Tamils appeal to world leaders to end Sri Lanka torture & murder of detainees

Place: World | Courtesy: Amnesty
| Date: 19971223

The International Federation of Tamils with headquarters in Switzerland, appealed to world leaders on 23 December 1997 to lend their influential support to end the continuing torture and murder of Tamil prisoners in the custody of the government of Sri Lanka. The appeal said:

"On 11 December 1997, three Tamils were hacked to death, within the confines of a high security prison in the Sinhala south of island of Sri Lanka. Seventeen others were injured. This murderous attack is the latest in a chilling record of ill treatment, torture and murder of Tamils in Sri Lanka’s prisons.

As long ago as June 1983, the International Commission of Jurists concluded that torture in Sri Lanka was an ‘almost universal practice’ carried out on a ‘systematic basis’.

    "...the author accepts that it is the almost universal practice of the military authorities to physically assault and mistreat these persons who have been in their custody... the author finds that this treatment is ...carried out on a systematic basis."(Ethnic and Communal Violence: The Independence of the Judiciary: Protection of Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka - Fragile Freedoms? - Report of an ICJ Mission to Sri Lanka in June 1983 - Timothy J.Moore)

A month later, in July 1983, Sinhala prisoners in Colombo's Welikada jail, instigated and backed by prison officials, attacked and massacred 53 Tamil prisoners.

The International Commission of Jurists commented:

    "It is not clear how it was possible for the killings to take place without the connivance of prison officials... since Welikade prison is a high security prison and the Tamil prisoners were kept in separate cells..." (Ethnic Violence in Sri Lanka, 1981-83: Staff Report of the International Commission of Jurists, ICJ Review 1984)

The perpetrators of the murders in July 1983 were never brought to trial. The magisterial inquiry into the attack was a whitewash. The prison guards failed to identify any of the Sinhala prisoners who had been in their custody and who had participated in the attack. Nevertheless they were continued in employment and continued to serve the Sri Lanka government with satisfaction.

Unsurprisingly, the torture and murder of Tamil prisoners in Sri Lanka’s prisons has continued unabated during the following years.

In October 1985, Amnesty International in a special Sri Lanka Torture File reported that the torture of political prisoners was ‘widespread and persistent’:

    "Allegations that torture occurs in Sri Lanka have long been of concern to AI. Over the past five years, however, the organisation has received consistent reports, many in the form of sworn affidavits, which lead it to conclude that the practice is widespread and persistent Torture is used particularly against political detainees, some of whom have died as a result..." (Amnesty Sri Lanka Torture File, October 1985)

In 1989, Amnesty International continued to report on the ‘many allegations of torture’ of Tamil prisoners:

    "Thousands of people were detained without charge or trial, and dozens 'disappeared' following arrest by the Sri Lankan security forces.... There were many allegations of torture. Emergency Regulations were amended to permit the disposal of bodies by the police." (Amnesty International Annual Report, 1989 for period January to December 1988)

In 1992, Amnesty International continued to point out that torture of detainees was ‘common’.

    ''(During 1991) Torture of detainees was common...Victims bodies were left in public places often in a mutilated state. .. In April (1991) a number of headless bodies were found in Batticaloa... Detainees in the Northeast were systematically tortured. Victims were beaten, stabbed, burned and scalded, partially buried or had nails driven through the soles of their feet. Dozens of people reportedly died as a result, reportedly in the east. (Amnesty International Annual Report 1992 for the period January to December 1991)

It is against this background that the actions of the Sri Lanka authorities during the recent past (under the regime of President Chandrika Kumaratunga) falls to be considered.

In May 1995, the British Refuge Council publication, Sri Lanka Monitor reported that hundreds of Tamils were tortured and bodies were found floating in the waterways near Colombo.

    "... in Colombo, Kandy and elsewhere in the South, hundreds of Tamils were arbitrarily arrested and tortured. Many 'disappeared' and bodies were found floating in the waterways and lakes near Colombo."(British Refuge Council publication, Sri Lanka Monitor, May 1995)

On 9 August 1995, 21 Non Governmental Organisations told the UN Sub Commission for the Protection of Minorities:

    ".. during the past few months, in Colombo, Kandy and elsewhere in the South, hundreds of Tamils have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured. Many have 'disappeared' and bodies found floating in the waterways and lakes near Colombo have been identified as those of Tamils. ..We are constrained to condemn the actions of the Sri Lanka government as gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law, intended to terrorise and subjugate the Tamil people." (Joint written statement submitted by International Youth and Student Movement for the United Nations and World Federation of Democratic Youth, non governmental organisations in consultative status (category I), African Association of Education for Development, American Association of Jurists, Indigenous World Association, International Association against Torture, International Association of Democratic Lawyers, International Federation of Human Rights, International Indian Treaty Council, International Islamic Federation of Student Organisations, International League for Human Rights, Pax Romana and World Society of Victimology, non governmental organisations in consultative status (category II) and Centre Europe-Tiers Monde, International Association of Educators for World Peace, International Educational Development, International Federation of Free Journalists, International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism, Liberation and Movement against Racism, For Friendship Among Peoples and Regional Council on Human Rights in Asia, non governmental organisations on the roster. - Report of the Sub-Commission under Commission of Human Rights Resolution 8 (XXXIII) - E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/NGO/32, 9 August 1995)

