ITJP: Unstopped – 2016/17 Torture in Sri Lanka

by International Truth & Justice Project, South Africa, July 2017

Full report at or


The ITJP is administered by the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa under the guidance of its director, transitional justice expert, Yasmin Sooka. The ITJP team includes former prosecutors and investigators from the Ad Hoc Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda [ICTR], lawyers who have worked for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Timor-Leste Commission, the United Nations, the Special Court of Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court who collectively have decades of experience in investigation of sexual violence and torture, and in many instances first hand knowledge of investigations relating to Sri Lanka.

ITJP witnesses

Executive Summary

This report establishes that in 2016/17 both the military and police in Sri Lanka continue to abduct, unlawfully detain, torture and rape Tamils.

The violations remain systematic and officially sanctioned by command structures within the security forces. Victims describe senior officers coming into their torture chambers [Page 63]. A standard operating procedure continues, involving three security force teams – one abducting, one interrogating and another releasing for money [Page 18]. Once the victim has fled, their family remains under surveillance by the intelligence services in order to keep them quiet [Page 53].

This is hardly the action of low level “rotten apples” in the security forces. Detainees are held in purpose-built cells while interrogation rooms are equipped with tools for torture including metal bars from which to hang victims [Page 20].

Women officers are involved when there are female detainees and they also participate in the torture [Page 38]. Victims also report being biometrically fingerprinted – equipment that is not used by organised crime [Page 52].

Corruption is rampant. All the victims are eventually released on payment of money by their families. Security officials actively solicit the ransoms when the families are slow to respond to the abduction [Page 59]. Half the releases were brokered by a pro-government Tamil paramilitary group, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party [EPDP] which to our knowledge has never been investigated regarding this issue [Page 61]. The brokers who secure release often also arrange the human smuggling abroad, instructing the victims to leave the country if they want to stay alive. Victims in 2016/17 describe Sri Lankan immigration officials at Colombo airport being paid off by the smugglers to allow them through without any questions [Page 67].

The Vanni Security Force Headquarters in Vavuniya, known as Joseph Camp, continues to be a site for torture and rape in 2016/17, including by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the police. Seven Tamils were tortured there in 2016/17 and several heard other detainees screaming [Page 20]. There continue to be very high rates of male sexual violence reported – something that is not acknowledged within the country with the result that victims lack support [Page 41]. Victims outside Sri Lanka also struggle to cope and are not able to disclose what has happened to them because of the stigma, with most attempting or talking about suicide [Page 74].

The wanton cruelty and racism exhibited by the perpetrators also raises serious questions about whether a conventional security sector reform process that downsizes the military and finds alternative employment can address this level of systematic abuse. An intensive programme of rehabilitation which includes mental health care treatment is needed for the perpetrators, as well as their victims, though obviously not at the cost of holding torturers and rapists accountable for their crimes.

The Sri Lankan Government is complicit in the ongoing violations in so far as credible allegations have repeatedly been brought to their attention and they have consistently failed to act to prevent such violations and to hold those responsible accountable. The inescapable conclusion is that they have done nothing for 30 months because they prefer to condone the persecution of Tamils rather than dismantle the security structures responsible, which might lose them electoral or political support.

The ITJP calls on international governments who respect human rights to take urgent steps to hold Sri Lanka’s political leaders accountable for the violations that continue under their watch, let alone mass atrocities committed during previous governments.


METHODOLOGY ……………………………. 8
ABDUCTION ……………………………… 13
DETENTION CELLS …………………….. 19
TORTURE ………………………………… 35
SEXUAL VIOLENCE …………………….. 39
INTERROGATION…………………………. 48
SURVEILLANCE …………………………. 53
RELEASE………………………………….. 56
HUMAN SMUGGLING………………………. 67
AFTERMATH ……………………………… 73
ENDNOTES ………………………………. 85


Looking at Systemic Torture in Sri Lanka

by Taylor Dibbert, ‘The Diplomat,’ Tokyo, July 21, 2017

Frances Harrison is the program coordinator of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) and author of a book on the final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war. She discussed a new ITJP report with The Diplomat.

ITJP has recently released a new report. What are a few of the big takeaways?

