Sri Lanka’s government faced increasing pressure Friday to answer for alleged human rights violations following a recent war crimes lawsuit and allegations from over 50 men who said they were raped, branded or tortured as recently as this year. The men’s anguished descriptions of their abuses come nearly a decade after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended and days ahead of a review of the Indian Ocean nation by the U.N.’s top human rights body. Doctors, psychologists, lawmakers and rights groups have appealed to the United Nations to investigate new allegations published by The Associated Press on Wednesday. The AP reviewed 32 medical and psychological evaluations and interviewed 20 men who said they were accused of trying to revive a rebel group on the losing side of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.
Although combat ended in 2009, they say the torture and abuse occurred from early 2016 to as recently as July this year. ”Someone has to do something about this,” said Dr. Frank Arnold, one of several doctors who wrote to U.N. Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein and called for an independent investigation into the Sri Lankan torture allegations. ”As forensic experts, we have collectively seen many hundreds of Sri Lankans who have fled their country following torture over the years,” the physicians’ letter said. ”We continue to receive a worrying number of cases from Sri Lanka despite the change of government.”
One of the men in the AP investigation said he was held for 21 days in a small room where he was raped 12 times, burned with cigarettes, beaten with iron rods and hung upside-down. Another man described being abducted from home by five men, driven to a prison, and taken to a ”torture room” pocked with blood splatters on the wall. Most of the men say they their captors identified themselves as members of the Criminal Investigations Department, a police unit that investigates serious crimes. Some, however, said it appeared their interrogators were soldiers.
Rep. Eliot Engel, top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said policymakers in Washington cannot ignore these alleged crimes. ”These allegations are horrifying, and must be fully and transparently investigated. The seriousness of these reports should also make the United States wary of advancing our military relationship with Sri Lanka until a full accounting has occurred,” he said Friday. Sri Lanka’s diplomatic mission in Geneva did not respond to repeated calls or an email Friday seeking comment.
U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said ”we are currently looking into these alarming allegations to work out the best way for them to be further investigated.” The AP’s investigation into the recent Sri Lankan torture allegations came months after another investigation in which the AP found that 134 U.N. peacekeepers from Sri Lanka were implicated in a child sex ring in Haiti between 2004 and 2007. Despite evidence of child rape, no Sri Lankan peacekeeper was ever prosecuted.
In August, rights groups in South America filed lawsuits against Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, a Sri Lankan ambassador in the region. He is accused of overseeing military units that attacked hospitals and killed, disappeared and tortured thousands of people at the end of the country’s civil war. Upon the ambassador’s return to Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena vowed that neither Jayasuriya nor any other ”war hero” would face prosecution – a pledge that rights groups said illustrates continued impunity in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka, which has denied the allegations of torture and war crimes, goes before the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva next week as part of a regular examination known as the Universal Periodic Review. All 193 U.N. member states usually undergo such reviews about every 4-1/2 years, but Wednesday’s review may hold added significance.
The UPR process generally focuses on institutional, long-term efforts by countries – not specific issues like the recent testimonies of sexual abuse and torture in Sri Lanka. The new allegations, however, suggest that Sri Lanka still has not stopped using torture – a practice it was highly criticized for during and after the war against the Tamil Tigers rebel group.
Documents used for the review will include accounts of disappearances, calls to bring rights abusers to justice, investigations into war crimes, and reports of torture and arbitrary arrest in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s delegation will be headed by Harsha de Silva, a deputy minister. Yasmin Sooka, director of the South Africa-based Foundation for Human Rights, said she hopes the review will spur member states to ask Sri Lanka tough questions. She also urged the U.N. to establish an independent body to investigate the allegations – much like it did in Guatemala. ”There is no real framework for witness security in Sri Lanka,” said Sooka. ”As it stands now, the very people who are accused of such violations would essentially be in charge of investigating themselves. An independent investigative unit needs to be established.”
Many ethnic minority Tamils contend the government continues to target them as part of a larger plan to destroy their culture. Tamils speak a different language and are largely Hindu, unlike the country’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority. More than 100,000 people were estimated to have died in the war, including at least up to 40,000 civilians in its final months, according to U.N. estimates. Sri Lankan authorities have denied targeting civilians and dispute the death toll.
Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, chief minister for Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and a former Supreme Court judge, sent a letter to the AP on Friday confirming similar rights abuses he has heard from Tamils in his northern constituency. He said he has previously urged the U.N. rights chief to demand an independent investigation. ”Unfortunately, this was overlooked … if the international mechanism was in place it would have acted as a deterrent to these military sadists,” he told the AP on Friday.
The London-based Freedom from Torture group also urged Zeid to independently investigate the claims.
”Our evidence is consistent with the recent press reports and suggests that torture remains deeply ingrained in the military, police and intelligence sectors in peacetime Sri Lanka,” the group said in a letter. Some advocates said even more pressure was needed. ”There’s mounting evidence that Sri Lanka cannot keep ignoring but while the pressure is there, they are essentially still getting away with it,” said Canadian lawmaker Gary Anandasangaree, who has urged the Canadian government to do more ahead of a peacekeeping conference in Canada next week.