by Ambika Satkunanathan, ‘Groundviews,’ Colombo, July 14, 2021
For decades human rights activists have highlighted the draconian nature of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which promises safety and security, yet in practice makes each citizen vulnerable to being arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and even convicted of an offence the person did not commit. Despite the fact it contravenes Sri Lanka’s international obligations and constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, successive governments have not repealed it. Or they have proposed alternatives that extend the power of the state with few safeguards, or have contained safeguards that have been proven to be ineffective.
As I have previously written, privilege and class impact the manner in which those arrested for terror offences are perceived, not only by the state and the public, but also by human rights defenders and civic activists. It is therefore important to remind ourselves there are scores of persons whose names are not publicly known who have been tortured, imprisoned for decades, denied their due process rights and whose families and lives are broken beyond repair.
These are the stories of persons who are largely invisible to the public, forgotten and rarely spoken about but whose experiences illustrate the inhuman and brutal nature of a law that enables gross violations of human rights.
For a detailed discussion on persons imprisoned under the PTA please refer Chapters 20 – Prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Chapter 26 – Arrest and Detention of the Prison Study by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.
Barmasiri Chandraiyer Ragupathi Sharma
Barmasiri Chandraiyer Ragupathi Sharma is a Hindu priest, aged 62 years. He was arrested in February 2000 for suspected involvement in the Town Hall bomb blast and has been detained under the PTA for over 20 years. His case demonstrates that institutional protections do not prevent torture or violation of due process.
A particularly egregious provision of the PTA, Section 7(3), which allows persons to be removed from remand prison by police officers for the purpose of interrogation enabled Sharma to be tortured.
Methods of torture he reported included being subjected to in police custody included: officers cutting the sacred thread he wore, feeding him meat and alcohol in contravention of his religious beliefs, hanging him upside down and assaulting him, inserting a pipe with barbed wire into rectum and pulling the pipe out and slamming his genitals in a drawer.
When he was produced in court, he was threatened by officers not to inform the judge about the torture. After he was remanded, police officers obtained permission from court to take him into administrative custody for 72 hours to obtain his confession/signature. He says he was tortured during this period using similar methods.
He was similarly taken from remand custody into police custody a second time and tortured and forced to sign statements in Sinhala, a language in which he was not proficient. The contents of the statements were never explained to him. This process was repeated twice. After each of the four instances of being taken into CID custody from remand prison, he was produced before a Judicial Medical Officer (JMO).
The medico-legal report issued in 2002 confirms that the injuries, burns and scars sustained on his body are consistent with the torture he reported. After he was taken into CID custody for the fifth time and tortured, he complained to the Department of Prisons and prison officers forwarded the complaint to court. After that, when he was taken into CID custody for the sixth time from prison, he wasn’t tortured.
He alleged that he was not able to retain legal representation for at least eighteen months during his trial. The lawyer he later retained didn’t speak to him prior to court proceedings and would only ask him questions during the trial. He maintains the charges against him are false. He said, “In a democratic country, it is wrong to deprive someone of their ability to access legal assistance. My hands were tied and I did not have a lawyer. Due to that, I was given a 300-year sentence by the judge”. His case has been on appeal since 2015.
Sharma suffers from diabetes and blood pressure issues, and says he cannot walk easily as a consequence of the torture. In 2019, he requested a wheelchair from prison, but did not receive one. He said the medicines he was prescribed did not provide any relief. He reportedly contracted COVID-19 while in prison and was bedridden and in pain.
His wife, who suffered long term health issues, was arrested a few weeks after Sharma. She was held in administrative custody for a few months and also allegedly tortured. She was acquitted of all charges in 2015 after spending 15 years in remand.
Vikneswaranathan Paartheepan is 44 years old and has been in detention for nearly 25 years. He was arrested in January 1996, when he was around 19 years old. He was not informed of the reason for his arrest.
He says, “I was living in Malayan Street at the time. People were running around and shouting that there had been a bomb blast. I was the only one shouting in Tamil. Because of that people started shouting that I am a Tamil Tiger.”
During interrogation in police custody, he was beaten while stripped naked. He was assaulted during interrogation every day for two weeks and also reportedly beaten while being hung upside down, had hot water poured over his genitalia, chili powder rubbed on his genitalia and a bag dipped in petrol placed over his face.
He was told that if he did not admit to committing the crime, the torture would continue. He said that he signed documents written in Sinhala only so that they would stop torturing him. The contents of the statement were not explained to him. He was held in CID custody for around five to six months. When the ICRC visited the CID detention centre, officers would reportedly hide Partheepan and other detainees from ICRC members.
He was produced in courts around June that year. He was taken to a JMO before being produced in court and reportedly threatened with death if he disclosed to the JMO that he was tortured.
In court, he could not communicate with the judge due to language barriers. He also did not know how the system worked or that he could complain to the judge about the torture. Partheepan was visited by his family for the first time almost ten years after his arrest.