Looking at Systemic Torture in Sri Lanka

Image Credit: Francescsharrison via Wikimedia Commons

Tragically, “white van” abductions, illegal detention, and torture continued throughout 2016 and into 2017. One security force team abducts, another interrogates and tortures and a third releases for a ransom. The victims, who are Tamil, were detained in purpose-built cells and interrogated in rooms specially equipped for torture. Senior officers walked into torture chambers. [The Eelam People’s Democratic Party] EPDP remains involved in securing releases for money; immigration fraud at the airport [in Colombo] persists unchecked. The military and [Terrorism Investigation Division] TID are still using Joseph Camp as a torture site along with unknown sites; perpetrators are beginning to use biometric fingerprinting machines that were only recently introduced in Sri Lanka.

Very few of the victims we meet now were hard core [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] LTTE cadres, who joined voluntarily and spent years with the organisation being extensively trained. Instead we see forced or child recruits or people with only a tenuous link to the LTTE often through family members. We tend to make assumptions that the Sri Lankan security forces would logically only persecute senior LTTE cadres who might be deemed to pose a future security threat, but instead it’s now clear that this is an ongoing process of crushing Tamils who demand their democratic rights as Sri Lankan citizens. Indeed, asserting one’s rights if one is Tamil, is interpreted by the security forces as an act of defiance and equated to “restarting the LTTE.”What’s very shocking to me is that we are now seeing families where several siblings have all been tortured in the post-war period. And individuals who have been detained and repeatedly tortured on as many as three or four separate times. They arrive in the United Kingdom and promptly try to kill themselves – hardly the action of economic migrants. Being an asylum seeker in Britain after enduring war and torture is a terrible ordeal. I help run a small project for 30 recent survivors from Sri Lanka, offering group trauma counselling in Tamil and English classes and a hot spicy meal, and I can’t describe the intensity of the suffering we see. Torture survivors are the first to fall through the cracks of the welfare system.

How long did it take to prepare the report?

The report is based on 24 statements from victims of torture that occurred in 2016 and 2017, and reinforced by 33 statements from 2015 victims. Each statement took 3-4 days to record and obviously the work has been ongoing over the last 30 months. We analysed the information and wrote the report, asking our talented Tamil graphic designer to visualize the torture methods in a way that was innovative.

In terms of policy-oriented recommendations – to address torture, abduction, unlawful detention, sexual violence and impunity – what are some positive actions Colombo could take in the next few months to suggest it’s serious about meaningful reform?

I have divided the recommendations into how easy they would be, not politically, but administratively. These are just a personal selection, acknowledging that many others in Sri Lanka have made important recommendations on specific initiatives that I won’t repeat:

Instantly possible:

  • Show at peak hours (and on repeat) the Channel 4 “No Fire Zone” film in Sinhala on Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (state run TV).
  • The President, Prime Minister and armed forces commanders go to Palali Air Base and, in front of hundreds of soldiers and on peak time state TV, issue in Sinhala their instructions to military and police not to commit sexual violence, showing they really mean it this time.
  • The President and Prime Minister publish a version (redacted to protect victims not perpetrators) of the [UN Office of Internal Oversight Services] OIOS inquiry report in to the allegations of extensive child sexual exploitation by Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers from 2004-7 in Haiti and to announce how may Sri Lankan soldiers/officers were held criminally accountable rather than just demoted or early retired.
  • Publish photos and names of all Sri Lankan service men and women going abroad henceforth as UN peacekeepers, so as to be transparent.
  • The President and Prime Minister stop denying the allegations of war crimes and praising the “war heroes” acknowledging that their current rhetoric emboldens racists and deniers.
  • The President and Prime Minister “own,” endorse and adopt the recommendations of the consultation task force report [pertaining to transitional justice mechanisms] that they commissioned.
  • Order the 58th Division [of the Sri Lanka Army] to hand over the list of surrendees from May 18, 2009 [when the war ended] to the Mullaitivu court.

