As Sri Lanka gears up to host a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in November, testimony from torture survivors, and the absence of justice in their cases, challenge government claims to making human rights progress.
“I was burnt all over my body with cigarettes,” said Kumar. “I was also kicked all over the body. They kept me in a dark cell with no windows, where I had to sleep on the floor.”
Kumar was 16 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – an armed opposition group fighting since 1983 for an independent Tamil state – forcibly recruited him in January 2008. He was eventually captured by the Sri Lankan army in April 2009, in the last weeks of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. A child soldier, he was given no psychological treatment. Instead, he was held without charge or trial for 18 months and repeatedly tortured.
I was not allowed to contact anyone outside and never had any visitors,” he told his lawyer in May 2011. “I would hear people scream and cry every day.”
Kumar’s experience is not unique. The government won its 26-year war against the LTTE in May 2009, but the abuses that became entrenched over that period persist. The war was once used as an excuse to detain people without evidence or warrants and hold them for years. Today, criticism of government policies could earn you the same treatment.
Journalists, lawyers, grassroots activists – anyone who dares to criticise the authorities – can be picked up under arcane security laws and detained for years without access to the outside world.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act – a hangover from the 1980s – is one of the main legal tools deployed by the government to silence its critics. Under it, people can be arrested without charge or trial and held for up to 18 months under a detention order, or indefinitely pending trial. Locked in a sinister limbo and denied the right to a lawyer, they are left vulnerable to torture – despite a Constitutional ban on the practice.
In 2009, journalist JS Tissainayagam was convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sentenced to 20 years’ hard labour for criticizing the military’s treatment of civilians during the war. He had been in pre-trial detention since his arrest in March 2008. His conviction was based on a confession that he said was made under duress. In June 2010, he was pardoned and went into exile.
Bundled into white vans
Sometimes the authorities eschew legal avenues altogether, harassing and assaulting their critics through anonymous means. Stories of people being bundled into white vans and later dumped, or never seen again, are alarmingly frequent.
Poddala Jayantha, an outspoken critic of the government’s treatment of journalists and head of the Sri Lankan Working Journalists Association, was kidnapped from a suburban street in the capital, Colombo, by unidentified men in a white van and tortured in June 2009.
“They cut my hair and put it into my mouth, then gagged me,” recalled Poddala, speaking to us in March. “They struck both my legs, breaking one at the ankle. They used a piece of wood to smash the fingers on my right hand until they bled. They said, ‘This will stop you from writing’.”
His captors eventually let him go, saying: “‘We won't kill you now,’” said Poddala, “‘but if you organize any more demonstrations against the government, if you speak to the media, we will kill you.’”
They then dumped him in the road in what Poddala described as a “high security zone”. “There were checkpoints everywhere,” he added. “Who gave permission for this vehicle to go without being stopped?”
Some weeks before his ordeal, Poddala and a fellow journalist were summoned to a meeting with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “He was sitting in front of us,” recalled Poddala, “He said, ‘If you don't stop this, something will happen to you.’”
“This” referred to Poddala and his colleagues’ reporting. “We wrote about corruption within the army. We wrote about the rights of Tamil people, so they labelled us as supporters of the LTTE,” he said. “They didn't like us talking about the rights of the Tamils.”
Poddala fled the country with his family in December 2009. He was lucky to escape with his life. Fellow journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared in January 2010, and has not been seen since.
Intolerance and fear
A climate of intolerance and fear continues to sweep the island as the government’s stranglehold on the population grows ever tighter. In March, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached after declaring a government bill unconstitutional.
Lawyers working on torture and other human rights cases have been targeted and harassed. Meanwhile, the cases of Kumar, Poddala and the many activists who have disappeared have not been independently or credibly investigated. Yet the authorities claim that their human rights record has improved – a claim reinforced by their selection as hosts of the November meeting of Commonwealth leaders. It is a whitewash of immense proportions, says Poddala.
“I can't understand why the Commonwealth has decided to do this,” he told us, “because no civil society organization is allowed to function there. There are no human rights in Sri Lanka.”