Torture - Sri Lanka's 20 Year Record

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: TamilNation
| Date: 19980626

26 June 1998 is the International Day against Torture - so declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

On 17 June 1998, Amnesty International issued its annual report, covering events in Sri Lanka during 1997. Amnesty said:

    "Torture and ill-treatment in army and police custody were widespread...Methods included near-suffocation with plastic bags filled with petrol; beatings with wire and plastic pipes; electric shocks; and suspension by the thumbs or ankles... No prosecutions were initiated under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act.."

However, Sri Lanka's torture of Tamil prisoners in custody is not something new. A quick tour of the record (by clicking on the 'Licensed to Torture' icon on this page and then on each page so visited) will prove that during the past twenty years and more, torture has been carried out in a systematic, deliberate and sustained manner by the Sri Lanka authorities. And, notwithstanding earnest appeals by organisations such as Amnesty, 'business has gone on, very much as usual'.

The systematic and planned use of torture by Sri Lanka during these several years cannot be explained away as the misdemeanours of a few 'bad eggs' in the Sri Lanka security forces. Timothy J. Moore from the International Commission of Jurists was right when he concluded in 1983 that in Sri Lanka, it was 'the almost universal practice of the military authorities to physically assault and mistreat those persons who have been in their custody'. And, over the ensuing years, it is clear that practice has led to perfection.

The proven record shows that thousands of Tamil prisoners have been tortured with burning cigarettes; by insertion of chilli powder in the nostrils, mouth and eyes and on the genitals; with red ants being applied to sensitive parts of their bodies; by being suspended upside down by the toes whilst their heads were placed in a bag with suffocating fumes of burning chillies; with prolonged beatings especially on the soles of the feet while lying stretched out on a bench or while hanging by the knees from a pole; by having pins driven under fingernails and toenails and in the heels; by being deprived of food and sleep; by beatings on the genitals and other parts of the body with sticks batons and sand-filled plastic pipes; by electric shocks; by the insertion of iron rods in the anus; and by mock or threatened executions.

The Amnesty File on Torture in Sri Lanka in 1985 remains essential reading even today, because the methods of torture identified therein, continue to be used today, more than a decade later. Amnesty reported in 1992:

    "Torture of detainees was common... . Victims bodies were left in public places often in a mutilated state. ..Detainees in the north-east 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...."

Torture continued unabated in 1996 and 1997.

    "Seevaratnam Rajanimala from Kilinochchi was arrested in Colombo on 28 November 1996 and for two days assaulted with a plastic pipe filled with concrete.Two of her four children are detained with her at the Welikada women prison. Her other two children are held at a Salvation Army hostel in Borella and her husband is detained at the Kalutara prison. She has so far not been informed of the reasons for her arrest... Jaffna student R Pragalathan says in a fundamental rights application that after his arrest at Bambalapitiya suburb on 7 January 1997 pins were inserted under his nails and when he refused to sign a confession was brutally assaulted... Another detainee Davis Aloysius arrested in Trincomalee on 17 March 1997 says he was hung by his legs and beaten with batons. His head was covered with a plastic bag dipped in petrol..."(British Refugee Council Publication, Sri Lanka Monitor, June, July 1997)

On 24 May 1998, Amnesty International urged Sri Lanka to use the opportunity afforded by the UN General Assembly declaration of 26 June as the International Day against Torture, to officially recognise the suffering of the thousands of victims of torture in Sri Lanka, by issuing a clear condemnation, and announcing measures to stop widespread torture and ill-treatment.

Two inferences may be drawn by the refusal of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her government to condemn, without equivocation and unconditionally, the criminal actions of the security forces under their command and the refusal to diligently prosecute and bring to justice the torturers. One inference is that President Kumaratunga fears that she will lose the support of her armed forces if she condemns and brings to justice the torturers, particularly since torture has become a 'way of life' for the Sri Lanka security forces. Another inference is that she and her government, have themselves (implicitly or expressly) authorised the actions of the Sri Lanka security forces and can neither condemn nor punish that which they had sanctioned. On either view, President Kumaratunga's refusal to clearly condemn and diligently prosecute, exposes the complicity of her government - and sends a message to the Sri Lanka security forces that they may continue to torture Tamil prisoners with impunity.

Sri Lanka's 'culture of torture' has deep roots. The resort to torture by the Sri Lanka security forces is a logical extension of the methods used by Sinhala political leaders (and their goon squads) to stifle Tamil resistance from the Satyagraha days of non violent resistance in 1956, 1958 and 1961.

In 1956, when Tamil Parliamentarians protested against the enactment of the Sinhala Only law, they were set upon in the very precincts of Parliament House, under the very nose of the Sinhala Prime Minister of the country, and their ears bitten and beaten up mercilessly.

    "Thereafter on that day, 6 June, every Tamil man was set upon and robbed. He was beaten up. His fountain pen and wristlet were snatched away. He was thrashed mercilessly, humiliated and sent home. .. rowdies and hooligans were given a free hand to assault, humiliate and rob any innocent Tamil walking the roads on that day. That was the attitude taken up by a Cabinet composed of Sinhalese Ministers... These (hooligans) were instigated by some members of Parliament... they were heading the gang of hooligans. The Prime Minister made a remarkably wonderful speech on that occasion. He came, he smiled and he told the crowd, "Don't do that. Rain is coming down. They will be cooled in no time." That was the type of appeal he made. If Sinhalese men were being thrashed by Tamils and their ears bitten, I wonder whether the Prime Minister would have adopted the same attitude." - Senator S.Nadesan Q.C., Sri Lanka Senate Hansard 4 June 1958