Require administrative action but no new legislation:

  • Institute a vetting process for public officials and stop appointing alleged perpetrators to senior positions.
  • Reply to the questions [the UN Committee Against Torture] UNCAT asked about Sisira Mendis’s alleged involvement in torture.
  • Reconstitute the witness protection National Authority without alleged perpetrators.
  • Enable witnesses abroad to testify through letters rogatory rather than requiring them to enter Sri Lankan embassies.
  • Set up a credible independent investigative unit with international assistance, so as to be able to start holding perpetrators accountable.
  • Decommission Joseph Camp.
  • Establish an independent body to pay reparations to thousands of torture victims outside Sri Lanka, while protecting the victims and their families.

Do you expect that the Sri Lankan government will take any of the steps that you’ve suggested?


What are the best ways for international actors to help Sri Lanka curtail systemic torture and related offenses?

Increased international pressure is urgently required on the human rights issues. I have heard people in the UN argue that speaking out about ongoing violations and impunity will only bring the Rajapaksas back to power and that one cannot approach this government in the same terms as the last. Here at the ITJP we are not interested in regime change or supporting one government as opposed to another; we hold them all to the same high standards, which they have committed to. I do expect the UN to learn from its appalling past in Sri Lanka in 2009 and to speak out clearly for the destroyed people I see still fleeing abroad who have no voice. The failures of the international community in 2009 in Sri Lanka sparked the UN’s “Rights Up Front” movement, but it’s tragically made absolutely no difference in Sri Lanka itself. Independent experts like Felice Gaer and Ben Emmerson have been outspoken about the violations though.

I can’t help recalling that at the height of the war in 2009 the assumption of many in the international community was that if the LTTE were “removed” as a political force then “the problem” would be solved. A few years later, the assumption was that if the Rajapaksas were removed then “the problem” would be solved. Personifying the problems and pushing all the collective blame for systematic failures on to individuals is obviously a flawed approach. This is about systemic and institutional failure.

Many in the international community convinced themselves that Sri Lanka in 2015 offered a once in a lifetime opportunity for historical change. They’re now so invested in wanting the country to be a transitional justice success story that they cannot readily admit it’s failing rapidly and the transition was flimsy at best. A new and more sophisticated international approach is urgently called for – one that I hope prevents any more human beings being branded with a hot metal rod to give them “Tiger stripes” until they pass out unconscious from the pain.

This interview has been edited lightly. 

Navy Officer Arrested in Case of 11 Missing Youth

Note: The Government of Sri Lanka has acknowledged 65,000 missing.  See Reuters at and Hindustani Times at  Also see TCHR — Editor

by The Associated Press posted in ‘The New York Times’ Asia section July 12, 2017

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka police on Wednesday arrested a senior navy officer in connection with the abduction and disappearance of 11 youth, including ethnic minority Tamils, during the country’s civil war that ended seven years ago.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said navy Commodore D.K.P. Dasanayake was arrested Wednesday after an investigation into the abduction of 11 youth in the capital Colombo.

According to Gunasekara, the youth had been abducted, illegally detained and then disappeared during the period of 2008 -2009. Dasanayake has been accused of aiding and abetting the incident.

Dasanayake will appear before a magistrate.

Three other navy members have also been arrested and remanded for the same incident.

A large number of people have been reported missing in the civil war that ended in 2009.

Many were abducted by government paramilitary personnel for alleged links to the now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels. Rebels also abducted civilians as forced conscripts. Many people who gave themselves up to the military in the final stages of the war are also unaccounted for.

There is no clear record of the missing from the nearly 26-year conflict. A missing person’s commission has received 20,000 complaints.

Last year, ethnic Tamil leaders asked the top U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein to help determine the fate of more than 4,000 Tamils reported missing in the war amid the government’s assertion that most of them are probably dead.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has previously said most of those reported abducted or arrested by government-aligned forces are probably dead. He said his government has found no secret detention centers run by the state, as suspected by families of the missing, and counted only 292 people in government detention.

Police have begun fresh investigations into high-profile killings, abductions and attacks after new president Maithripala Sirisena assumed office, defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa who led the war against the Tamil rebels. Sirisena, who campaigned on a promise of ending a culture of impunity and punishing those responsible for abuses, was elected in 2015.

