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Giving torturers a voice: UK Border Agency country information


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I have seen many country of origin information (COI) reports in my time, and I am generally a big fan of them, but the current UK Border Agency one on Sri Lanka is genuinely shocking. The COI unit at the Agency asked the British High Commission to make some enquiries about the type of asylum claim being advanced by post conflict Tamils. Judging by the response faithfully reproduced in the current COI report, the research process must have gone something like this:

Scene: Hilton Hotel Colombo

BHC official (unnamed of course) to waiter: ‘The usual please’

SGIO (Senior Government Intelligence Official, a.k.a. Sri Lankan MOD personnel relations officer, also BHCs drinking buddy): These Tamils eh? What are they saying now?

BHC: The usual stuff, scarring, but yet more scarring and, here’s a new one you’ll like, ‘we’ve been on Westminster protests and the Sri Lankan government will torture us on return’

SCGIO: These Tamils, clever chaps. See what they do is, when we interned them all, along with the entire district of Mullaithivu, they have a party, in the internment camp, if they can smuggle some arrack and cigarettes through the barbed wire and then they all have a go at burning and cutting each other for their future asylum claims. That’s if they can get over their dysentery, fevers, malaria and starvation and stuff.

BHC: Yea, good one. But some of them say you rough them up in the screening camps, what’s that about?

SCGIO: Heh, you’ve known me how long? We never laid a finger on them, it’s just their word against ours and why would anyone believe a bogus asylum seeker? That’s what your papers call them, eh?

BHC: Nice one. I’ll just my report, send it off to the COI boys and see you at the cricket next week? By the way, I need a quote from our usual unnamed human rights source. Is your wife still at that Red Cross shop?

SCGIO: Yeah, see you tomorrow, next one’s on me.

Which turns into these paragraphs in the current COI report:

8.35 A letter from the British High Commission (BHC) Colombo119, dated 11 May 2011, reported:

“I asked the Senior Government Intelligence officials if there was any truth in allegations that the Sri Lankan authorities were torturing suspects. They denied this was the case and added that many Sri Lankans who had claimed asylum abroad had inflicted wounds on themselves in order to create scars to support their stories.”

“[A Colombo based human rights worker] added that it was well known that many persons who were held in IDP camps at the end of the conflict scarred themselves so that on release they could make allegations that the Sri Lankan government had tortured them.”

The UK Border Agency are now relying on war criminals as a source of evidence. It gives a new meaning to the phrase blame the victim.

It gets worse, though. The Agency happened to leave out of their report the UN Panel of Experts report, which was made public on 26 April 2011. The COI report was published on the 4 July 2011. Read for yourself and make your own judgment about UK Border Agency source selection for their reports:

Extracts from the report on Sri Lanka by the advisory panel appointed by Ban Ki Moon

F. Credible allegations relating to events outside the conflict zone and in the aftermath

138. The plight of civilians who had survived the conflict in the Vanni did not end when they entered Government-controlled areas.

In spite of Government pronouncements that it was ready to receive a mass exodus of civilians from the Vanni as early as January 2009, the Government failed to prepare adequately for the time when large numbers did emerge and then had trouble coping. In general, the Government gave priority to security considerations over the humanitarian needs and well-being of the IDPs.

139. When they emerged from the conflict zone, many civilians were fearful of the reception they would receive. They were severely traumatized and exhausted as a consequence of their recent experience. Many of them were newly widowed, orphaned or disabled. Tens of thousands of IDPs had conflict-related injuries with at least 2,000 amputees among them. The situation, as large numbers exited was chaotic and many family members were separated from each other. In the process, many families were divided and placed in separate camps; provision for family tracing and reunification was inadequate, and the ICRC was not authorised to play a role in this regard.

140. Family separation left many women on their own and vulnerable to sexual violence. Pregnant or lactating women had suffered from lack of adequate nutrition, medical care, and enormous psychological strain while in the conflict zone. Forced recruitment of children also took a heavy toll on mothers.