That the Sinhala police have taken their cue from the declared attitude of their own Prime Minister, should not come as a matter for surprise. It would have been surprising if they had not. Again, in 1961, the Sri Lanka army, sent to Jaffna on the orders of then Prime Minister, Mrs.Srimavo Bandaranaike, proceeded to beat up non violent satyagrahis and thereafter vent their wrath on the Tamil civilians of the Jaffna peninsula:

    " Why have the military on their own imposed a curfew even in villages in respect a curfew had not been declared? ...Why have the military been beating and thrashing innocent passers by on the streets of Jaffna? Why have some of them been helping themselves to goods and articles in shops and asking the owners to send the bills to the Federal Party leader? .. Why have they set fire to fences and madams and put the blame on the people? Are these acts of organised terrorism and lawlessness the result of any orders given to the army to strike terror into the inhabitants of Jaffna so that they might give up their agitation for their language rights? Today there is greater lawlessness in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and particularly in the Jaffna Peninsula than there has ever been at any time in its recent history - lawlessness by the guardians of the law..." - Senator.S. Nadesan Q.C., Sri Lanka Senate Hansard, 2 May 1961

The Sri Lanka security forces were not engaged in a frolic of their own. The harsh truth is that the Sri Lanka security forces have at all times acted in accordance with the perceived wishes of the Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka government. Indeed, in 1981, Sinhala Members of Parliament (belonging to the ruling party) were unafraid to give open expression to their views on torture:

    "Since yesterday morning, we have heard in this honourable House about the various types of punishment that should be meted out to them (Tamil Parliamentary leaders). The MP for Panadura (Dr Neville Fernando) said there was a punishment during the time of the Sinhalese kings, namely, two arecanut posts are erected, the two posts are then drawn toward each other with a rope, then tie each of the feet of the offender to each post and then cut the rope which result in the tearing apart the body. These people also should be punished in the same way.....some members suggested that they should be put to death on the stake...; still other members said that they should be stood at the Galle Face Green and shot. The people of this country want and the government is prepared to inflict these punishments on these people." - Mr. G.V.Punchinilame, Sinhala M.P. for Ratnapura in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981.

    "Now, Sir... what should we do to this so called leader of the Tamils? If I were given the power, I would tie him to the nearest concrete post in this building and horsewhip him till I raise him to his wits. Thereafter let anybody do anything he likes - throw him into the Beira (lake) or into the sea, because he will be so mutilated that I do not think there will be life in him. That is war." - Mr.D.M. Chandrapala, Sinhala M.P. for Kundasale in Sri Lanka's Parliament, July 1981

To the ruling Sinhala party, torture was war. And 14 years later, mutilated bodies of Tamils were found floating not in the Beira lake, but in an another lake near Colombo, the Bolgoda lake. Initially, the international outcry forced the Government of Sri Lanka to initiate prosecutions against its own elite Special Task Force. But eventually, the court case was allowed to collapse. The British Refugee Council, Sri Lanka Monitor reported in March 1997:

    "The case relating to the 1995 murder in custody of 21 Tamils, whose (mutilated) 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 1997 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. ... Human rights agencies say the manifest reluctance on the part of the state’s law enforcement authorities in such an important case encourages impunity."

The 'manifest reluctance' of the Sri Lanka Attorney General was clearly not unrelated to the wishes of the Sri Lanka government and the views of the Sinhala dominated legislature. The comments of Patricia Hyndman in her Report to Lawasia Human Rights Committee in 1985, retain their validity 12 years later:

    "Detainees often have been held in army camps, incommunicado, without access to lawyers and relatives, and in some cases have been tortured and even killed whilst in custody...(In one case) it was found, at a post mortem examination, that the detainee had suffered twenty five external and ten internal injuries which had been inflicted on him by force. ...Government explanations that it is impossible to find reliable evidence to identify those responsible for such killings cannot be accepted in the absence of a clear indication of a serious public and impartial attempt to investigate such events." - Patricia Hyndman - Democracy in Peril, Report to Lawasia Human Rights Committee, June 1985

It is not surprising therefore that the Sri Lanka security forces have continued to torture with impunity whilst Amnesty International has continued to report. It is not that Amnesty reports have not been helpful. Information is necessary for the protection of human rights. But information is not an end in itself. There is a need for member states of the United Nations to act as well.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares:

    "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"

Unlike some other human rights, the prohibition against torture is absolute. It cannot be derogated from - neither an emergency nor an armed conflict sanctions the use of torture. Torture is an instrument of terror directed to coerce a people to the will of their ruler. And, a state which resorts to torture on a systematic basis is a terrorist state and should be categorised as such.

Given the 20 year proven record of torture by the Sri Lanka authorities, the continued attempt by the US to paint Sri Lanka as a 'multi party working democracy' appears more to reflect US strategic interests in the Indian region rather than the harsh reality faced by the Tamil people under alien Sinhala rule.

However, a 'principle centered' approach may serve US strategic interests more effectively than any attempt to deny freedom to the Tamil people and to cover up the harsh brutality of Sinhala rule of the Tamil homeland. After all, US support for the Shah of Iran (directed, no doubt, to secure US strategic interests in the Middle East) showed that, in the end, it was not enough to simply pay lip service to human rights.

The Shah of Iran tortured so that he may continue his hold on power and perpetuate his oppressive rule of the Iranian people. The Sri Lanka authorities torture so that Sri Lanka may succeed in its efforts to conquer the Tamil homeland and impose its alien rule on the Tamil people - a Tamil people, who by their free vote at the General Elections in 1977 had given a clear mandate for the establishment of an independent Tamil Eelam. The short point that emerges from the 20 year proven record of torture by the Sri Lanka authorities is that Sri Lanka cannot impose its rule on the Tamil homeland without recourse to terror. If it could, it would have.