Dasanayake served as the navy spokesman during the civil war, and his arrest comes amid allegations that some senior military officials were responsible for the attacks on the media and political opponents. Several army intelligence officials are in custody in connection with the assassination of a newspaper editor who criticized the Rajapaksa administration.

According to U.N. estimates, up to 100,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, but many more are feared dead, including up to 40,000 civilians who are believed to have died in the final months of the fighting. Government troops and the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils in the island’s north and east, are both accused of war crimes.

Zeid has called for a hybrid court with local and international judges to investigate allegations of serious abuses during the war. Sri Lanka agreed to allow foreign judges before backtracking and insisting that only local courts could investigate the allegations.


Sri Lanka’s Current Political Impasse

Some additional thoughts

by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, ‘Groundviews,’ Colombo, July 4, 2017

Editors note: Read in conjunction with Sri Lanka’s deepening political crisis: Not losing an opportunity to lose another opportunity by the same author.

Sri Lanka has entered another phase of political crisis. It is a three-fold crisis. The first is at the level of the regime. The second is a crisis of governance. The third level of crisis is visible in relation to the broad political process of transformation.


UNP’s anniversary celebrations in Campbell Park 2016

In the first, the yahapalanaya regime is finding itself unable to move forward as a government. Its major initiatives for corruption free governance, political reform through constitutional change, and rebuilding ethnic relations through minority rights are now halted.  The government seems to be happy with achieving minor gains, here and there. While the regime’s popular support has base significantly eroded, its leaders have no strategy to maintain the backing and loyalty of its own support constituencies. With increasing public disenchantment, and progressive isolation from the electorate, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe regime’s political survival at future elections — local, provincial and national — is likely to be at serious risk.

Governance Crisis

The crisis of governance – the second level – is manifested at a variety of levels. Its everyday manifestation is the collapse of the municipal governance. The inability to resolve the garbage problem, along with the rapid spread of flu epidemics leading to citizens’ lives at grave risk – exposes the ineptness of the central government, the provincial councils and local authorities in carrying out even most elementary functions of a government.

The incompetence of the government is manifested by its inability to carry out another major function expected from a democratic government – managing and resolving competing demands and aspirations of different social classes/groups though dialogue, debate, negotiations and creative compromise. The unresolved and worsening problem associated with the SAITM issue is the worst example of how the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration mishandled a problem the creation of which is not its responsibility at all.   SAITM is a problem created by the previous regime. Yet, showing its undiluted loyalty to the private entrepreneurs involved in the business of education, the government ignored one its fundamental duties to society – management of social conflict and tension through creative compromise and policy innovation.

Now the SAITM conflict seems to have entered a stage beyond a peaceful settlement within the framework of rule of law and democratic accountability. A regime that allows social contradictions to sharpen and move into the level of violent confrontations can only regret its prevarications, sooner than later.

Process Crisis

The third level of the crisis is processual. It entails the present government’s continuing failure to consolidate and institutionalize the gains of the process of democratic transition that began with the electoral defeat of the Rajapaksa regime in early 2015. Usually, the replacement of an authoritarian rule is only the beginning of a democratization process. The fulfillment of the agenda of democratization becomes the responsibility of two political actors – (a) the new democratic regime which has access to the control of state, its institutions and resources, and, (b) the social forces that are involved in defending and resuscitating the democratic process.

The government’s record of consolidating the democratization process is poor.  Its democratic victories have been largely negative gains, in the sense of refraining from everyday repressive practices through state agencies. As indicated in the recent handling of clashes with anti-SAITM protesters, even that face of government behavior is now coming to an end.

The real crisis dimension of this democratic failure of the government is being felt at a different level. It entails the real political risk of relapsing to authoritarianism either by this regime itself, or by the next government of the Joint Opposition. In the case of JO, returning to authoritarianism will have some popular support as well. Return to authoritarian and illiberal governance with popular backing would mark a very negative phase of Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics.

Was it avoidable?

Now, the question is, would this triple crisis with their negative political consequences have been avoided? What preventive action would the President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe have taken?  Is it too late now to take any remedial action that can reverse the crisis path?