141. The conflict took a particular toll on the young. Children as young as 14 had been the target of forced recruitment by the LTTE. Measures to avoid recruitment, including early marriages, had a detrimental impact on the health of young girls. In addition, thousands of children suffered violations such as killing and maiming due to the shelling. Some were killed because they had ventured out of the bunker to play. Children were particularly vulnerable to horrific injuries as shrapnel ripped at their small limbs. A Rapid Nutrition Assessment showed that around 25 per cent of children suffered from acute malnutrition.

142. Many children suffered from the adverse psychological impact of multiple displacements. Many had lost their parents, emerging unaccompanied and were not registered. Most children were malnourished, and many babies suffered from dehydration or diarrhea.

143. Likewise, the elderly were particularly affected by the conflict. In the multiple displacements, the elderly and others who could no longer walk, were often left behind. Some were abandoned when their relatives fled. Others had nobody to care for them in the IDP camps and died of neglect, exhaustion and preventable diseases.

1. Violations during the screening process

144. On leaving the Vanni and arriving in the Government-controlled areas at Vadduvahal Bridge and other locations, survivors of the armed conflict surrendered to the SLA. Incoming civilians were separated into different groups. First, the SLA generally strip-searched and checked them for weapons and explosives. Laptops and cameras (for the few that had them) were confiscated by security forces, leading to the loss of valuable information. People were then transferred, often by foot, to initial screening sites set up in places such as Kilinochchi Pulmoddai and Padaviya. At these sites, the SLA called those who had been associated with the LTTE, even for a day, to identify themselves and surrender, and promised vocational training and employment abroad for those who did. Instead, those identified as LTTE were taken to separate camps. A significant number of suspected LTTE were women and children.

145. In addition, the Government used former LTTE cadres from the Karuna faction or People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to identify suspected LTTE cadre who were separated and taken to other locations. The Government purposefully prevented international humanitarian agencies from accessing the initial screenings sites.

146. After this initial screening, surviving civilians were transported to a further screening site at Omanthai. Although men and women were screened separately, as part of the screening process, people were generally forced to strip naked causing humiliation and increased vulnerability, particularly among women and girls. Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and ICRC had some access to Omanthai, but were not allowed to interview people in private. After July 2009, the ICRC was excluded altogether.

147. Civilians in need of medical attention were transferred to hospitals in Vavuniya or the clinic staffed by Indian doctors at Pulmoddai. Vavuniya Hospital was overflowing with patients, leading to early discharges, and all patients were closely guarded by the SLA and subject to interrogation by police investigators (Criminal Investigation Department, CID, or Terrorist Investigation Department, TID). Some patients disappeared from the hospitals.

148. In particular, the screening process resulted in cases of executions, disappearances, and rape and sexual violence.

(a) Execution

149. Authenticated footage and numerous photographs indicate that certain LTTE cadres were executed after being taken into custody by the SLA. Photographs available to the Panel show many dead bodies of cadres (or possibly civilians), some with their hands tied behind their back. On 25 August 2009, the UK-based Channel 4 News released video footage, which showed the summary execution by Sri Lankan soldiers of several prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs. The prisoners in the footage are naked and blindfolded. They are kicked and forced to cower in the mud before being shot in the head at close range. The film shows several other prisoners who appear to have been killed earlier. A second film of the same scene, also released by Channel 4, on 2 December 2010. pans out over the landscape, showing the bodies of a number of other naked and executed prisoners, male and female. Among them are a young boy and a woman, the woman has been identified as a well-known LTTE- media anchor known as “Isaipriya”. Notably, lsaipriya is listed on the Defence Ministry website as killed on 18 May 2009 in a “hostile operation” by the 53rd Division. The extended video shows the faces of some of the soldiers and shows persons filming the scene with cell phones.

150. Photographs that appear to be taken before the executions show what appears to be the boy, sitting in a group of prisoners, who were alive, with their hands tied behind their back. The persons in the photograph are clearly terrified. When first detained by the SLA, some suspected LTTE cadre were also tortured. Photographs show bodies with signs of torture; a video shows a young man who has been tied to a tree and is covered in blood. He later appears dead, lying in a grave covered by a Tiger flag.

