“First they would strip me. Tie my hands behind my back and hang me upside down from a baalkaya (wooden ceiling beam). Then the beating would begin. They’d each take a turn… beating me with whatever they could get their hands on. Poles, steel rods, even a wooden stool at times… Then another night came… They tied my hands behind my back… put a polythene bag over my head, and then started burning the bag with lit cigarettes. The searing pain was unbearable.”
This is Ravi’s* story. Ravi is a Tamil man from the plantations, who was abducted, tortured, and arbitrarily detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and released five years later, all charges against him dropped. Ravi’s story is representative of hundreds of such detainees languishing in prisons around the country. Many are made to contend with multiple charges, trudge from court hearing to court hearing, without an end in sight. For the few who are convicted, they start serving their sentences after having already spent years in prolonged detention.
“I was never part of the LTTE, and I was born and bred in Kandy,” says Ravi. “Everyone in town knew our family because my brother used to run the marathon for the army, and he was very popular. He ran like the wind.”
After being arrested in 2008, Ravi was brutally tortured by officers of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) for three months straight, until he couldn’t withstand the pain anymore and agreed to sign a confession written in Sinhala, the contents of which he’s still unaware of. Immediately after he signed the confession, the torture stopped, and he spent the remainder of his 4 ½ year prolonged detention (as he was never convicted of any crime), without assault.
The PTA And The Proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA)
Activists, both locally and internationally, have long been calling for the repeal of the draconian counter-terror law, the PTA, but to no avail. Although the PTA as a whole infringes on a person’s basic rights and freedoms, these are some of its most alarming provisions: confessions to police officers in the absence of legal counsel, prolonged administrative detention without judicial supervision, excessive power to law enforcement officers and security forces, and creating a permissible environment for enforced disappearance and systematic torture to take place. The PTA has also been widely used to suppress dissent and free speech and assembly.
Although the Government committed to review and repeal the PTA and replace it with anti-terrorism legislation in accordance with contemporary international best practices in September 2015, there has been a complete black-out in terms of public consultation and information in relation to the intended review of the PTA.
Further, in a disturbing development, there has been a leaked document titled “Policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka” currently in the public domain, which, at first glance, appears to be far more problematic than even the PTA. The proposed CTA looks to further reinforce the hugely problematic elements of the PTA, and seems to put forward a whole range of new provisions, spanning eight pages.
The government is yet to officially acknowledge the existence of this Act, although Opposition MP, M.A. Sumanthiran, stated that a draft counter-terror law was currently before the Parliamentary Oversight Committee.
Nameless People, Forgotten Faces
Even though the PTA has been used extensively during times of war, it still continues to pose a threat to dissidents and Tamils in particular. This article summarises the plight of many PTA prisoners languishing in prisons, some for upto 19 years in remand, with no end to their cases in sight. Some have had to wait 15 years in detention prior to even being charged with a crime, whilst others have had to endure 400-500 court hearings without conclusion of a case.
Rajani’s* father was arrested under the PTA in 1998 for allegedly being involved in bombing the famous Temple of the Tooth in Kandy in 1998. He was convicted and sentenced to death five years later in 2003. “I was 10 years old when they came home to take him. I still remember it as if it was yesterday,” says Rajani. “It was during Thai Pongal time, when two men we’d never seen before, came to our home, claiming to be long lost relatives from Trincomalee. They would call my father ‘Bappa’ (uncle). They drove a lorry and told my father that they had come on business to Kandy and as they were not familiar with the town, if he could drive them around town. They told him that they would pay him for his trouble. As my father was making a paltry Rs. 15,000 a month with which he had to somehow make ends meet, the additional income was welcome.”
Rajani recalled that whenever the lorry was stopped at checkpoints in Kandy, it was always her father’s details that were taken down, even though the vehicle belonged to the two men. “As I was a kid and very fond of my father, I too would ride into town with them on and off. On the last of these trips into town, they parked the lorry, bought me an ice-cream, and told me to wait in the lorry until they returned. When they returned a while later, my father was so drunk that he could barely stand, and the other two men seemed fine. After they put my father into the truck, I saw one of the men take something from my father’s shirt pocket. I didn’t know enough to see what it was. They then proceeded to drop my father and me off at home and drove away. We never saw or heard from them again,” said Rajani tearfully reminiscing the last week with her father.
