"We Will Teach You a Lesson": Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces
(London) – Sri Lankan security forces have been using rape and other forms of sexual violence to torture suspected members or supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While widespread rape in custody occurred during the armed conflict that ended in May 2009, Human Rights Watch found that politically motivated sexual violence by the military and police continues to the present.
The 141-page report, “‘We Will Teach You a Lesson’: Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces,” provides detailed accounts of 75 cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse that occurred from 2006-2012 in both official and secret detention centers throughout Sri Lanka. In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, men and women reported being raped on multiple days, often by several people, with the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups frequently participating.
“The Sri Lankan security forces have committed untold numbers of rapes of Tamil men and women in custody,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These are not just wartime atrocities but continue to the present, putting every Tamil man and woman arrested for suspected LTTE involvement at serious risk.”
Most of the rape victims spoke to Human Rights Watch outside of Sri Lanka, and corroborated their accounts with medical and legal reports. All suffered torture and ill-treatment beyond the sexual violence. Because Human Rights Watch was not able to openly conduct research in Sri Lanka or interview people still in custody, these cases likely represent only a tiny fraction of custodial rape in political cases.
Many of the cases followed a pattern of an individual being abducted from home by unidentified men, taken to a detention center, and abusively interrogated about alleged LTTE activities, Human Rights Watch said. A 23-year-old man who had recently returned from abroad said he was abducted, held without charge, and then raped on three consecutive days until he signed a confession. A woman, 32, said she was detained by two plainclothes men who stripped and photographed her naked.
“They told me to confess about everything,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I refused to confess as I thought they would kill me. I was beaten up and tortured continuously. On the second day, a man came to my room and raped me. I was raped by different men on at least three days. I can’t remember how many times.” Rape and other sexual violence of detained men and women by the security forces during and ever since the armed conflict suggests that sexual abuse has been a key element of the broader use of torture and ill-treatment against suspected LTTE members and supporters, Human Rights Watch said. This torture is intended to obtain “confessions” of involvement in LTTE activities, information on others including spouses and relatives, and, it appears, to instill terror in the broader Tamil population to discourage involvement with the LTTE.
The victims also described being beaten, hung by their arms, partially asphyxiated, and burned with cigarettes. None of those who spoke to Human Rights Watch had access to legal counsel, family members, or doctors while they were detained. Most said that they signed a confession in the hope that the abuse would stop, though the torture, including rape, often continued. The individuals interviewed were not formally released but rather allowed to “escape” after a relative paid the authorities a bribe.
“Two officials held my arms back [while] a third official held my penis and inserted a metal rod inside,” said a man who had surrendered to government forces in May 2009. “They inserted small metal balls inside my penis. These had to be surgically removed after I escaped from the country.” A medical report corroborates his account.
Women and men who alleged rape told Human Rights Watch that they had generally kept silent about their abuse, fearing social stigmatization and reprisals from perpetrators if they reported the crime. The reluctance to report sexual abuse also stems from institutional barriers imposed by the Sri Lankan government to block effective reporting and investigation of rape cases.
“The government has hindered medical and psychological treatment for rape victims,” Adams said. “In the largely Tamil areas in the north, the army has effectively prohibited local and international organizations from providing services for sexual violence survivors.”
No member of the security forces has been prosecuted, let alone convicted, for rape in custody in the final years of the conflict or since the war’s end, Human Rights Watch said.
Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that military and police personnel seldom made any effort to disguise being members of state security forces. These included the military, military intelligence and the police, including specialized units such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Terrorism Investigation Department (TID). Victims frequently reported that members of several state agencies would together conduct abusive interrogations. They also identified the specific camps and detention sites where the abuse occurred.
Human Rights Watch said that the cases suggest that the use of sexual violence was not just a local occurrence or actions of rogue security force personnel, but a widespread practice that was known or should have been known by higher-level officials. The cases reported to Human Rights Watch were not just in battleground areas of northern Sri Lanka, but occurred in military camps and police stations in the capital, Colombo, and other locations in the south and east far from any fighting. These included the notorious fourth floor of the CID headquarters and the sixth floor of TID headquarters in Colombo.
Acts of rape and other sexual violence committed as part of armed conflict are war crimes. The Sri Lankan government has an obligation not only to prevent such violations, but also to investigate credible allegations of abuse and prosecute those responsible. Officials who knew or should have known of such abuses and failed to take action are criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.
In February, the United Nations Human Rights Council will be examining whether the Sri Lankan government adequately followed up on it commitments in a March 2012 resolution to provide justice and accountability for wartime abuses. The council should direct the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an independent international investigation, Human Rights Watch said.
“The government’s response to allegations of sexual violence by its security forces have been dismissive, deeming them as ‘fake’ or ‘pro-LTTE propaganda,’” Adams said. “It’s not clear who in the government knew about these horrific crimes. But the government’s failure to take action against these ongoing abuses is further evidence of the need for an international investigation.”