Torture Claims Cast Shadow Over Sri Lanka’s Commonwealth Summit

By Frank Jack Daniel 13 November 2013

COLOMBO — Allegations of abuses against ethnic minority Tamils in Sri Lanka four years after the army won a civil war against separatist rebels have put pressure on the government as it prepares to host a Commonwealth summit.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said weeks ago he was skipping the meeting because of concern about human rights and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, has also pulled out.

British Prime Minister David Cameron says he will ask “serious questions” and demand an investigation into allegations of war crimes.

Separatist Tamil rebels battled government forces for 26 years until an army offensive crushed them in 2009.

A UN panel has said thousands of mainly Tamil civilians died in the offensive. Both sides had committed atrocities, but army shelling killed most of the victims, it concluded.

The government says Sri Lanka is on the path to reconciliation, helped by fast economic growth.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking at the Commonwealth Business Forum launch on Tuesday, chided developed countries.

“For genuine and credible partnerships to be established for wealth creation, the more advanced nations need to be sensitive to the issues of the lesser-developed nations, and must be honestly supportive of promoting trade with emerging nations,” Rajapaksa said.

However, complaints of rights abuses, such as those recently aired in a forum organized by Human Rights Watch, have raised concern about whether Sri Lanka is really on a path to peace.

Two ethnic Tamils, speaking from Britain where they are seeking asylum, told reporters last month they had been detained by security forces, repeatedly raped and beaten in what rights groups say is a pattern of intimidation.

One said he was picked up on the street last year. During five days in detention, men beat him with a plastic pipe and repeatedly inserted a metal rod into his rectum, he said.

“I had no choice, I couldn’t stand the torture so I admitted to the allegation I was in the LTTE,” the man said, referring to the now disbanded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) rebels.

A 30-year-old woman said she was pushed into a van in August and raped in detention for 19 days by different men. “I could hear other women screaming in other rooms,” she said.

Both said they were released after friends and relatives paid a ransom.

Human Rights Watch investigator Charu Lata Hogg said evidence of rape had been detected by doctors, but that this was rarely included in asylum applications because of stigma. She said she had documented 75 cases.

Rajapaksa’s government dismisses such accusations, which it says amount to a campaign by rebel sympathizers to tarnish its image and detract from the Nov. 15-17 Commonwealth meeting.

The 53-member Commonwealth, made up mostly of former British colonies, holds a summit every two years. It has little power, but wields some influence in mediating disputes between members.

“Sri Lanka has zero tolerance on torture,” said military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya.

“If they were really victims, they should have gone to a police station and made a complaint,” he said of those who complained of abuse, adding that 15 cases of torture were before courts.

The government also rejects the findings of the UN panel of heavy civilian casualties at the end of the war, as well as two resolutions by the UN Human Rights Commission calling on authorities to investigate alleged war crimes.

Former war zones still have a heavy military presence that leads to abuse, said M.A. Sumanthiran, a human rights lawyer and member of parliament for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) opposition party, the former political proxy of the rebels.

He said public opinion in Sri Lanka, where ethnic Sinhalese form a majority, was hostile to rehabilitated fighters. Rape victims mostly came forward only if they left the country.

“It is widespread, that’s not to say there is a policy, but there is at least tolerance of such things happening,” he told Reuters this week.

After visiting the north last week, Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon alleged that soldiers there used Tamil women as “comfort women,” a World War II reference to women in occupied areas forced into prostitution by the Japanese army.

The TNA swept the region’s first post-war election in September, showing that the cause of autonomy remains strong, though violence is seen as unlikely to resume.