Ex-BBC Correspondent, Ex-Amnesty International, Journalist & Author of ‘Still Counting the Dead’ – book on Tamils who survived Sri Lanka’s 2009 war
The ruling in an important immigration case in Britain suggests that Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is far from improving, four years after the civil war ended.
Under new guidance issued by a British tribunal, a full investigation is now required if an asylum seeker is suspected by the government of Sri Lanka to have been a member of the Tamil Tiger rebel group. Several categories of people are now deemed to be at risk: Tamil diaspora activists, Tamil Tigers and their family members, journalists and human rights activists, those who’ve given war crimes evidence inside the country or are on a stop list at Colombo Airport resulting from an arrest warrant or court order. The UK ruling also concluded that anyone detained by the Sri Lankan security services faced “a real risk of ill-treatment or harm requiring international protection”.
“This decision sets a precedent for all courts in the UK, including the High Court, The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, which are now required to follow this guidance” said immigration lawyer Arun Gananathan, “it’s also likely to influence asylum decisions in other countries and in the EU”.
The test case is being hailed as a victory by Tamil immigration lawyers, who’ve been fighting high profile deportation cases, involving asylum seekers who’d claimed torture or sexual abuse by the security forces before arriving in the UK. Among those who have been deported from the UK, fifteen are now known to have been tortured in Sri Lanka after their return.
The new guidelines for deciding Tamil asylum cases state that the risk for most returnees is not being apprehended at Colombo Airport but a few days later at their homes. The judgement in the case speaks of a computerised watch-list and a sophisticated intelligence operation to monitor Tamils inside the island and those who are politically active abroad. According to the UK Tribunal, the Sri Lankan intelligence agencies monitor activities online, on mobile phones, and among the diaspora in London, Paris, Oslo and Toronto. There are also informers throughout the north-east of Sri Lanka as well as in the diaspora as well as a government-sponsored image recognition project at Colombo University to identify people from photographs taken at demonstrations.
The latest tribunal judgement is also significant for what it concludes about the climax of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Based on the evidence presented to them, the judges said they could make some factual findings, such as that between 40,000 and 100,000 Tamil civilians died in in the final days of fighting in 2009. They also overwhelmingly rejected the Sri Lankan government’s assertion that it was conducting a humanitarian operation to rescue Tamils.
Commenting on the situation in Sri Lanka, the tribunal said the legal basis for the Sri Lankan government’s detention of 11,000 former Tamil Tiger fighters at the end of the war was unclear. Some detainees, it said, had been kept for as long as four years without any judicial supervision.
The ruling also described an ongoing Sinhalisation process to dilute Tamil strongholds and increased militarisation in the North of Sri Lanka, with Sinhala soldiers reportedly being offered large cash incentives to settle in Tamil areas and have a third child. The tribunal said the Sri Lankan army operated civilian businesses, hotels, restaurants, farms, shops and tourism and was now bigger in size than the British army. It described Tamil areas of the north-east as “in effect occupied territory, with one soldier for every five members of the population”.
In terms of current human rights abuses, the UK ruling said, “year on year, the number of such disappearances is increasing during the peace, rather than decreasing”.