Tamils fear prison and torture in Sri Lanka, 13 years after civil war ended

Show caption Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (centre), at a Victory Day rehearsal in 2013. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images Sri Lanka Tamils fear prison and torture in Sri Lanka, 13 years after civil war ended The threat of a bullet in the leg or having his fingernails ripped off was the ordeal faced by one man Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Jaffna Sat 26 Mar 2022 16.10 GMT Share on Facebook

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The sun had barely risen the morning that the military turned up for Vijay*. Grabbing him from his home in a village in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka while his pregnant wife and baby lay asleep next to him, they blindfolded him and drove him deep into a jungle.

For the next 12 hours, in a small dark shack away from prying eyes, they interrogated Vijay. Pliers were repeatedly brandished, with threats that his finger nails would be removed if he did not give the army officers the information they wanted.

The accusation hurled at him over and over again was the same: that Vijay was part of a conspiracy to restart the militant Tamil separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elan (LTTE), widely known as the Tamil Tigers, and was involved in training and recruitment.

The military let Vijay go after two days of clandestine interrogation but it was only the beginning of his ordeal. On the third day, it was officers from Sri Lanka’s notorious Terrorism Investigation Department who turned up for him. This time, his arrest was official.

Sri Lanka’s brutal and bloody ethnic conflict officially ended, after 26 years, on 20 May 2009. Yet Vijay’s arrest was in June 2020. Though it has been 13 years since the end of a war in which at least 100,000 people were killed and the LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan army, the roots of the conflict remain unresolved. The country is as segregated as ever, with the Sinhalese Buddhist-majority concentrated in the wealthy south and the Tamils in the less-developed and heavily militarised north and east of the country.

Protesters in Jaffna support Tamil political prisoners, after they went on a hunger strike. Photograph: Kumanan Kanapathippillai

In recent years some of the worst abuses that were rife in the years after the war, from white-van abductions, torture and sexual crimes against Tamils, have abated. What never disappeared was the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Since it was passed in 1979, the PTA has been a stain on Sri Lanka’s human rights record, enabling arbitrary arrest, detention without charge or evidence, forced confessions and torture of anyone suspected of terrorism.

Vijay was detained for a year and a half under the PTA. He endured daily interrogations, in which he was accused of involvement in assassination attempts and asked to name Tamil Tiger accomplices, without any evidence being presented. On one occasion they brought out a confession written in Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese majority, which Vijay, like many Tamils, does not speak.

“They were making threats that they would shoot me if I did not sign it, holding the gun against my leg, so I signed it even though I don’t know what it said,” he said. “I didn’t think I would survive otherwise.”

As a young Tamil man growing up in the north of Sri Lanka where civil war waged between the Tamil Tigers and the state until he was aged 10, he was no stranger to harassment and violence at the hands of the armed forces. His elder brother, then a separatist militant, had been abducted by the army years before, and friends had died and disappeared. But that was over a decade ago.

“They say the war is over but they are still doing what they have always done to Tamils: abducting us, torturing us, taking our land and using PTA to imprison us on no evidence. Tell me what has changed?” said Vijay, who was finally released in February. Repeating an oft-heard refrain in the Tamil north, he added: “We are still living in an open prison.”

A 2020 report by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that 84% of PTA prisoners were tortured after arrest and they are regularly held for between five and 10 years without trial. The European parliament recently declared that the act “breaches human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.

A tank fires a shell towards Mullaitivu, in north-east Sri Lanka, during fighting between the army and the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Photograph: Reuters

Previous hopes for the law’s repeal disappeared in late 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a fierce Sinhalese nationalist who was in charge of the military in the final, bloodiest years of the civil war and has been accused over overseeing war crimes, was elected as president.

“The abuses of PTA, the surveillance never went away,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, the former human rights commissioner of Sri Lanka. “But since 2019 when Rajapaksa came back to power, it’s just become more overt, more brazen. Every week, I can give you a minimum of one or two incidents related to the PTA being used to harass and intimidate civil society organisations and journalists.”