(b) Disappearances

151. The Government has not provided a public registration of persons at screening sites or Omanthai, neither did it allow international organisations to monitor the process. This makes it difficult to trace persons. During hearings by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a number of women gave accounts of how their husbands or relatives were taken from them when they first entered the Government-controlled area and that they have not been seen since and to date, the Government has not confirmed their whereabouts.

At least 32 submissions made to the Panel alleged disappearances in May 2009, some of them dealing with groups of persons rather than individuals. Many of these were persons who had surrendered to the SLA.

(c) Rape and sexual violence

152. Rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the armed conflict and, in its aftermath, are greatly under-reported. Cultural sensitivities and associated stigma often prevented victims from reporting such crimes, even to their relatives.

Nonetheless, there are many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by members of Government forces and their Tamil-surrogate forces, during and in the aftermath of the final phases of the armed conflict.

153. Many photos and video footage, in particular the footage provided by Channel 4, depict dead female cadre. In these, women are reportedly shown naked or with underwear withdrawn to expose breasts and genitalia. The Channel 4 images, with accompanying commentary in Sinhala by SLA soldiers, raise a strong inference that rape or sexual violence may have occurred, either prior to or after execution. One video shows SLA soldiers loading the naked bodies of dead (or nearly dead) women onto a truck in a highly disrespectful manner, in one case, stomping on the leg of a woman who appears to be moving. Rapes of suspected LTTE cadre are also reported to have occurred, when they were in the custody of the Sri Lankan police (CID and TID) or the SLA. International agencies also recorded instances of rape in the IDP camps, but the military warned IDPs not to report cases of rape to the police or to humanitarian actors.

(The above extracts are from pages 41 -44 of the report on Sri Lanka by the advisory panel appointed by UN Secretary – General Ban Ki moon)

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4 Responses

  1. Sri Lankan Tamils account for the great majority of my asylum practice. I share your disgust at the passage from the COIS report you quote: I was also flabbergasted when I read it.

    One tragedy at the moment for Sri Lankan asylum-seekers is the lack of evidence from sources that the courts are willing to believe of what many Sri Lankan Tamils know to be the truth about the current situation: Sinhalisation of the North with all that entails (displacement, rape, etc); the security services and pro-govt Tamil militias like the EPDP and TMVP abducting, raping and torturing people with impunity for reasons of extortion, revenge and simple terrorism. This is partly because the media has limited access to affected areas and partly because the narrative has moved on. The favoured government-repression stories are now all about Syria and if Sri Lanka figures in the news at all it’s about Rajapakse’s dictatorial behaviour.

    Except for Channel 4, who have been brilliant.

    God bless Channel 4, but even they have mostly been concentrating on events during the fighting, which doesn’t help the “Yeah, but it’s all fine and dandy NOW, isn’t it” attitude of the UKBA and, increasingly, the courts.

  2. I’m as curious as you are as to why the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka is not cited directly. There are references to it by third parties and a hyperlink but why not quote the report directly?

    Voice of America reported on 3 August 2011 that “Sri Lanka has released an official report, and television documentary, attempting to refute allegations its army committed crimes against humanity as its civil war concluded in 2009. Human rights advocates call the campaign a “whitewash”, but say there are signs Colombo is responding to international pressure.”

    The International Crisis Groups statement “Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever” makes interesting reading.


    I await decisions on those alleging torture in recent months with interest. I’m aware that such allegations are being documented by medico-legal experts. Self infliction of consenting to such violent act is considered under paragraph 105(f) of the Istanbul Protocol “Could the allegation of torture be false?”

  3. I was particularly struck, too, by the “[A Colombo based human rights worker]” who crops up in the passage you quote, and elsewhere in the report too. The human rights workers I have spoken to don’t go round saying the kinds of thing that this person (rather conveniently, a cynic might say) seems to be saying. Does anyone have knowledge of who this person is?

    1. What it doesn’t say is who the Colombo based human rights worker works for. Presumably Rajiva Wijesinha could be described as “a Colombo based human rights worker”.