To answer the first question, yes, the crises could have been avoided and their consequences could have been managed, subjected to one condition. The yahapalanaya coalition should have prepared itself for governance, that is, to make a transition from being an oppositionist entity to a political body charged with the primary function of running and managing a state in a volatile society.   The record of most of the ministries, from the President and the PM downwards, show that we have a regime which is least prepared for governance.

To answer the second question, the government should have avoided its over-emphasis on the agenda of regime survival through the coalition with a section of the SLFP. It is this UNP-SLFP coalition that has politically and administratively paralyzed the capacity of the government in both its everyday governance functions as well as in fulfilling its reform agenda.  The President and PM could have maintained a balance between regime survival and regime stability. Similarly, the paralysis in governance could have been avoided if the expansion of the ruling coalition, that took place after January 2015, led to a policy dialogue and consensus between the UNP and the Sirisena faction of the SLFP. Being a pragmatic and opportunistic coalition, this alliance could only ensure regime survival at a nominal level, and not regime stability at a political level. Such a pragmatic coalition would have been politically successful only if the leadership was as autocratic as the previous President, who was, incidentally, a master in the art of forging and maintaining opportunistic coalitions for survival.

Early Warnings

None of these are actually new ideas. Government’s civil society supporters from the very first month of its formation have been suggesting similar ideas to President Sirisena Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, both directly and indirectly, even warning the possible policy and governance paralysis.  Maduluwae Sobhitha Thero was in the forefront of the civil society campaign to rescue the new government from the onset of an early process of political decay. But the new leaders had no time, or inclination, to listen to its sympathetic critics. The problem then is not the lack of good will and critical inputs available, but the government’s lack of seriousness about its own political and policy commitments.

At its mid-term turning point, the government’s challenge is to extricate itself from the present state of paralysis.  It is not easy though. There are no potential sources of democratic political energy in the Sri Lanka society at present for the government to re-invent itself.  Thanks to the yahapalanaya paralysis, the new political energies developing in Sri Lanka are favourable mainly for another phase of retreating from democracy. Neither are there impulses from within the regime to take any new and innovative initiatives that can turn the political tide in its favour. Bare survival as a regime with a combination of political manipulation and repression is likely to be the easiest path available to the government.

What a sad story of a transformative potential that the regime change of January 2015 opened up for Sri Lanka!

A way out?

Is there a tenable way out from this impasse? Actually, it is not easy to think about one at the momentum because Sri Lanka’s politics seems to be in a flux. While the political balance for forces is no longer in favour of the government, it is not yet clear whether the electorate will opt for an overwhelming shift in favour of the Rajapaksa leadership. The local or provincial elections, if held soon, will indicate the general lines of electoral trends.

Even though a way out is not clearly discernible, let me think about a distant possibility that can be explored by the government, subjected to a few conditions. The JO, despite its apparent abundance of resources and rhetoric, suffers from a serious setback. It is the fact that the JO is pretty hollow in terms of a political programme of reform and transformation that can ignite the political imagination of the Sri Lankan voters across ethnic boundaries. Its only appeal is the former President’s authoritarian personality and his type of clientelist rule.

It is in the JO’s lack of a political programme of democracy and the unrepentant commitment to autocratic and majoritarian politics that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe coalition can potentially exploit to reverse the current trend and improve its electoral chances. But, if the government leadership were to succeed, it has to undertake four immediate tasks:

  1. Re-build and re-consolidate the present coalition with a push for a re-invented democratic reform agenda, with a few possible goals to achieve, to be implemented within the coming one year;
  2. Take immediate steps to overcome the present crisis of governance thorough a new and genuine cabinet reshuffle, making it small, effective and governance-capable.  This step should be immediately followed up by a shake up of the bureaucracy;
  3. Manage the increasing levels of social tension through dialogue, compromise, and policy innovations, affecting a clear break from the UNP’s neo-liberal policy arrogance;
  4. Articulate a body of political ideas that can effectively counter the emerging arguments for illiberal, authoritarian political alternatives. That body of political ideas should also be rich enough to cement the ruling coalition ideologically and ally Sri Lanka’s diverse communities with a modernizing vision of change.

This is probably too idealistic a proposal for our President and Prime Minister even to have a serious look at. Yet, there is no harm in telling them that this is what they should actually be doing, while engaging in everyday fire fighting.