Over the past two years, human rights organisations and the UN have reported an escalation of the harassment, surveillance and arbitrary detentions of Tamils, journalists and civil rights activists, and a “colonisation” policy, involving the systematic seizure of Tamil land by the government and military.

In the aftermath of the deadly Easter suicide attacks carried out in churches and hotels by Islamist militants in April 2019, Muslims, too, have become targets of the state. In November 2021, Police Scotland suspended their programme training Sri Lankan police officers over human rights concerns.

The Rajapaksa government, faced with mounting international pressure and the prospect of losing a multi-million dollar trade concession with the European Union, has denied all abuses of the PTA. The country’s foreign minister recently told the UN Human Rights Council that “we endeavour to strike a just balance between human rights and national security when dealing with terrorism”.

In a bid to appease international critics, the Rajapaksa government last week passed a bill amending the PTA. But UN experts, human rights groups and the political opposition were damning of the amendments that left “intact some of the most egregious provisions of the PTA” and called into question Rajapaksa’s real commitment to reform.

Tamil women in Mullivaikkal crying at a commemoration in 2015 at the graves of relatives who died in the final days of the civil war. Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

“What is needed is a complete scrapping of the PTA and not cosmetic changes,” an opposition MP, Anura Dissanayake, told parliament.

In Jaffna, the capital of the Tamil-majority Northern Province, the fear was pronounced. Komahan Murugaia, who was detained and tortured under the PTA between 2009 and 2016 and now runs an organisation in Jaffna to help the families of those imprisoned under the law, said that “under the present government the situation for Tamils is getting much worse,” with more than 100 arrested under the legislation, accused of regrouping the Tamil Tigers.

“It’s not as bad as 2009 when the war ended but there’s torture, and harassment, our right to freedom of speech is reduced, more arrests are happening, more surveillance,” said Murugaia. “My passport has been blocked and I have been summoned in for a police inquiry for participating in a memorial. There is a lot of fear.”

This month the wives and children of several Tamil men detained under the act since 2020 stood in protest outside a government office. As rain poured down, ink wept from damp signs pleading “Please release my father”.

Kamalaharan Easwary, 37, said her husband had been held under the PTA for 18 months, accused of trying to recreate the LTTE, but had not been charged. “There is no evidence. How can they do this? “ she said.

“Without him we have no income. Life is so difficult. This law is being used to repress the Tamils even after the war is long over, and it is radicalising people, pushing them back to war again.”

Muslims, too, have increasingly been subjected to sweeping arbitrary arrests under the PTA in the wake of the Easter 2019 bombings. More than 500 Muslims arrested under the act in the aftermath have languished in jail for more than 34 months without charge, including two maulvis – Islamic religious leaders – who have alleged to the courts they were tortured and beaten with pistols.

One of the most prominent arrests was Hejaaz Hizbullah, a Muslim human rights lawyer from Colombo, who had been outspoken against actions taken by the Rajapaksa government. Arrested under the PTA in April 2020 on what human rights groups described as “no credible evidence”, Hizbullah was held in jail for more than 22 months without charge as security agencies sought to prove an unsubstantiated theory that he had “aided and abetted” the Easter attacks.

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In the end, none could be found, and after international pressure, including Amnesty International designating him a “prisoner of conscience”, he was released on bail in February, though he still faces charges of radicalising children through a charity.

Hizbullah’s wife Maram confirmed that the harassment began in late 2019 when Hizbullah and his relatives started receiving warning messages and strange calls warning him to “be careful, keep quiet and stop all his human rights work”. His sister and father were called in for questioning by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and then one of his clients was told to drop him as their lawyer because he was on a “hit list”.

In his first interview since his release, Hizbullah spoke cautiously, still fearful of repercussions for his ongoing case.

“I have worked on many PTA cases as a lawyer but my own case was the worst I had ever seen,” said Hizbullah, who missed the birth of his child while he was detained. “From the beginning my lawyers were clear that there was no evidence to detain me but the CID were looking for something really big to pin on me. The officers kept telling me my life was over. Now we know for sure, after all those months of pain, they could find nothing.”

“The key objective,” he added, “was to silence me forever.”

* Vijay’s name has been changed