Hundreds of people languish in arbitrary, illegal and often incommunicado detention in Sri Lanka, vulnerable to torture and extrajudicial execution, despite the end of the country’s long conflict, Amnesty International said in a new report.
Locked away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees reveals that arbitrary and illegal detention and enforced disappearances remain routine in Sri Lanka, where human rights abuses of all types go uninvestigated and unpunished.
Counter-terrorism legislation allows authorities to arrest people without evidence and to hold them without charge or trial for extended periods. For years, the Sri Lankan government justified this legislation as necessary for combating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“The LTTE had a horrific record of abuse, including killing and imprisoning its critics, but that did not, and does not, excuse the widespread and systematic mistreatment of detainees by the Sri Lankan government,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.
“The security regime that was a hallmark of war continues after the LTTE’s defeat – little has changed. Authorities take advantage of laws allowing them to imprison people for months or years, with no need for prosecution in a court of law.”
“A lack of accountability for alleged war crimes gives the green light to Sri Lankan authorities to act with impunity. Meanwhile the message coming from the Sri Lankan government is that those who dare criticise it risk harassment, or even disappearance.”
Sri Lankan authorities detain those deemed to be threats to security such as suspected members of armed groups, but they also arrest their families and colleagues. Peaceful critics of the government, including journalists, have been subject to threats and arrest.
Reports of illegal detentions persist. Since October 2011, 32 people have been “abducted” or subjected to abduction-style arrests that may qualify as enforced disappearances.
Many of these people are still missing.
On 10 December 2011, two political activists organizing a demonstration by families demanding the release of Tamil detainees held without charge disappeared in Jaffna. Colleagues allege that they were abducted by the army and suspect they are held being incommunicado.
Today many hundreds of Sri Lankan security detainees remain in facilities ranging from prisons to ‘rehabilitation’ camps. The country has no central registry of detainees, making it difficult to gain information on those still detained.
During the armed conflict, thousands of Tamils suspected of links to the LTTE were detained by authorities under security legislation including counter-terrorism and emergency laws, for the purpose of investigation or “rehabilitation”.
According to witnesses, when the Sri Lankan government defeated the LTTE in May 2009, the army called anyone who had spent “even a day” with the LTTE to voluntarily “surrender” for “rehabilitation”. Many “surrendees” were indefinitely detained, some were tortured.
It is not only state forces who have escaped accountability. “As a result of the Sri Lankan government’s reliance on illegal detentions, it has been difficult to provide proper justice and accountability for the abuses perpetrated by the LTTE, as many potential suspects are held without proper charges and certainly without a trial that can help establish the truth and provide accountability and compensation to the victims,” Zarifi said.
On 30 August 2011, Sri Lanka ended the state of emergency in place since 1971, and promised to release or charge people detained under the emergency laws. However, authorities at the same time introduced new provisions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) allowing for the extended detention of LTTE suspects without charge or trial.
Many people detained or ‘rehabilitated’ were held without charge or trial for years, some with no access to legal counsel or family.
People released from detention have remained under surveillance by intelligence forces.
The Sri Lankan Army continues to have a large presence in the north and is deployed for civil policing. The Special Task Force (STF), an elite police commando unit with a history of human rights violations, remains active across the country.
Former detainees have been harassed and rearrested, and physically attacked. Killings and enforced disappearances of newly released detainees have also been reported.
Sri Lanka’s constitution prohibits arbitrary detention and torture, in line with international law.
“Sri Lanka’s security regime violates the spirit of its own constitution, while decades of unlawful arrest and detention have damaged the criminal justice system immeasurably,” said Zarifi.
“If Sri Lanka is serious about ending impunity and committed to reconciling communities torn apart by conflict, the rule of law needs to be a large part of that equation. While governments have the right to address national security concerns, human rights abuses are never justified.
“The war crimes alleged in Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war are of such magnitude that if unchallenged risk fundamentally undermining international justice mechanisms – the UN must support an independent international investigation into these alleged crimes.”