BEATINGS, sexual assault, and burning are just some of the abuses described by those who say they have survived abductions by Sri Lanka’s authorities and military forces, an investigation by Al Jazeera finds.
The new report from 101 East, released today, explores the troubling accusations of enforced disappearances that have plagued Sri Lanka for generations.
“They threw me into this corner and started attacking me,” said Nihal Sirasinga who was abducted in 2009 after he noticed a suspicious white van following him. “They restrained me and started hitting me with metal pipes…
“No matter how much I screamed, no one could hear.”
“There was urine and blood all over the place. They took my belt and started beating my back. After that, they dragged me by my legs on the rocks.”
Nihal’s story of abduction and abuse is not a unique one. Reporter Drew Ambrose spoke to several men with similar stories of the mysterious “white van.” Many, like Nishal, spend years in detention without charge or access to a lawyer. Nishal was eventually released once it was deemed there was not enough evidence to charge him, but this was after he spent a total of seven years behind bars.
More than 60,000 others have gone missing over the last 30 years; the victims largely belong to the minority Sri Lankan Tamil community. While there are many reports of this being used as a tactic throughout the 26-year civil war against the Tamil Tiger rebel fighters, Ambrose found that the practice continues today.
“Kidnappings were used to instil fear during Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war,” says Ambrose. “It’s been almost a decade since the war ended but we met people who say they were abducted and tortured as recently as last year.”
Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s and then defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa are accused of being the “architect of white van abductions,” which they allegedly used to silence critics and dissidents.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the former defence secretary said these were “baseless allegations,” denying that security forces or the government carried out enforced disappearances.
For the families left behind, the pain is still fresh and not knowing the fate of their loved ones makes it almost unbearable.
Every day for the last year in the region of Mullaitivuu, vigils are held by the families, many of them women, who have spent years searching for truth and justice.
As the civil war between government forces and the Tamil Tigers entered its final stages in 2009, it was this northern region of the country that became the frontline for fighting and the location of some of the most notorious disappearances.
Families here say hundreds of Tamil fighters were taken away by the military after they surrendered at the end of the war. Despite being told they would be released in a month, none of them have been seen again and the fight for justice has only led to flat denials from the government and military.
In an interview with 101 East, General Sarath Fonseka, who was army commander at the time of these disappearances and is now a government minister, denies this ever happened.
“During my time, I am 100 percent sure … incidents of this nature never took place,” he says.
General Fonseka also refuted claims that abductions are still happening in Sri Lanka.
“Under this government, there are no events reported like that, that I’m aware,” he told Al Jazeera.
But rights groups and witnesses say otherwise, with evidence of enforced disappearances continuing under the current president, Maithripala Sirisena.
“Since 2015, since the new government came into force, we have documented at least 80 cases which have been corroborated by medical evidence and other sources of independent evidence. Most recently we have in 2018, we have at least 6 cases of torture,” said Kulasegaram Geetharhanan, a rights lawyer working with several Tamil men hoping to gain asylum in the UK.
Milton Thusanathan is one of his clients. He tells of being burnt with cigarettes, having his feet and back beaten with sticks and being sexually assaulted with a bottle during the time he was abducted by police in both 2016 and 2017. He believes he was targeted because his father was a Tamil fighter and if he returns to Sri Lanka, he would be abducted again.
“I have no faith in our current government,” Milton said. “They preach one thing and then do something else. If I’m forced back to Sri Lanka, I will commit suicide.”
While the Sri Lankan government announced three years ago that it would create an Office of Missing Persons, the office is still not yet fully operational and little has been done to find those still missing.
Despite its desire to investigate the disappearances and white van abductions, the office doesn’t have criminal power and can only refer suspects to the attorney general.
“It is not punitive,” one commissioner tells Ambrose when asked about the purpose of the Office. “It is to find out what happened to persons, to trace people.”
This means, as Ambrose points out, “the families of those disappeared may get answers, but not necessarily justice.”
Watch the full report from 101 East, Sri Lanka: Abduction island, here.