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The Missing of Sri Lanka

The Human Rights Council has just reviewed Sri Lanka, and seem disappointed. Despite promises to reform (seeking the Holy Grail of trade deals), President Sirisena’s government continues to favour torture and imprisonment without trial. As the nine-year anniversary of the final defeat of the LTTE approaches, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which allows 18 months imprisonment before even a court appearance) remains in effect.

Nor is there any sign of justice for the war crimes. Everyone agrees the LTTE committed atrocities, but they were not alone. Despite inescapable evidence of massacres by both sides, the president and the prime minister have both emphasised that “war heroes” will never be prosecuted.

Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans disappeared during the war. Many more have disappeared since it ended. During its closing years, Tamil teenagers in the Northern Vanni were forcibly conscripted into LTTE ranks. Some escaped the final massacres, but hid or left the country, fearing reprisals. It seems the government still suspects any Tamil who was then a teenager in the Vanni of continuing terrorist links. Typical accounts feature blindfolded abductions late at night by plain clothes men in white vans. Interrogations follow, with beatings, suffocation with plastic bags containing petrol, prolonged suspensions, burns with heated rods and cigarettes, and repeated sexual violence. There has been no attempt to find the perpetrators, even though accounts to human rights organisation seem so consistent and specific that it seems likely that they could be identified. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka continues to document widespread incidents which it described as ‘routine’.

Unknown numbers have been held without charge for years. Last autumn the government released a list of 96 in custody, and told the UN that 70 had been detained without trial for over five years and 12 for over ten, but thousands more are unaccounted for. Families of the missing now hold roadside vigils in the north. Bizarrely, some missing teenagers are seen standing beside President Sirisena in an old photograph he used to demonstrate his plurality on the 2015 campaign trail. They include Jeromy Kasipillai, hair in pigtails in the picture above, only 17 when she was taken away. The government, under international pressure, has just passed a law offering protection from enforced disappearance, but says it will not be retroactive.

The UN special rapporteur visited Sri Lanka last summer, and described torture as ‘endemic and routine.’ He noted that ‘the Tamil community has borne the brunt of the state’s well-oiled torture apparatus.’ Piers Pigou, a South African human rights investigator who has interviewed torture survivors over 40 years, said: “The levels of sexual abuse being perpetuated in Sri Lanka by authorities are the most egregious and perverted that I’ve ever seen.” Most are forced to sign confessions in Sinhalese, which they don’t understand.

The trouble with torturing people for the truth, is not knowing the truth when you hear it. Yet if this isn’t about discovering the truth, what is it? Perhaps when Sri Lanka returns to the HRC next year, we should ask them.

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