Around 1997 in New Magazine Prison, he went on a hunger strike along with other prisoners. Prison officers allegedly responded by making them kneel and beating them. He was then transferred to Kalutara Prison as punishment where he reported constantly fearing for his life and safety.
During the trial for offences related to the Central Bank bomb blast, which was conducted in Sinhala, Partheepan said he only understood 50 percent of what was being said because the interpretation provided to him was not accurate. He was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to life imprisonment and 20 years. As this was a high profile case, lawyers refused to represent him and he had to retain state appointed counsel. He said, “When they give sentences, they should take the age of the person into consideration”.
He appealed in 2002 against the decision and the case was ongoing as of 2018. He said that the court dates for his appeal were scheduled once a year.
He said, “When someone comes into prison without any bad habits, they leave this place a worse person. Prison is not a place where persons are reformed; it is a place where persons learn all the bad habits”.
Velayutham Varatharajah is 47 years old. He was arrested in January 2000 and held in detention for over 21 years.
He was arrested by the Sri Lanka Army in Vavuniya and was not informed of reason for his arrest. He was blindfolded and taken to a place he later learnt was Joseph Camp. He was held there for one month and tortured.
He was kept in a dark room with his hands and legs restrained, except when he was taken out for interrogation. He was assaulted during these inquiries. Methods of torture included, pricking the skin under his nails, being hung up and assaulted, waterboarding, being kicked in the genitalia and a bag covered with petrol being placed over his face.
He said, “During inquiry they asked questions and whether we know about it or not they expect us to answer. They torture us until we give answer they expect.” He was forced to sign confessions written in Sinhala as well as blank sheets of paper with CID letterheads. He continued to suffer long term health issues due to the torture.
He was transferred to the TID Colombo for one month and then the CID Colombo for seven months. In TID custody, he was again tortured and forced to sign documents written in Sinhala. When he inquired about the contents of the documents he was signing, he was reportedly subjected to waterboarding. He says there was no choice but to sign the documents. He was also allegedly denied access to medical treatment in TID custody.
His family learnt of the place where he was detained nearly six to seven months after his arrest. When the ICRC visited the CID Colombo, Varatharajah was hidden from them. He says, “Only after a long time, when my injuries healed, did they show me to ICRC. ICRC helped get medical treatment and asked if I wanted to send letter home”.
He was held in administrative detention for nine months, but was never given a copy of the Detention Order (DO). Before being produced in court, Varatharajah was taken to a JMO but was warned by officers not to mention the torture. The JMO did not ask him any questions either while examining him. He was produced before the Magistrate nine months after his arrest.
In court, he could not understand what the judge was saying because the judge spoke in Sinhala. He was indicted in May 2002, and accused of aiding and abetting the Town Hall bombing. When he was produced before a JMO a second time after indictment on the order of the judge, the JMO recorded 27 injuries and marks on his body due to torture.
He was sentenced in 2015 to 290 years of imprisonment, to be served within 30 years. The time he had already spent in detention, nearly 15 years, was not taken into account. He appealed the decision and the case was first called two and a half years later, and is ongoing.
Due to financial difficulties, his family members can only afford to visit him once or twice a year as they live in Jaffna. Due to the poor conditions of the prison visit room, he can barely see their faces when they visit. His parents passed away while he was in detention.
He faced continuous problems obtaining medical treatment while in prison, especially for the heart-related issues he is suffering. When he was transferred to the Welikada Prison Hospital, where patients are held in transit until they are taken to the General Hospital, he was detained in cells as he was PTA detainee instead of being given a bed in a ward like other patients.
The cells at Welikada Prison Hospital do not receive natural light and adequate ventilation and patients have to lie on floor. On a few occasions, he was simply taken to the Welikada Prison Hospital and then brought back to the New Magazine Prison without being taken to the clinic at the General Hospital. This was because there was only a limited number of prison officers who accompanied them to the hospital and while one or two would stand guard with prisoners in the bus, the others would accompany them one by one to the clinics. As they had to stand in a queue in the clinics, they could not take all persons to their clinics before they closed.
When he complained to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka about not being taken for his medical appointments, prison officers “had told other prisoners in the prison hospital that they will teach me a lesson for complaining. The other prisoners told me.” He was also assaulted by a prison officer at the prison hospital on one occasion.
 Section 7(3) Prevention of Terrorism Act (No. 48 of 1979) – A police officer conducting an investigation under this Act in respect of any person arrested under subsection (1) of section 6 or remanded under subsection (1) or sub- section (2) of this section-
(a) shall have the right of access to such person and the right to take such person during reasonable hours to any place for the purpose of interrogation and from place to place for the purposes of investigation; and
(b) may obtain a specimen of the handwriting of such person and do all such acts as may reasonably be necessary for fingerprinting or otherwise identifying such person.