Feature

Sooka reignites ‘White Van’ abductions debate

sooka reportBy Easwaran Rutnam

The change of government last year gave a sigh of relief to most people in the North and East and even in the South as there was a feeling the ‘white van’ abductions and murders will come to an end.

However, new evidence has emerged of ongoing torture and sexual violence by the security forces one year after the new government came to power promising a radical clean up.

“Sadly Sri Lanka’s notorious ‘white vans’ are still operating; it’s very much business as usual,” the Executive Director of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) Yasmin Sooka said in a new report released by her last week, a copy of which was sent to The Sunday Leader.

Sooka said that the incidents last year demonstrates there can be no accountability without urgent security sector reform that leads to the dismantling of the state’s machinery of repression.

Sooka was a former member of the panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon to investigate human rights abuses soon after the conflict in Sri Lanka.

The report by ITJP focuses on 20 cases of torture and sexual violence by the security forces that occurred under the new government in Sri Lanka during 2015.

ITJP claims to have taken sworn statements from the 20 people, all but one victims of a ‘white van’ abduction resulting in unauthorised detention, repeated torture and sexual violence.

The victims comprise 15 male and 5 female Sri Lankan Tamils now in three different countries. ITJP claims its experienced war crime investigators took lengthy statements and obtained corroborating evidence from experts in scar healing and symptoms of psychiatric or psychological torture and sexual abuse, photographs of recent wounds and scarring and other corroborating evidence.Several witnesses still had fresh wounds from the recent torture in Sri Lanka when they were interviewed abroad; two were still bleeding.

Five of the abductions took place after the August 2015 parliamentary elections; fifteen were after the January 2015 presidential elections. The most recent abduction was in December 2015.
In addition, ITJP is in the process of obtaining more evidence regarding an additional five ‘white van’ survivors in two countries who were abducted in 2015, some very recently. This would bring the total number of cases, ITJP alone has identified, to twenty-five.

During interrogation by the Sri Lankan security forces, several victims were falsely accused of working to restart the LTTE or bringing the country into disrepute by talking about what happened in the war and its aftermath.

“They wanted to know if the LTTE was starting all over again. I said I did not know of that. That day they hit me with wooden sticks on my back, backside and legs. They also punched me,” said a witness simply identified as Witness 158 in order to conceal the identity of the witness.

The change of government in January 2015 led many young Tamils with tentative past links to the LTTE and low level cadres to think it was safe to return to Sri Lanka or to come out of hiding and return to their home villages. Some were abroad; others spent the last six years lying low in towns like Vavuniya or Jaffna.“Assuming that I would not have any further trouble at the hands of the Sri Lankan authorities under the new government, I decided to move back to my home village and live with my family. I went home in mid 2015. My decision to return home was a happy one to make. I was joyful to live with my family again. As it turned out, it was the worst decision of my life – one that will impact me forever,” said witness 159.

This witness was quickly identified by the security forces, abducted in a ‘white van’ and repeatedly tortured and raped.

Before being abducted, many victims had been involved in a variety of peaceful protests or election activities demanding rights for Tamils. This ranged from attending campaign meetings during presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 for MPs from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF); handing out leaflets; campaigning for the disappeared; to attending memorial events marking the anniversary of the end of the war. The victims said their torturers referenced this legitimate political activity during their detention.

“They told me I am …trying to turn people against the government and diminish its reputation internationally. Mainly they were asking about my involvement in organizing demonstrations and in the LTTE. I was involved in the TNA’s election campaign and that was public knowledge. I posted posters and distributed leaflets. My detainers mentioned my TNA activity and said I shouldn’t do this,” said witness 117.

Four victims allegedly tortured in 2015 had attended a high profile protest by the families of the disappeared in Jaffna in 2013 when the British Prime Minister visited for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. One of these witnesses described how his parents had been forced to falsify the date of the disappearance of his sibling to hide the fact that the sibling had disappeared after surrendering to the Sri Lankan army in May 2009. The family was forced to report that the sibling had disappeared in January 2009, which would imply the sibling died in the conflict.