“A week later there was a bomb explosion at the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth). Officers from the CID came to my house and asked for my father. When he came out, they asked him for his driving license. My father went inside the house to get it and returned saying that he couldn’t find it where it was usually kept. When they asked him why he hadn’t reported the loss of his license to the police, he said that he hadn’t realised it was lost till then. They claimed that my father’s license had been found near the temple premises. They then took my father away, saying that they would question him and send him back home. They brought my father back to our house in handcuffs, and searched our house thoroughly. Thereafter, they took him away and we didn’t know his whereabouts or hear from him for six months. We were all worried sick, not even knowing if he was dead or alive,” she said.
“When we finally got to know from someone we knew that he was being kept at the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) in Colombo, we went to visit him. My father broke down when he saw us. He said, ‘They are saying I planned the bomb attack on the temple.’ Many years later, he also told me that they burnt his body 21 times, hung him up and beat him and even tried to remove his fingernails. My father told me all this recently, as he hadn’t wanted to upset me when I was a child. He hadn’t been able to withstand the pain anymore, so he had agreed to sign the confession even though he had pleaded with them of his innocence.”
Rajani and her sister would dread walking daily to school as their neighbours would taunt them saying things like “aan bomba gahapu ekage lamai yanawa ” (“There go the children of the bugger who bombed the Temple!”) Since their mother passed away 10 years ago, they had nobody to protect them. Although they live with their uncle now, he too has three children of his own, so he can barely make ends meet. “What are we to make of a world that puts an innocent man in jail? If the law punishes an innocent man, then who will punish the guilty?” added Rajani helplessly.
Yogesh* was yet another victim of brutal torture, and was arbitrarily detained for eight years prior to being acquitted of all charges in 2016. Also from the plantations, he was arrested in 2008, with his indictment being filed only in 2012. Yogesh, who was detained at the Kandy police station for three months, claims he was brutally tortured (including being electrocuted with high voltage wires), by the TID almost every night, and was forced to make false confessions by being made to sign blank sheets of paper. These signed papers would later be filled out, incriminating Yogesh of having been involved in terror activities and possessing weapons. One time having endured electric shocks for 15-20 minutes, he had been bleeding and sent to the prison hospital. Although he requested to be sent to the General Hospital, his request was denied by prison authorities. Eventually, he was able to speak to his lawyers, whom he informed of the assaults and electrocution. The lawyers had even seen the marks on Yogesh’s body, and noted that his finger was broken and bleeding.
Tirelessly Working Towards Their Release
Lucille Abeykoon, Legal Coordinator for the Human Rights Office, Kandy, who works almost exclusively with PTA detainees, explains how the general situation works. In 2007 for instance, following a claymore attack in the Digana area, the Police carried out mass arrests of Tamil youth in one village. Once they were through questioning and torturing youth from one village, they would move on to the next village and do the same, and then on to the next. It was almost like a pattern they would follow. The beating and torture was always carried out at night, because the officers were usually drunk by then, she said. Often, detainees were made to sign confessions written Sinhala which they couldn’t read or understand, or they would be forced to sign blank sheets, which meant that the officials could write whatever they wanted. Sometimes, once the detainees were stripped, hung upside down, and beaten, the TID/CID officers would tell them that they had brought the detainee’s wife in for questioning in the next room. The detainee, fearing that his wife too might meet with a similar fate, would agree to sign the confession.
“Although many who have been released have told us their traumatic stories, they are reluctant to share their experiences publicly or pursue legal redress, as they’re fearful of reprisal by security forces or law enforcement authorities,” said Abeykoon. Most of these long-term detainees who have to return to their communities, find it very difficult to reintegrate. Many of them live in pain due to injuries caused by torture whilst in custody. They also suffer from sleeplessness and depression, and are most often shunned by their communities, Abeykoon explained.
Government Stance On Threat Of Terror
Despite mass calls for demilitarisation and the repeal of the PTA, the government has stood firm on the continued necessity for counter-terror legislation and heavy military presence particularly in the North and East, citing potential threats to ‘National Security’. The government has also put intelligence agencies on high alert to the possibility of local links with ISIS, further legitimising the government’s justification for counter-terror laws, surveillance and military presence.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act, a counter-terror law which has been in existence since 1978, has successfully managed to dehumanise the victims of its wrath in the eyes of the general public for more than three and a half decades now. It is not for us to judge the guilt or innocence of an individual. That is why we rely on the law to fulfil this function for us. But, when a law is specifically designed to deem unlawful processes as legal, we must and should be worried. Everyone is equal under the law, and must be entitled to due process. These are fundamental rights. They must not be up for debate or compromise. It is the duty of a government to uphold these rights, and we, the people of this country must ensure they do.
* Names have been changed to protect identities
Featured image courtesy telo.org