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Sri Lanka torture victims

Nik MartinApril 1, 2016

Two Sri Lankan Tamils tell DW how they were rounded up after the civil war ended, and tortured. They hope to pressure the government to bring in foreign judges to investigate war crimes allegations.

Cigarette burns on Tamil torture survivor: Photo by Will Baxter, for Tainted Peace: Torture in Sri Lanka since May 2009, Freedom from Torture
Image: Will Baxter

34-year-old Mayairan, from Sri Lanka's north-eastern district of Mullaitivu was studying in Malaysia when his country's 26-year-long civil war ended in May 2009.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had fought ferociously for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east, was overwhelmed by government forces in the last months of the conflict. The government finally defeated the notorious group known as the Tamil Tigers.

In the months following the war, thousands of Tamils went missing, including Mayairan's parents. Witnesses described how security forces rounded up Tamils in white vans for interrogation, never to be return. Fearing his parents could have been taken, Mayairan flew home and went looking for them, but was arrested himself when he reached the former war zone.

"I was taken to an army camp and they told me I had to sign a document admitting to being an LTTE member. I said I wasn't even living in Sri Lanka, but they didn't believe me," he told DW.

Mayairan says he was beaten and tortured for several weeks. At one point, the pain was so bad he passed out. Despite having no direct association with the LTTE, he eventually signed the confession.

Trauma and scars

"Sometimes they'd bring you into the room twice a day trying to get you to confess. They broke my nose and I lost several teeth. I'd get hit on my head, my back and my legs," he told DW, showing scars on his head and body he said were inflicted during the torture.

While it's claimed that numerous Tamils have been held for years without charge and that many never got out of detention alive, Mayairan's family pulled strings to help clear his name.

"My parents, who were actually looking for my brother-in-law, by chance found me in custody and paid a bribe to the army to get me out," he said. He later paid an agent to arrange a UK student visa and flew to London.

Another torture survivor, 39-year-old Kalairajan from the northern town of Vavuniya described what happened after he and his family surrendered to authorities in May 2009. He was separated from his loved ones and lined up in front of a van.

Inside the vehicle was a Tamil informer, working for the government. Kalairajan explained how the informer would press the car horn if he recognized you as a member of the Tamil Tigers, and you would be separated from others and taken away.

"When the horn sounded for me, my heart stopped, I started sweating and shivering and thought I was going to pass out," he said.

He was stripped naked, beaten and sent to a "rehabilitation center" for ex-Tamil fighters.

"The room they took me to would make you faint. Inside were rods and iron bars and you see blood everywhere. You could also see the injuries to some of the other prisoners," Kalairajan told DW.

"Sexual torture"

When he wouldn't admit to being an LTTE fighter, the officers put a polythene bag over his head and dowsed it with petrol, Kalairajan said. He struggled to breathe for several minutes due to the fumes. They eventually took off the bag, before again ordering him to admit he was a member of the LTTE.

"During one torture session, one of the guards grabbed my penis and pulled the skin back. Then he took a needle-like instrument, a long mental piece and then inserted it into the top of my penis," Kalairajan explained.

Branding marks on Tamil torture survivors: Photo by Will Baxter, for Tainted Peace: Torture in Sri Lanka since May 2009, Freedom from Torture
Branding marks on the back of a Tamil torture survivor, photographed for Freedom From Torture's report, Tainted Peace: Torture in Sri Lanka since May 2009Image: Will Baxter

The other guards started laughing as the metal strip was removed and then reinserted, while Kalairajan bled and screamed in pain.

After more than five months in detention, he escaped and fled to India and then the UK, where he and Mayairan are being helped by the London-based NGO Freedom From Torture.

More they six years after the war ended, both men are waiting to hear if their UK asylum claims will be successful. Like almost 60 percent of cases, their initial applications were rejected. Kalairajan's case is being appealed, while Mayairan is making a fresh application, after initially receiving bad legal advice.

Wider investigation stopped

Sri Lanka has pledged to investigate the disappearance of Tamils, and other alleged atrocities in the final months of the war. But the Colombo government has ruled out allowing United Nations war crimes teams to visit.

The government continues to deny accusations of severe torture and sexual violence at the end and after the war. But Freedom From Torture's joint head of psychiatric services, William Hopkins, told DW he's seen plenty of evidence.

"Sexual violation is very common, many people have been raped or humiliated. Another form of torture is asphyxiation, and one of the things we can successfully document medically/legally is branding. The victims have been burned with iron rods."

Both men told DW they hope the Sri Lankan government will properly investigate the many cases of torture and disappearance from the Tamil community following the nearly three decade-long conflict.

"Truth will come out"

Other Sri Lankan torture survivors that Freedom From Torture has treated are equally disappointed at a lack of justice for what's been done to Sri Lankan Tamils.

"They don't believe this (an inquiry) can be done by domestic judges," Hopkins told DW. "They would like hybrid courts, where international judges and investigators come along with domestic authorities and look into these human rights violations."

Mayairan and Kalairajan will struggle to move on with their lives while they remain in what Hopkins described as "asylum limbo".

"It can be years before they do get asylum. They have all the stress and secondary psychological problems from waiting. It can be very distressing because they always fear that they'll be sent back and tortured again," he added.