity. One-hundredand forty-two people reported that they were tortured because of a real or perceived association with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Some were members of or supported the LTTE, whether voluntarily or because they were forced and often at a very low level. For many, however, an LTTE association was wrongly imputed to them, including because of family connections.
It is of particular concern to Freedom from Torture that more than one third of the people in this study were tortured after returning to Sri Lanka from the UK after the end of the armed conflict (55 of 148 cases or 37%). Most had been in the UK as students but three had claimed asylum and were forcibly removed after their claims were rejected. Most were specifically interrogated about why they were in the UK and the activities of the Tamil diaspora. Twenty-one people were accused of participating in lawful demonstrations and other protests about Sri Lanka in the UK and eleven were shown photographs taken at these events.
"They were waiting for me at passport control."
John, now 25, spent four months with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after being indoctrinated and recruited by an older man while he was studying for his A-levels aged just 18.
He took just a few t-shirts and jeans – he didn't tell his parents.
At the LTTE camp he completed his basic military training and then worked as a cook and cleaner.
John was captured by the Sri Lankan army after his first battle. He was taken to Boossa camp where he was detained and tortured for four months.
John was released when his father paid a bribe but was re-arrested by police several months later and was detained, held in solitary confinement and tortured for another year.
In November 2010 on discovering his son's whereabouts John's father, again, paid an agent to get John out of prison. He then came to the UK with a student visa.
In London he stayed with a cousin and attended English lessons at a college.
"When my mum and dad asked me to consider coming back to Sri Lanka, my heart jumped. I missed my family and they clearly missed me and wanted me home.
"The war had been over for three years and my parents thought it would be safe for me to return. I didn't expect any problems. I had been out of Sri Lanka for two years and only had a very limited involvement with the LTTE.
"I boarded a Sri Lanka Airways flight in London destined for Colombo. When we arrived they were waiting for me at passport control.
"I was held at the airport for five hours, they asked me again and again 'What were you doing in London against the Sri Lankan government?', 'Who is organising protests in London?'. I realised that I was being held because I attended anti-government protests while I was in London – I don't know how they knew that.
"When then President Rajapaksa visited London in 2012 I took part in a demonstration against him. There were hundreds of us there, I have no idea how they identified me.
"I was taken from the airport to Welikada prison. The cell was dark and it smelled terrible. They beat me every single day I was in that place. I was tied by my ankles and hung naked upside down from the ceiling. They hit my body with steel wires and plastic pipes filled with sand.
"My head was held underwater until I was suffocating and choking. They also put petrol in plastic bags and held them over my head till I passed out.
"It was in Welikada that they also practised some sexual torture on me. This is something that is very difficult to talk about in my culture.
"I was only in that place 13 days until my father and uncle paid bribes to get me out, but it felt like a lifetime. I had to sign some kind of confession before I left prison. It was in Sinhalese so I have no idea what it said – I would have signed anything to get out of that place.
"My father had paid an agent to arrange my papers and get me out of Sri Lanka undetected. I didn't know where I would end up when I got on the plane. My wounds were extremely painful, but I was very relieved to be safe.
"Although the government in Sri Lanka has changed now, I believe there is just going to be the same problem. The army will still carry on this practice – they are organised, they have systems. Changing the leader means nothing. The army is still all over the north and everything is still very militarised. Why would they keep such a heavy army presence there if they thought there was no security threat from Tamils?"
Using forensic documentation methods as laid out in the Istanbul Protocol, a Freedom from Torture doctor attributed 29 scars on John's body to torture, some were as long as 10 centimetres.
The distribution of some of the scarring suggests, according to the same doctor, that John may have been curled up in the foetal position when some of the beatings were delivered. Scarring on his lower leg is most likely secondary to friction burns from the ropes used to hang him upside down.
"I think every guard in that prison had raped me by the time I was released"
When she was 18-years-old, Anuja entered into an arranged marriage with a man who later left their marital home to join the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). At the time their son was just six-months- old. He did not tell her where he had gone, she only found out when another LTTE member told her.
Anuja's husband stayed with the LTTE for 13 years, rising to a senior position by 2009 as the civil war reached its bloody conclusion. He was one of the tens of thousands killed in the final desperate days of fighting. Anuja said:
"I knew I was being watched. Those times after the war ended were very tense. There were army people everywhere. As soon as the war ended, I was rounded up and put in a special camp for the families of former LTTE combatants.