The outcry compelled the Sri Lanka government to charge sheet 22 members of Sinhala Special Task Force but two years later, the case was struck off the court roll as neither the accused nor the Attorney General were present. The Magistrate said that the attitude of the Attorney General’s Department was an obstruction of justice

    "The case relating to the 1995 murder in custody of 21 Tamils, whose bodies were found in Bolgoda and other lakes around Colombo, was struck off the court roll by Colombo Chief Magistrate Munidasa Nanayakkara on 13 March as neither the accused nor the Attorney General’s representative were present. The 22 Special Task Force (STF) members arrested in connection with the killings in September 1995 and released on bail three months later had allegedly returned to active duty... The Magistrate said that the absence of the Attorney General’s Department was an obstruction of justice. Human rights agencies say the manifest reluctance on the part of the state’s law enforcement authorities in such an important case encourages impunity." (British Refugee Council - Sri Lanka Monitor, March 1997)

The U.S. Department of State, Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996 commented:

    "Torture remained a serious problem.. Members of the security forces continued to torture and mistreat detainees and other prisoners, both male and female, particularly during interrogation. ...Methods of torture included electric shock, beatings (especially on the soles of the feet), suspension by the wrists or feet in contorted positions, burning, near drownings, placing of insecticide, chilli powder, or gasoline-soaked bags over the head, and forced positions. Detainees have reported broken bones and other serious injuries as a result of their mistreatment..." (U.S. Department of State, Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996)

The British Refugee Council Publication Sri Lanka Monitor reported in November 1996

    "Supreme Court Judge P Ramanathan says despite judicial orders against law-enforcement officers, torture in police stations continues unabated... Human rights agencies say prolonged detention also leads to ill-treatment. Currently there are over 1,100 Tamils in custody, 300 of whom are held for over two years. MPs who met detainees in Kalutara prison in early November say six Tamil youths are held for over five years and another six above the age of 50 are detained for over 18 months. Seven had been earlier released, arrested again and held for over two years.(British Refugee Council Publication Sri Lanka Monitor, November 1996)

A few months later, in April 1977, the Sri Lanka Monitor reported again:

    "The authorities continue to breach Emergency regulations in arrest and detention of suspects....Many held in custody allege torture... Sinnathamby Theivanai and her husband were arrested on 6 September by the Polonnaruwa police. Theivanai was produced before courts only on 21 November and is currently held under a detention order at the Welikada prison. She says that officers of the Crime Detection Bureau (CDB) threatened her with torture and hung her husband by his feet and tortured him in her presence. Theivanai’s two year-old daughter is also in prison with her. (British Refugee Council Publication, Sri Lanka Monitor, April 1997)

On 26 March 1997, Eric Sottas, the Director of the World Organisation Against Torture told the UN Commission on Human Rights:

    "Some situations which the Commission examined over the past few years and in which the World Organisation Against Torture intervenes regularly, illustrate dramatically the shortcomings of international action in the matter.

    The Sub-Commission adopted in 1983, a resolution concerning Sri Lanka, a resolution of which the content was repeated in 1987, by this Commission. Nevertheless, in the course of the past year, cases of torture, violation, summary executions and forced disappearances have continued to be denounced by the human rights organisations.

    Some months ago, we planned to have one of the many victims present a testimony of the atrocities before this body. The fear, unfortunately justified, of reprisals against their family has meant that his submission can not be made. This lack of confidence that the people that we are supposed to be defending have in the single most important international body with responsibility for the protection and promotion of human rights, speaks volumes."

On the following day, 27 March 1997, the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples (whose patrons include Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk and George Wald and whose President is Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel) told the UN Commission on Human Rights:

    "We regret to bring to the notice of this Commission that although the Sri Lanka government has repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to human rights since it came to power in August 1994 and has introduced a number of safeguards to prevent torture, arbitrary detention and "disappearances", reliable human rights organisations have found that gross violations of human rights are continuing with increasing frequency and ferocity.

    Safeguards in the law are being circumscribed and members of the security forces continued to torture and mistreat detainees and other prisoners, both male and female, particularly during interrogation."

The non governmental organisation International Indian Treaty Council commented on the same day at the UN Commission on Human Rights:

    "In Sri Lanka, torture of Tamils during detention has become endemic and requires urgent attention. Reports of judicial medical officers have corroborated accounts of serious ill treatment suffered by Tamil detainees at the hands of the security forces.."

