The British government is continuing to deport failed asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka despite mounting evidence they face the risk of being raped and tortured on their return. More Tamils are scheduled to be deported this week.
A report published today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Sri Lanka’s security forces have been systematically using rape and other forms of sexual violence to torture men and women suspected of being members of the Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or else having links to the once powerful organisation.
HRW said although rape in custody was commonplace during the decades-long insurgency that left up to 70,000 people dead, it continues to this day to be used as both a punishment and as a means to obtain ‘confessions’.
The report, which took six years to complete, includes the details of 75 cases of rape and sexual assault that took place between 2006-2012. It says that at least two of the cases involved individuals who had been deported back to Sri Lanka after failing to secure asylum in Britain. Other organisations say the number of such cases may be considerably higher.
“This report is a challenge to existing UK government policy. The UK continues to deport Tamils to Sri Lanka - a further charter flight is scheduled for this week - despite evidence that some Tamils with alleged links to the Tamil Tigers have been tortured by the Sri Lankan authorities, following their removal from the UK,” said David Mepham, the UK director of HRW.
He added: “The UK should urgently revise its guidelines for assessing Tamil asylum claims, and not press ahead with removing at-risk Tamils.”
Among the case studies included in the HRW report is that of “YN”, a 46-year-old man who was twice deported back to Sri Lanka, most recently in January 2010. He said he was immediately picked up by police at Colombo airport and taken to the fourth floor of the CID headquarters before being transferred to the northern town of Vavuniya.
He said he was repeatedly beaten, doused with kerosene and had a gun pointed at his head. “I was stripped naked in both detention sites. I was sexually abused by being forced to have oral sex on two or three occasions when I was detained in Vavuniya,” he told HRW investigators.
Another individual, “JS”, a 51-year-old woman, was deported to Sri Lanka in May 2009, as the Sri Lankan military operation to crush the remaining militants was concluding. She was accused of raising funds for the LTTE in Britain, an allegation she denied. “I was kept in this army detention for nearly five months during which I was frequently raped,” she said.
The decision to launch an operation to finally defeat the LTTE, which had been fighting a brutal and bloody battle for a Tamil homeland, was taken by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The army’s victory in May 2009 was widely celebrated by the nation’s Sinhala majority as well as some Tamils. Mr Rajapaksa was convincingly reelected in January 2010, defeating his former military commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was later jailed.
Yet, even before the armed forces’ defeat of the LTTE was complete, there were repeated allegations that civilians were being indiscriminately killed. A panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that up to 40,000 civilian were killed and said there were credible allegations that both sides had committed war crimes.
Precisely how many individuals have suffered rape, sexual abuse and torture in custody remains unclear. Another NGO, Freedom from Torture, recently obtained information from the UK Foreign Office about 15 individuals who were given asylum after being first deported. All said they had been tortured
In a report published last year, Freedom from Torture documented the cases of 24 Tamils accused of having links to the LTTE who said they were tortured after voluntarily returning to Sri Lanka after the end of the war. Of these, 12 people said they had suffered sexual abuse and assault, including rape.
“Freedom from Torture remains extremely concerned about forcible returns of Tamils to Sri Lanka from the UK in light of our findings that many face a real risk of torture on return and the refusal of the UK Border Agency to update its removals policy,” said the group’s Mark Fenwick.
In a statement, the UK Border Agency said that while Britain had a “proud record of offering sanctuary” to those in need, individuals not at risk should return to their own countries.
“Each claim for asylum is considered on its individual merits - and where we find individuals are in need of our protection, for example if they are at real risk of being tortured or ill treatment on return, we will give it,” said the statement. “We constantly review the situation in Sri Lanka and the current position, supported by the European Court of Human Rights, is that not every Tamil asylum seeker requires our protection.”
A Sri Lankan military spokesman dimissed the allegations. Brig Ruwan Wanigasooriya said: “The report by the HRW is not more than a piece of speculative creativity and the allegations contained therein are far from truth... If such complaints are received, the police have a well established procedure for investigating and bringing those responsible to justice.”
He added: "There have been a few instances in the past where soldiers were charged with violations of human rights including rape and each and every one of those cases have been investigated and those guilty have been punished through due legal procedure.”
Sri Lanka has always denied allegations that it targeted civilians during the war and says it has spent millions of dollars in developing infrastructure, schools and hospitals in those parts of the country previously in the control of the LTTE.
It has always resisted calls for an independent inquiry into what transpired and instead established its own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, which effectively cleared both the government and the military of any wrong-doing. A meeting of the UN Human Rights Council next month is expected to pass a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to do more to work towards reconciliation. India is expected to support the motion.
HRW said most of the Tamils it interviewed for its report spoke with its investigators outside of Sri Lanka. It said researchers corroborated their stories with medial and legal records. It said because its team could not openly conduct research in Sri Lanka, the cases it had highlighted “likely represent only a tiny fraction of custodial rape in political cases”.
Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said: “The Sri Lankan security forces have committed untold numbers of rapes of Tamil men and women in custody. These are not just wartime atrocities but continue to the present, putting every Tamil man and woman arrested for suspected LTTE involvement at serious risk.”