COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A visiting United Nations rapporteur said Friday that torture remains "endemic and routine" in Sri Lanka's counter terrorism methods and a number of persons being detained without trial under a harsh anti-terror law is a stain on the country's international reputation.
Ben Emmerson U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism said at the end of a five-day visit to Sri Lanka that he is concerned that even those arrested as recently as late last year have been subjected to torture, despite a new government promising to end such practices.
"In Sri Lanka, however, such practices are very deeply ingrained in the security sector and all of the evidence points to the conclusion that the use of torture has been, and remains today, endemic and routine, for those arrested and detained on national security grounds," he said.
Emmerson said that he heard "distressing stories" during his interviews with former and current detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act of extremely brutal methods of torture, including asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, the pulling out of fingernails, the insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, the use of various forms of water torture, the suspension of individuals for several hours by their thumbs, and the mutilation of genitals.
He said he obtained official figures which said 70 persons detained under the terrorism act have been in detention for more than five years without trial, with 12 having been detained for more than 10 years.
'These staggering figures are a stain on Sri Lanka's international reputation. Steps should be taken to release these individuals on bail immediately, or bring them to trial within weeks or months, not years or decades," he said.
Sri Lanka's bloody civil war ended in 2009 when government troops crushed ethnic Tamil rebels' 26-year campaign for an independent state. Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations in the conflict.
The number of deaths in the conflict is not clear, however, a conservative U.N estimate suggests 100,000 deaths. A subsequent U.N. report said at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of the fighting.
Sri Lanka was facing international sanctions for refusing to investigate allegations of human rights violations and war crimes. But the country's outlook changed after the election of a new president whose government co-sponsored a U.N resolution in 2015 promising to address the past and ensure accountability and reconciliation.
According to a March report by the International Truth and Justice Project — an evidence-gathering organization administered by a South Africa-based nonprofit foundation — the abuse has continued through 2016, well after the change of government.
The report is based on testimony from 46 Sri Lankan Tamils who fled to Britain or Switzerland and were once held at a Sri Lanka security forces' headquarters. Some victims said they were held for months or even years without due process, kept in cells so small they could not lie down or were beaten, raped or tortured. The military's chief aim, they said, was to learn of any ongoing rebel activity as well as the location of hidden weapons caches, according to the report.
Emmerson said that the fulfillment of the Sri Lankan government's commitments to the U.N human rights council has virtually ground to a halt.