"I spent a year in that camp. They would interrogate me often – asking me over and over where my husband was. They wouldn't believe me when I told them he had died. On one occasion, the soldiers asked me to take my clothes off so they could photograph me. I refused and this made them very angry. One of them smashed my head into a metal bar. I still don't have any feeling in some parts of my mouth.
"After one year, we were all released from this camp and I was able to go home. But I couldn't relax. There were still so many security agents around. They used to call at my house in the night. They would ask to be let in and ask if they could have sex with me. My father and my son were also in the house, but one was too old and the other too young. We couldn't answer back.
"It was my father who suggested that, for my own protection, it would be wise for me to re-marry. So I did. My second husband, who was a teacher, was much more loving than the first. We had a close relationship and he lived together with my son and me.
"For a while there were no more night time calls at the door, but they didn't stop watching me.
"In early 2013 the police came to our door asking for documents. We gave them the documents they had requested, but they insisted on taking all of us to the police station. Once we reached the police station, we were transferred to another car and driven to the army camp. One of the soldiers tried to pull me out of the car. My husband tried to prevent them from taking me and grasped my hand. The soldier hit him hard on the head with the butt of his rifle. He fell down, unconscious. I have not seen him since.
"I was put in a jeep and driven for about five more hours. I was terrified. I knew that something bad was going to happen, and I couldn't get the image of my husband and son out of my head. I didn't know what was happening to them.
"I was put in a dark cell for three days, and then the interrogations started. They asked me to undress so they could photograph me, and this time I didn't refuse. After that I was raped. They accused me of helping the LTTE which they believed was making a comeback. They said "Your husband is alive; what is he planning?"
"I spent over 18 months in this place. It was a cycle of horror. Every few days they would interrogate me, ask me the same questions over and over and over. These sessions were accompanied by torture – burning with cigarettes, beatings with wires. And there was always rape too. I think every guard in that prison had raped me by the time I was released.
"In October 2014 I was taken away from the camp in a vehicle. I thought they were taking me to kill me. I was blindfolded and numb. After some hours I was put in another car. Once we were moving, they took my blindfold off and spoke to me in Tamil. They said: "You are safe now". It took me a moment to realise I was still alive.
"It wasn't until I got to Colombo a few hours later and saw my brother who lives there, that it really sunk in that I had been released. My brother had found out where I was being held and paid a huge bribe to get me out. I was distraught to hear though, that no one had heard anything about my husband and son. A few days later I got on a plane and came to the UK.
"I have my refugee status here in the UK now, so I know I am safe. The wounds on my body have healed but not the ones in my heart. Every moment of every day, I wonder what has happened to my husband and my son.
"Since I left Sri Lanka a new President has come into power. Many people are saying that this means that the situation in the country will change, that we might experience true peace. But I think the problem runs deeper than that. Governments will come and go but the policies will not change.
"The soldiers are still watching us. I haven't told my family where I am – it's too dangerous for them to know - they just know that I am safe. The army are looking for me because I 'escaped'. They are annoyed. I just hope they are not able to take this out on my husband and son."
"All forms of torture violate an individual's fundamental human rights and have a profound effect on the survivors' immediate and long-term health and well-being."
The methods of torture included beatings, burning, rape and other forms of sexual violence, asphyxiation, electric shocks, mock executions, and stabbings.
Our study reveals dreadful detention conditions, with many detainees held in darkness and deprived of adequate food and water. Seventy per cent of people were held in solitary confinement. Most detention episodes were six months or less but some people were held for many years.
Methods of torture were often meted out simultaneously: every survivor was beaten, including with blunt instruments, pipes filled with cement or pistol butts. Often these blows were delivered while the person was suspended with both their hands and feet tied up. Some were dropped from a height with bindings still in place so they were unable to break their fall.
The high prevalence of burning with cigarettes or heated pieces of metal (78%) could reflect a policy of branding, not only to inflict long term psychological and physical damage, but to ensure that the individual is easily identifiable in future as having been of adverse interest to the authorities.
People were slapped, punched or trampled on their heads, hands, feet, genitals and abdomen. Many reported losing consciousness – and coming around only to be tortured again.
Some of those who were subjected to water boarding or suffocated with the fumes of burning chillies or petrol said it was the worst form of torture they endured.
Seventy-one per cent of the cases in our study suffered some form of sexual violence as part of torture. Eighty-seven per cent of women and 30% of men were raped. Some women were raped night after night by different officers, while men also described being raped on multiple occasions. Almost half of the people in the study were forced to remain naked, causing them intense humiliation.
