7 Nov 2013

I didn’t believe Sri Lanka torture stories: I do now – Tamil victim

A Tamil man, who was tortured this year on his return from the UK to Sri Lanka on holiday has told Channel 4 News of his frustration and sense of powerlessness as world leaders prepare to travel to the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka next week.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary, William Hague, will head the British delegation.  The Prince of Wales will also attend in place of the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth.

The man, who cannot be identified for reasons of safety, had studied in Britain for several years and held a valid UK visa, but decided to return to his homeland to help his ageing parents resettle following their release from an internment camp.

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They had reassured him that it was probably safe for him to do so as he had not belonged to the outlawed Tamil Tigers rebel group. The ethnic Tamil insurgency was summarily defeated by Sri Lankan government forces in 2009.

On arrival at Colombo international airport, the man, who said he wished to be known by the pseudonym, “Yathavan,” claims to have been arrested and subjected to prolonged interrogation and torture over several days, both within the Colombo airport building and at a separate, unknown location.

Doctors from the London-based medical charity Freedom from Torture, who have examined Yathavan, say dozens of scars on his body are “highly consistent” with the injuries he claims were the result of torture.

“I deeply regret [the British Prime Minister’s] decision to visit Sri Lanka at this juncture,” Yathavan told Channel 4 News.

“Sri Lanka has openly carried out a genocide and is still carrying out a vicious campaign against the Tamil community.

“Instead of punishing this government and its leaders,” he said, “Britain is honouring them by visiting. We Tamil have no option but to helplessly watch this sad event.  It is deeply regrettable.”

Having escaped from Sri Lanka after relatives bribed security officials to release him, Yathavan was smuggled back into Britain, where he claimed political asylum on arrival.

That application, he told us, was rejected and his appeal then refused. Judges, he said, had accepted the truth of his account, but cited UK “Country Guidance” that it would be safe for him to be returned to Sri Lanka. Yathavan is awaiting the outcome of his final appeal.

“I will be sent back to Sri Lanka if this appeal fails,” he said.

“I know what is going to happen to me in Sri Lanka.  They will definitely torture me and kill me.  I would be happier to serve a life sentence in a British prison than be returned to Sri Lanka, where they will torture me to death.”

He added that his advice to any other British-based Tamils thinking of returning voluntarily to Sri Lanka is: “Don’t.”

British-based Tamil groups meet the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in Downing Street this afternoon to make clear their concerns about Britain’s high-level attendance at the Commonwealth summit.


All Tamil and human rights groups had urged the British government to boycott the event, but in May, Downing Street announced Messrs Cameron and Hague would definitely attend.

Four-and-a-half years have elapsed since the end of  the 27-year-long civil war which saw more than 100,000 Sri Lankans – both Sinhalese and Tamil – killed.  The Tamil Tigers were also widely accused of war crimes and were banned as a terrorist organisation by the British government.

But it was the brutal manner in which Sri Lankan government forces ended the conflict that has drawn deep concern from the United Nations and from international human rights groups. A UN report stated that at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were indiscriminately killed in the final months. But other estimates suggest that number may have been much higher.

David Cameron has in the past called for accountability for those accused of war crimes – which include the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary. But the British government has, for the past three years, insisted on engaging with the Colombo regime.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, William Hague said what while “civil society is suppressed” and while “no one has been held to account for alleged war crimes,” a boycott of the Commonwealth summit would be wrong.

“By visiting, we can see the situation on the ground first-hand,” he wrote, “meet people on all sides of the conflict, and raise our concerns frankly and directly with the government.”

He said the Prime Minister would be visiting the north of the island where some of the worst fighting occurred.

“He will be the first head of government to visit the region since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948,” he said. “He will meet people directly affected by the conflict.”

The Foreign Secretary insisted that the meeting has put Sri Lanka “under the international spotlight and has contributed to some improvements.”

Human rights groups strongly disagree.

In August, the visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that Sri Lanka was sliding towards greater authoritarianism.

All leading international human rights groups have documented a steady deterioration in the human rights situation since the war ended.  Dissent has been criminalised, they say, while forced disappearences are common and torture is widespread.

Yathavan, the Tamil man interviewed by Channel 4 News, who was tortured in 2013, said that following his arrest, he thought he was going to be taken away and shot.

He said he was suspected by his torturers of being a supporter of the vanquished Tamil Tigers – of which his late brother had once been a member. His brother was killed in combat in 1992. Yathavan repeatedly insisted he had never been involved.

Prior to coming to the UK to study five years ago, Yathavan had been arrested and tortured while in Colombo. “Recalling that experience,” he told us, “I thought I would never be set free. I told myself that this was going to be the last chapter of my life.”

He said that following his arrest, interrogation and beating at the international airport, he had been driven to what looked like an army camp, where he was stripped to his underwear and repeatedly beaten unconscious over four to five days by security forces wielding assault rifles, electric cables, barbed wire and wooden rods.

With Yathavan’s consent, Channel 4 News has had sight of his “medico-legal report” – a forensic medical and legal document – in an effort to confirm the authenticity of his claims. A specialst doctor from Freedom from Torture who examined him confirmed that he not only bore large numbers of scars consistent with his claims, but that he continues to exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yathavan said that he believed that he had been identified by the security personnel as having taken part in pro-Tamil protests in the UK. Many of these events have been openly videotaped by Sri Lankan agents and the evidence then used to identify those returning from the UK.

Asked if he had seen or read reports of other Tamils returning from the UK and facing arrest and torture on arrival, he said:  “I had heard about it, but I did not fully believe it.  Now that it has happened to me, I fully accept every one of those reports.”

Keith Best, Director of the London-based Freedom from Torture, told Channel 4 News:  “Since 2010, over 50 cases have been referred to Freedom from Torture in which the individual has been detained and tortured having returned to Sri Lanka from the UK.  In most cases, the individual returned voluntarily.  The risks may be even greater for those forced back if the Sri Lanan authorities suspect they have sought asylum.”

The court of appeal has today granted leave to appeal against the recently formulated Sri Lanka Country Guidance which allows for the forcible return of failed Tamil asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka.

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