Deported Tamils face torture

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Independant - UK
| Date: 20000608

By: Peter Popham

Yesterday's bomb blast in Colombo will have many other victims in the days to come: the hundreds or thousands of innocent Tamils who are rounded up and detained in the aftermath of all such attacks.

But the increasing numbers of Tamils who are being forcibly returned to Sri Lanka from Britain and other Western countries, including Germany and Holland, face a far nastier reception than that.

Detailed reports from Colombo reveal that the Tamils who are deported from European countries after failing to be granted asylum routinely face arrest, extortion, extended detention and torture on their return to Sri Lanka.

Those who come from the north of the country – where Tamils are a majority – are prevented from going home. Yet they are given no secure status in the south. A report by a Colombo-based non-governmental organisation – the Forum for Human Dignity – spells out the problems such deportees routinely face – problems that have increased since the passing in 1998 of a law intended to cut down on the flight of Sri Lankans to the West.

The headaches begin on arrival at Katunayake airport in Colombo, where deportees and others suspected of having left Sri Lanka illegally have whatever documents they may be carrying confiscated and are arrested. The CID, police and immigration service also take their money and jewellery and anything else of value they may have on them.

Detention may last only hours or may stretch into weeks. But without documents they become the target of frequent subsequent arrests. One person was arrested and re-arrested four times within 18 months of returning.

All Sri Lankan citizens are required to carry a National Identity Card and are also supposed to hold a police registration certificate and other documentation relating to their employment or studies. The deportee, stripped of his papers at immigration, possesses none of these. Instantly identifiable as a Tamil by both his name and accent he is highly vulnerable to arrest and further interrogation – even if his only offence has been to fail to obtain asylum in the West.

The Sri Lankan government declines to disclose how many prisoners are held in its jails. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the Emergency Regulations, people – almost always Tamil people – who are suspected of involvement in anti-government activities can be picked up and detained indefinitely.

The human rights lawyerMaheswary Velautham, who started the Forum for Human Dignity, monitors abuse of returned deportees. In a recent report Ms Velautham said: "Over one thousand Tamils have been arrested and are detained indefinitely in various prisons and police stations. Almost every Tamil is assaulted, tortured and a self-incriminating statement is extracted, which unfortunately is considered admissible evidence under the PTA.

"The security forces conduct mass arrests and detentions of young Tamils, both male and female. Hundreds of Tamils at a time are picked up during search operations carried out by security forces. Tamils claim that the arrests are a form of harassment directed against them."

Once in prison, Tamils are subject to various forms of torture, ranging from beatings with poles to having their genitals squashed, fingernails pulled out and being pierced through the anus with an electric drill. Recently it is said that the forms of torture have become more subtle, so that the effects are not visible. But according to Amnesty International, few specific allegations of torture are made because both victims and their relatives are terrified of provoking retribution.

Nonetheless, Ms Velautham documents several cases of returned asylum seekers being tortured. Thambirajah Kamalathasan was one of 192 people picked up off the coast of Senegal in February 1998. He was returned to Sri Lanka and arrested by police in Colombo on 15 July 1998. Witnesses saw him being beaten with rods. Chilli powder was rubbed into his eyes and his genitals were squeezed. After two or three days he had difficulty walking.

A woman who was deported from France in October 1998, Moothathambi Vanitha, was tortured to induce her to sign a self-incriminating statement. According to her mother she was beaten all over her body with poles and threatened that if she told anyone about her treatment she would be stripped naked, hung upside down and tortured.

Seventeen years of vicious civil war have polarised and poisoned communal relations in Sri Lanka to a frightening degree. The brutality inflicted on innocent Sinhalese civilians as well as on moderate Tamil politicians and others by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has evoked lesser but still atrocious barbarism from the Sinhalese security forces.

The returned deportees become non-people: prevented from settling in Colombo they cannot go back where they came from, especially if that is in the north, because special Ministry of Defence clearance is required – and is never given. When this, or worse, is what awaits those who are sent back, it is not surprising that so many risk everything to get away.