"She reports feeling intensely afraid. She is constantly disturbed by vivid memories of the abuse, day and night. She cannot tolerate dark, has frequent nightmares and wakes in a state of acute fear." – MLR excerpt
As well as physical scars, many survivors were left to cope with deep psychological repercussions, a common consequence of torture. Such is the intention to destroy an individual's personality and destroy their sense of belonging in family and society. One man described himself as "a dead body".
Eighty-nine per cent of survivors in this study showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 82% had symptoms of depression. Fifty-five people (37%) expressed ideas of self harm or suicide to their examining clinician and 19 reported having attempted suicide since escaping from detention (13%). Flashbacks and recurrent nightmares were common. Many described other sleeping difficulties, a generalised state of anxiety and social withdrawal.
In all cases the torturers were state actors – the Sri Lankan military and/or branches of the police and intelligence services such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) or the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID).
- One-hundred-and-twenty-two people were detained once since 2009, 20 were detained twice, five were detained three times and one individual was detained four times during the post-conflict period.
- Many were abducted by armed men from the street or their homes and taken in 'white vans' to unknown locations.
- Torture in the 148 cases took place in fifteen districts and seven of the nine provinces of Sri Lanka.
- Many detainees were moved around between army camps, prisons, police stations, CID facilities (including its '4th floor' headquarters) and elsewhere. The use of unofficial detention facilities was reported in all years from 2009-13.
- Fifty-five people were detained and tortured after they returned to Sri Lanka from the UK after the civil war ended. Forty-eight of these people were arrested within three weeks of arriving in the Sri Lanka. Eighteen were arrested immediately on arrival at the airport, 19 were taken from their home address, and seven were abducted from the street.
"If the government were to charge people and take them to court, it would become known to the media – the government wants to avoid this." – Sri Lankan survivor of torture
Perpetrators are allowed to commit torture without fear of consequences.
One-hundred-and-thirty-six people were detained with no formal charge or sentencing, no access to legal representation, no hearing before a judge, no official notification to family members and no access to an independent medical examination.
More than a third were forced after torture to sign blank sheets of paper or 'confessions', usually written in a language (Sinhalese) they did not understand. Others were forced to inform on others.
One hundred and five of the 148 people said they were only able to secure release from detention after bribes paid by family members.
"Whoever committed these crimes, whether in power or not and whether in Sri Lanka now or outside, they need to be punished." – Sri Lankan survivor of torture
Torture has been part of the modus operandi of the military, police and intelligence services in Sri Lanka for decades and changing this requires a radical transformation which has not been possible in the country yet.
Among Freedom from Torture's most important recommendations are those addressing the need for:
- Member States of the United Nations Human Rights Council and Security Council to ensure without delay a genuine accountability process that meets the highest international standards and all of the following requirements:
- The process must cover serious human rights abuses and associated international crimes committed by both sides to the armed conflict and by the Sri Lankan government in the years of 'peace' since the fighting ended;
- The process must be independent, credible, accessible to victims including those outside the country, transparent and otherwise fully human rights-compliant;
- Any findings on torture from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' investigation on Sri Lanka should be accepted and accountability delivered; and
- In order to satisfy the international community and win the confidence of victims, including those from the Tamil minority, the process must include strong international participation at every stage and level.
- Sri Lanka to make its 'zero tolerance' policy to torture a reality by suspending from duty those accused of torture, ending use of 'agents' to arbitrarily detain and torture people, and launching criminal investigations and prosecuting those responsible no matter how powerful or senior they are within government or the military, policy and security services.
- Sri Lanka to become an active stakeholder in the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative including by using the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict in efforts to tackle impunity for sexual torture, and involving survivors of sexual torture in an expert capacity.
- Sri Lanka to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and establish an effective torture prevention programme including extensive training within the military, police and intelligence services and measures to enable independent national and international monitors to make regular unannounced inspections of any place of detention including unofficial detention facilities.
- The UK to ensure that individuals are not forcibly returned from the UK to a risk of torture in Sri Lanka including by updating its asylum policy for Sri Lanka to reflect further evidence contained in this report about (i) torture in peacetime Sri Lanka; and (ii) the particular risk for those returning from the UK with a real or perceived past connection to the LTTE, at whatever level and whether directly and/or through a family member or acquaintance.
*For the full recommendations, please see the full report.