In some cases the interrogators showed the victims print outs of photographs of themselves or people close to them attending recent Tamil diaspora commemorative events abroad. Several 2015 victims had also been detained at the end of the war either in an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp or in the government’s so-called ‘rehabilitation’ programme for suspected former combatants. Some had spent periods in hiding in southern India and it was clear their interrogators regarded this with great suspicion when they returned home. For two of the witnesses, this was the third phase of detention and torture they had endured since the end of the war in 2009. For one victim the incident in 2015 was the second abduction in a ‘white van’ and he did not think this time he would survive the experience.

Of the 2015 cases, at least three are known to the ICRC in Sri Lanka. Others are known to at least one diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka. The name of that mission is withheld for witness protection reasons.
Torture and sexual violence have occurred under the new government in a known army camp in the north of Sri Lanka (name withheld for witness protection reasons), the Vanni Security Force Headquarters in Vavuniya Town, (known as Joseph Camp), TID headquarters in Colombo (known as the 4th Floor), and in secret camps that are still operating in unknown but diverse places in Sri Lanka – known to the security forces but not the victims.The new government has repeatedly said it cannot investigate the allegations of continuing abductions, torture and sexual abuse unless they are given the names and details of the victims.

Sooka’s report however, says given the level of ongoing violations and reprisals, it would be unprofessional and irresponsible from a witness protection point of view for us to hand over such information to the Sri Lankan authorities at present. In addition she says sharing any information would require the informed consent of the victims, who quite reasonably do not trust the same security forces who tortured them, to investigate and provide witness protection services to them and their families.Sooka’s report also says the current ‘Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act’ is far from being in line with best practice internationally but even this legislation has yet to be implemented since it came into force in nearly five months ago in August 2015.

ITJP notes that advocating for real change is dependent on a comprehensive programme on security sector reform that seeks to unravel those structures and individuals responsible for torture and sexual violence. Removing only those officers at the top without understanding the scope and scale of the violations and the need to dismantle the structures responsible will not yield transformation or accountability.

The new government has committed before the Human Rights Council to establish a number of transitional justice mechanisms including a Truth Commission and a prosecutorial process. In the current climate of impunity in which torture, sexual violence, intimidation and persecution are ongoing in the former conflict areas, ITJP says it is unlikely that Tamil victims of torture and sexual violence at the hands of state forces will be able to participate.ITJP says the pursuit of accountability requires the domestication of international crimes, an independent judiciary and Office of Attorney General independent of all political influence as well as an appropriate and effective witness protection programme that secures the interests and safety of victims and witnesses so that they can participate freely, safely and without fear of reprisals against them or their families.

ITJP notes that the new government, if it is to be taken seriously, must deal immediately, decisively and conclusively with those in the security forces who continue to commit these serious crimes and/or undermine accountability. This requires political will without which no witness protection program, new legislation or re-training of the security forces will solve this problem.

“While many supporters of ‘the new Sri Lanka’ advocate patience and the need to give the new government time, the classic peace versus justice argument, peace and justice are mutually reinforcing of each other. Peace should also not come at the expense of justice and accountability for victims. If the impunity of the security forces is not addressed with urgency, many more victims will continue to be tortured and sexually assaulted, hung upside down, suffocated, whipped, branded with hot metal rods and brutally gang raped. Surely the new government in Sri Lanka cannot allow this to continue,” Sooka’s report says.

The government says it is prepared to investigate all the allegations in the new report and will do so through the domestic accountability mechanism. (Courtesy The Sunday Leader)

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bala

    January 11, 2016 - 15:04 at 15:04

    Tamils came to Australia by boats in recent years have many torturing stories but nearly all of them are false. Scratch and bruises from Tiger terrorist training are the scares they show to officials to accuse Sri Lanka forces. Sooka should verify the accusations with the government before open her mouth for support.

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