Sri Lanka's disappeared: Gang demands Tamil exiles pay ransom for kidnapped relatives

The government-backed Karuna Faction militia is using abduction as a fundraising tool at home and abroad. Dan McDougall reports

For some refugees, finding asylum in Britain is not the end of the nightmare, but the beginning. And no one knows this better than Tamils such as Ariyathas Pushpathas.

Ten years ago, as a 17-year-old, he fled Sri Lanka after his sister died in an air-raid. Six months ago, his brother and cousin were kidnapped in Colombo by "agents" claiming to act on behalf of the island's Karuna Faction militia, now a de-facto extension of Sri Lanka's intelligence services. And last month he was approached outside his west London church by two Sri Lankan men claiming to know the whereabouts of his kidnapped relatives. They asked him to hand over his savings or his relatives in Colombo would face further violence and intimidation.

In Colombo his family have faced similar blackmail. His terrified aunt, Maria Regina, sold her home, took a loan she could never repay and handed over $25,000. Both the kidnap victims are still missing. They are not alone. In the last year alone, hundreds have been taken, never to be seen again.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch last month released a damning report claiming the Sri Lankan government was responsible for widespread abductions and disappearances as it fights a new phase in a 25-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers. "Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, once a rights advocate, has now led his government to become one of the world's worst perpetrators of forced disappearances," said Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson, in a statement launching the 241-page document.

On the streets of London, Toronto and Berlin it is well known that Sri Lanka's separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are, on a daily basis, using threats, intimidation and violence to extort millions of pounds from the estimated 800,000 Tamils living abroad. But an investigation by The Independent on Sunday in both Colombo and London has found the first evidence that Sri Lanka's government-backed militia, the Karuna Faction, are similarly extorting money from the island's far-flung diaspora.

Ariyathas said: "The Tamil Tiger fundraisers have long been a part of our lives in Britain. They turn up at Hindu Temples and community centres where Tamils meet. Many people I know have been paying direct debits into LTTE accounts for many years.

"What is happening now is very different. The Karuna Faction are kidnapping young Sri Lankan men in Colombo as a business enterprise and targeting the same diaspora the Tamil Tigers have been milking.

"The trouble is, the Karuna are now an extension of the Sri Lankan army. The question I want to know is: am I being extorted and threatened by government agents? Since I saw them outside my church they haven't returned, but I fear they know where I live."

They certainly knew where his cousin lived in the Sri Lankan capital's largest Tamil neighbourhood, Colombo 13. Arulthas Pushpathas is one of hundreds of young Tamil men who have been abducted from their homes in the city over the past 12 months.

His mother (and Ariyathas's aunt), Maria Regina, clutches a photograph of him as she sits on a broken car seat, inexplicably abandoned in the decrepit lobby of her family's short-stay lodge. She said: "They came looking for him, here at the lodge, at night, but he wasn't at home. Raids here are common; many Tamils arriving in the city stay here. They come in with torches and guns in the middle of the night. It is terrifying.

"I was worried about my son. They had taken his cousin two months before. Later that same night a neighbour saw an unmarked white van pull up and my boy was bundled in to the back. I've not seen him since."

Shortly after Arulthas was abducted, Maria received a request for a $25,000 ransom, which she paid, bankrupting herself in the process. Despite the payment, neither her son nor nephew have been handed back.

She claims they targeted her family for financial reasons, because her eldest nephew lives in the UK and the family owned a small hotel. Now homeless after selling her house in the north to raise money, she spends her days walking from army camp to detention centres pleading for his release.

One Sri Lankan MP, Mano Ganesan said: "Understand this. There are two key motivations behind the government-sponsored arbitrary arrests and abductions of young Tamil men. The initial motivation was to spread fear in the heart of a community and suppress any opposition within the capital. Now the key motivation seems to be making money and cashing in on political unrest.

