Freedom from Torture: Too Little Change

Ongoing Torture in Security Operations in Sri Lanka

by Freedom from TortPosture, London, February 20, 2019

Ten years on from the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Freedom from Torture has documented evidence of torture of its Tamil citizens in the context of ongoing security operations. This is despite the Sri Lankan government’s stated ‘zero tolerance’ policy on torture, and commitments to promote human rights when it was elected in 2015.

Download the report in English, Tamil and Sinhala

In 2015, the new government of President Sirisena pledged to promote accountability and human rights, including to the UN Human Rights Council. Despite this, today we release a briefing based on 16 cases of Sri Lankan nationals who were detained and tortured between 2015 and 2017. Torture has continued in Sri Lanka security operations under supposedly ‘human rights friendly’ Sri Lankan government elected in 2015. 

Key findings

Drawn from expert medico-legal reports undertaken by our doctors, our research found that:

  • All 16 people were tortured by state officials during interrogation to extract information about alleged ongoing links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or anti-government activity. None were charged under anti-terror, or any other, legislation.
  • All experienced physical and psychological forms of torture including beating with instruments, burning and asphyxiation.
  • Over half of the people were raped and most experienced sexual torture.

This briefing follows on from our 2015 report ‘Tainted Peace’ which recorded the systematic torture of Tamils after the end of the civil war in 2009, under then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This abuse was carried out in a network of torture facilities by the Sri Lankan military, police and intelligence services. Heavy scarring left on bodies of the survivors in the report suggested the perpetrators tortured without fear of consequences. Our’s latest evidence shows that little has changed, despite the assurances of the government to the contrary.

Freedom from Torture is calling on the Sri Lankan government to make the ‘zero tolerance’ policy on torture a reality. They must suspend officers accused of torture from duty. They must also reaffirm Sri Lanka’s commitment to promoting reconciliation and accountability and human rights through a renewed Human Rights Council resolution that has time-bound commitments for implementation.

Steve Crawshaw, Director of Policy & Advocacy at Freedom from Torture says:

“The government’s proclaimed commitment to protect human rights seems empty, in the context of ongoing torture. We don’t need box-ticking exercises, we need meaningful change.

“The constitutional and political crisis in December made clear that any progress can be too easily reversed. The government shouldn’t act only when there is international pressure. Sri Lanka owes it to its people to stop torture once and for all and to hold perpetrators to account.”

Survivor voices

“‘They raped me. It was four or five of them who raped me. They were on top of me…’ She wanted to die. She could not move. She had no energy left to struggle.” – medico-legal report excerpt

“Only after we burn you, then you will tell the truth.” – words of a perpetrator, as recalled by a survivor of torture

60 second explainer

The long read: a history of violence

The use of torture in post-Independence Sri Lanka has a long history. Torture has been used to counter popular uprisings since 1971 when a Sinhalese Marxist insurrection was met by state violence, torture and a notorious pattern of disappearances. The police also routinely use torture in criminal investigations.

Ethnic tension between the Sinhala majority and the minority Tamils has long dominated the politics and social history of the country.  1983 saw the start of twenty-six years of violent separatist conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil LTTE which ended in a massive loss of life – mostly of the Tamil civilian population living in the war zones at the end of the civil war in 2009. Both sides were however responsible for human rights abuses.

The UN has estimated that around 40,000 civilians died during just a few months, though the exact numbers will perhaps never be known. The state has been responsible for human rights violations including torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killings, as well as significant violations of international humanitarian law, or war crimes. The LTTE was also responsible for torture as well as targeted killings, suicide bombings, and other abuses.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was introduced as a temporary measure in 1979 and made permanent in 1982. It enabled a framework under which torture could take place with impunity, including providing for potentially indefinite detention and immunity for abuses by officials deemed to have acted in good faith.

Some progress, but not enough

Sri Lanka has made some progress on a broader human rights reform agenda, yet the steps taken have fallen short. The UN Human Rights Council will decide in March 2019 whether or not to retain its focus on Sri Lanka. The evidence in our briefing, combined with the slow progress made by the government on commitments undertaken four years ago, suggests that the imperative for ongoing international monitoring and oversight is strong. Sri Lankan torture survivors receiving Freedom from Torture’s services have identified the Human Rights Council process as an important mechanism for delivering justice.

Freedom from Torture calls to the Government of Sri Lanka include making the ‘zero tolerance’ policy on torture a reality by suspending accused perpetrators from duty and reaffirming Sri Lanka’s commitment to promoting reconciliation and human rights through a renewed Human Rights Council resolution that has time-bound commitments for implementation.

For media queries, please contact Aalia Khan (UK) – (E: , T: +44 7697 7837), or Steve Crawshaw (Sri Lanka) – (E: , T: +94 77 3740642

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