Significantly a large number of Tamils who were being held in prisons in Sri Lanka have been in custody without trial for several years.

In August 1997, Amnesty International pointed out that Sri Lanka refuses to amend several laws which facilitate torture and death in custody:

    "Despite lobbying by local and international human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Committee and the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the government refuses to amend provisions in several laws which fall far short of international standards and continue to facilitate torture, death in custody, "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions." (Sri Lanka: Wavering commitment to human rights, Amnesty International, London, August 1996 AI Index: ASA 37/08/96)

    "A large number of Tamils are still held in prisons for several years without trial. A detainee in Kalutara prison says that despite assurances of a number of politicians, no action has been taken to look into their plight. Many detainees allege torture in custody." (British Refugee Council Publication, Sri Lanka Monitor, June 1997)

It was against this framework of systematic torture and prolonged detention without trial that over 100 Tamil prisoners in Kalutara began a fast on 28 November 1996 demanding trials or release.

    "Over 100 Tamil prisoners in Kalutara began a fast on 28 November demanding trials or release. Following a fast protest by detainees in June, the Defence Ministry promised to solve the issue within three months. Prisoners bitterly complain that the Ministry has failed to take any action. .. Human rights agencies are concerned about illegal detentions." (British Refugee Council Publication Sri Lanka Monitor, November 1996)

An year later, on 27 November 1997, yet again, Tamil prisoners in Welikade Jail commenced a fast protest. This time, these prisoners were severely assaulted by prison guards with batons and some were force fed. The government then transferred the prisoners from Welikade in urban Colombo to a prison in the exclusive Sinhala area of Kalutara in the South.

Within days of the transfer, on 10 December 1997, around 15-20 Sinhala prisoners entered the separate block where the Tamil prisoners were held and assaulted, Yoheswaran, a Tamil prisoner from Trincomalee. Yoheswaran’s skull was fractured and he was admitted to the prison hospital. The other Tamil prisoners staged a protest fast over this incident.

On the following day, at about 11 a.m., the prison officers opened the main gates of all the cell blocks and around 12 noon, the Tamil prisoners saw Sinhala prisoners collecting large swords. The Tamil prisoners protested to the prison officers that an attack was imminent but their protests were ignored. Within a few minutes, more than 200 Sinhala prisoners, with swords and axes, pushed open the already unlocked main gates of the ‘D’ block - the block in which these Tamil prisoners were held. For almost an hour, the Tamil prisoners struggled to hold the door shut from inside. The jail guards and army soldiers who were on sentry duty watched with amusement.

The Sinhala prisoners finally pushed open the door, using their axes and the Tamil prisoners fled into their cells, shut the doors and held them closed. Three Tamil prisoners who were trapped outside, ran towards an army sentry, but the soldier merely laughed. These three prisoners, Muthulingam Tharamalingam, Sanmugarasa Sivanesan and Sharip Jehan were hacked to death, a further 17 were wounded and two were admitted to hospital in a critical condition.

The weapons for the attack were brought from outside the prison and the murders were clearly premeditated and took place with the connivance of the Sinhala prison guards and the army sentries.

The comments of the International Commission of Jurists on the Welikade massacre some 14 years ago apply with equal force to the murderous attack in Kalutara on 11 December 1997 (if Kalutara is substituted for Welikade):

    "It is not clear how it was possible for the killings to take place without the connivance of prison officials... since Welikade ( read Kalurara) prison is a high security prison and the Tamil prisoners were kept in separate cells..." (Ethnic Violence in Sri Lanka, 1981-83: Staff Report of the International Commission of Jurists, ICJ Review 1984)

Again the initial attempt of the Sri Lanka government to cover up the planned murderous attack on the Tamil prisoners on 11 December 1997, as a ‘prison riot’ about a ‘food dispute’ points the finger at a government which has blood on its hands.

    "Three suspected Tamil Tiger rebels were killed and seven wounded during a riot at a prison in southern Sri Lanka on Friday, police officials said. They said the riot started over a food dispute between the suspected rebels and convicted prisoners at the jail at Kalutara, 40 km (25 miles) south of the capital Colombo." (Reuters Report, 12 December 1997)

Furthermore, the day after the incident, 50 Sinhala prisoners were transferred out of the Kalutara prison. Presumably, the prison officials selected these prisoners for transfer on the basis that they were the ‘trouble makers’ and that without them, the Tamil prisoners would be ‘safe’. But strangely, no identification parade was held to identify those who had attacked the Tamil cell block, in broad daylight and at the magisterial inquiry into the incident, the prison officials failed to identify any of the Sinhala prisoners who had been in their custody and who had participated in the attack.

It was only in the face of mounting international publicity that the incident had sparked, and the Amnesty appeal, that the Ministry of Justice eventually recommended that a Commission of Inquiry be held into the 11 December attack.