"We have lists and photographs of hundreds of 'disappeared', mostly young Tamil men, and in all of the most recent cases ransoms are being demanded from their families at home and abroad, particularly in London and Toronto. This is being carried out by the Sri Lankan intelligence services and the Karuna Faction who have found a lucrative sideline in extortion."

The Karuna Faction is targeting a profitable market. Earlier this year, Amnesty International revealed that Sri Lankan families in London were paying the LTTE as much as £2,000 a year each. Tamils in Canada, Norway and France reported being approached for similar amounts. The group said Tamils who were unable to pay have been told by LTTE fundraisers to borrow the money, make a contribution by credit card, or even remortgage their homes.

For many, these sums are so huge as to be beyond reach. In a sparsely furnished flat in Streatham, south London, surrounded by faded black-and-white photographs of his childhood in Sri Lanka, sits P Ramanathan. Despite a resilience few of us could muster, he feels far from home here.

He said: "I want to go back. I'm a labourer on a building site. This is no life. But it's not safe to go back. The perception that it is a beautiful holiday island couldn't be further from the truth. As a Tamil exile I would face arrest and torture if I set foot in my homeland."

The 48-year-old from the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna rifles through a shoe box of belongings and pulls out a dog-eared passport picture of his younger brother S Krishnavani, nervously fingering the Kalava, the sacred Hindu red string wrapped twice around his wrist, as he does so. "My brother was taken as he came home from work late last year. One of his neighbours saw him being bundled into a white van in Colombo 12. The vehicle had no number plates.

"Four days later my parents were approached by a retired policeman claiming to represent the Karuna Faction and told to contact me in London to send money back to Colombo. My cousin in Jaffna tells me the Tamil diaspora is being targeted. The Karuna are gaining access to bank accounts and records in Colombo and focusing on Tamil families with relatives abroad."

He added: "I sent some money home, all that I could afford, but I have also been contacted here in London. At weekends I go to a Hindu temple in Wembley, west London. In May a man approached me and crushed a piece of paper in my hand. It had my brother's name on it. It told me to send £5,000 home or I will never see him again. Last week my brother's neighbour was also abducted."

The job of tracking down their potential victims in cities like London and Toronto is relatively simple. Tamils in Britain now number about 150,000, and are easily identified on the electoral roll by their surnames. The IoS has discovered half a dozen other Colombo-based Tamil families with relatives in London being extorted for ransoms.

In Britain, the Tamil Tigers are proscribed as a terrorist organisation and so banned from raising funds or holding meetings. The Sri Lankan High Commission has raised their activities with the Home Office and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and Scotland Yard recently announced an operation aimed at investigating Tamil intimidation of British citizens. No such laws exist outlawing the Karuna Faction.

The escalating activity of the Karuna Faction – a militia once part of the LTTE movement but now firmly allied to the Sri Lankan government – has emerged as a key factor behind the upsurge in violence that has killed more than 4,000 people in the past 12 months, and left a 2002 ceasefire agreement in tatters.

The Karuna Faction was formed when the Tamil Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, fell out with his former bodyguard and top military commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, better known as "Colonel Karuna", who joined forces with the Sri Lankan government.

Ironically, the leader and founder of the organisation, Col Karuna, was arrested in London late last year for carrying an apparently genuine Sri Lankan diplomatic passport issued under a false name. He is currently serving nine months in a British prison for identity fraud, and is not presently being investigated for his alleged role in extortion.

Back in west London, sitting on the floor of his dismal bedsit close to Southall Broadway, Ariyathas produces a pile of paperwork from a drawer. At the head of the most recent document from the Immigration Service at Eaton House near London, the words "Liability to Detention" glare out from the page.

He said: "I've been in Britain for 10 years but the immigration authorities are now telling me it is safe for me to go back. My sister was killed, my brother and cousin are kidnapped and my parents are separated by a front line, yet they are telling me it is safe to return. It is harder to take when you are being blackmailed in the country you escaped to in order to survive."

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