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UN Working Group finds continued use of torture in Sri Lanka

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that the use of torture by Sri Lankan security forces on Tamil detainees continues and called on the Sri Lankan government “to fully honour the obligations it has undertaken in accordance with the Convention against Torture”.

In a preliminary report released on Friday, the Working Group highlighted several areas of concern, including the use of torture, the transfer of cases of Tamil detainees to Sinhala-speaking courts, the detention of Tamils who return to the island and continued arrest of former LTTE cadres which creates a “revolving door of repeated deprivation of liberty”.

The Working Group said it had recorded “numerous instances where those convicted under the PTA had allegedly been subjected to harassment, intimidation, threats and even ill-treatment and torture to extract confessions”.

“Numerous alarming allegations were received concerning the use of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment by the police, including the CID and TID, in order to obtain confessions from detainees, either to facilitate the investigation or in certain instances to be used as evidence in court,” it said.

The torture of those held in detention also took place in recent months, the report noted, highlighting the case of Tamils who return to the island.

“The Working Group also received accounts of Tamils who were arrested and detained in 2015, 2016 and 2017 when returning to Sri Lanka after seeking asylum in another country or working abroad,” said the report.

“The Working Group received testimony that, in some cases, the returnees were beaten and kept under surveillance once released, and charged with offences relating to illegal departure from Sri Lanka. Similarly, civil society organisations, journalists, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders who attempt to protect the rights of Tamils are reportedly subject to threats and harassment for their work.”

Dozens of Tamils also remain held under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, it noted.

“There were numerous instances reported of confessions written in Sinhala signed by suspects who do not understand that language,” said the report. “The Working Group was informed that this practice is ceasing and that instead, the Tamil suspects are forced to write and sign their own confessions in Tamil to avoid any accusations over their ability to speak Sinhala.”

“The language barrier that Tamil suspects face in the courts is a serious impediment to the full implementation of their fair trial rights,” it continued.

In particular, the Working Group highlighted the cases of Tamil prisoners who have been “recently transferred from the High Courts in Vavuniya and Trincomalee (districts where court proceedings take place in Tamil), to Anuradhapura (with proceedings in Sinhalese).”

“In the High Court of Anuradhapura, there is only one Tamil translator for the court proceedings,” said the report. “Equally there are significant delays in relation to the translation of the court documents.”

Examining the case of former LTTE cadres who had been through Sri Lanka’s “rehabilitation” programs, the Working Group noted that they “continue to be subject to harassment and surveillance by the authorities”.

Looking particularly at Poonthottam Rehabilitation Centre in Vavuniya, the report stated that some of the men, held for up to 22 years, are being detained arbitrarily.

“The deprivation of liberty at Poonthottam lacks a legal basis and, in the case of the current eight detainees, was the result of numerous grave violations of the right to fair trial, including lack of effective legal assistance, inability to access the evidence against them, and undue delay in being tried,” it said.

“The Working Group learned of one case where a person was released from a rehabilitation centre, only to be re-arrested and transferred to another rehabilitation centre, effectively creating a revolving door of repeated deprivation of liberty.” 

See the full text of the report here.

The preliminary report by the Working Group comes after further reports revealed that the use of torture remains a serious issue in Sri Lanka, an island that has a long history of security forces committing human rights violations. A recently published report by the Associated Press confirmed that in 2017, cases of torture were still being reported by Tamil asylum seekers fleeing the island.