Amnesty’s appeal for justice to Sri Lanka’s Minister of Justice may be understandable. But in August 1997, Amnesty International itself, in its own circumspect language, referred to the ‘wavering commitment’ of the Sri Lanka government to human rights and concluded that ‘the way in which the few investigations ordered were selected suggests that the predominant reason is the publicity created at the time’:

    "In most cases, such as the reports of extrajudicial executions in May 1995 documented in Amnesty International's June 1995 report, local police investigations were announced without any independent investigative body being appointed. In other cases, internal army inquiries were ordered. The President assured Amnesty International, in a letter of 5 June 1995 written on her behalf by the Secretary, Ministry of Justice & Constitutional Affairs, that she would "if the circumstances warrant it ... have no hesitation in having the specific complaints ... referred to the HRTF for investigation and recommendations regarding follow up action such as judicial action against those responsible for human rights violations and the payment of compensation to those adversely affected."

    When meeting the Secretary, the Amnesty International delegates requested information about any follow-up action taken and were told that she had none. Letters of September 1995 requesting this information from the Secretary, Ministry of Defence, the Commander of the Army and the IGP remain unanswered.

    In some of the incidents described in this report, such as the rape of Lakshmi Pillai and the extrajudicial executions in Colombo in mid-1995 and at Kumarapuram and Kanniya in February 1996, the alleged perpetrators were arrested and initial charges against them were filed. The accused in all four cases were subsequently released on bail. The case against the two informants accused of raping Lakshmi Pillai was closed after one of the accused was killed by the LTTE and the victim, who had moved to another area of the country, failed to turn up in court, reportedly due to fear for her life.

    Eight soldiers were identified in an identification parade held after the massacre at Kumarapuram. The magisterial inquiry has been concluded. The case is currently with the Attorney General awaiting a decision on indictment. There are fears for the safety of some key witnesses. Survivors allege that at least one high-ranking officer involved in the deliberate and arbitrary killings of 24 civilians at Kumarapuram has not been arrested and continues to be in charge of an army camp in the area. No action is known to have been taken against the Home Guards alleged to have accompanied the army personnel.

    Combined with the government's attitude to the investigations of past human rights violations..., Amnesty International is concerned at signs that the government is dragging its feet in bringing to justice the alleged perpetrators. It fears that the government's stated commitment to bringing to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations may not be fully put into practice and that political and military imperatives will override its earlier stated commitment.

    Moreover, the way in which the few investigations ordered were selected suggests that the predominant reason is the publicity created at the time. So, whereas the CID was entrusted with the investigations into the "disappearances" reported in Colombo in mid-1995, no such resources were allocated to investigate "disappearances" in other parts of the country." (Sri Lanka: Wavering commitment to human rights, Amnesty International London, August 1996 AI Index: ASA 37/08/96)

We believe that you will be persuaded that the inquiry recommended by the Ministry of Justice suggests that the ‘predominant reason is the publicity created’ at the present time and that ‘political and military imperatives will override’ any stated commitment to bring the murderers and the conniving prison officials to justice.

The harsh reality is that the record of systematic torture and killings of Tamil prisoners during the past several years shows that it is the Sri Lanka government that must be held accountable for the action of its servants.

Amnesty International reported in August 1996:

    "Impunity for those responsible for human rights violations remains a serious concern. Progress in a few court cases against members of the security forces charged in connection with "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions is slow; as are investigations into many other cases..."

U.S. Department of State, Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996 declared:

    "Impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses remained a problem... the investigations or judicial processes were inactive, giving the appearance of impunity for those responsible for human rights violations."

The impunity afforded by the Sri Lanka government for those responsible for the torture and murder of Tamils in custody is no accident. Neither is it an ‘appearance’. The torture and murder of Tamil prisoners has become endemic, because those in the seats of power in the Sri Lanka government have either expressly or by implication authorised such actions. The government has at every turn, secured for the perpetrators of these murderous acts, immunity from prosecution. The collapse of the Bolgoda prosecution is a case in point.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her government cannot continue to disclaim responsibility for the murderous activities of their dutiful Sinhala servants - servants who, time and again, are continued in employment so that they may continue to serve the Sri Lanka government with satisfaction. Today, it is the Sri Lanka government itself that stands charged for the torture and murder of prisoners in its custody.

We urge that the niceties of diplomacy should not stand in the way of the international community openly condemning the Sri Lanka government for its systematic resort to torture and murder of prisoners in its custody - in no way second to the efforts of the Shah of Iran.

We appeal to you and your government to pay heed to the innumerable reports of independent human rights organisations and act with courage and humanity so that Tamil prisoners do not continue to be tortured and murdered in the prisons of Sri Lanka - torture and murder which forms an integral part of Sri Lanka’s current genocidal war against the Tamil people."