The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) concluding its visit to Sri Lanka today said they found an ‘unofficial’ detention centre operating within the confines of a Navy camp in Trincomalee where detainees had been held for prolonged periods and likely tortured.
A member of the UNWGEID, Ariel Dulitzky also emphasised the need to repeal the PTA, pointing out that several of its provisions provided room for a climate of enforced disappearances to take place.
Underground cells where victims were interrogated and cell walls with dates engraved by distressed detainees were among the unnerving images that met the independent experts of the UNWGEID when they visited the secret detention centre, accompanied by some CID officials as part of their ten-day mission.
At the press conference held last evening at the UN Compound in Colombo to announce the concluding remarks of their visit, the independent experts said there were 12 cells in the sector of the detention facility that they visited, the interiors of which indicated that the detainees were probably held in the locations for prolonged periods.
“We saw the number 20100725 engraved on a wall and we guess it is a date – July 25, 2010. All that we saw during our visit bears evidence to the fact that the location which had earlier been used for storing arms, was systematically used as a detention centre,” Tae-Ung Baik of the UNWGEID told the media.
Vice-Chair of the Working Group, Bernard Duhaime who also commented on their visit to the secret detention facility said that, although specific reasons for the existence of the facility or evidence of torture, or inhumane or degrading treatment have not yet been identified, strong evidence points at an ample lack of a transparency during the first stages of arrests of the detainees held in the location, and lack of guarantees of due processes for the arrestees.
He also noted that their fact finding exercises revealed that victims held at the location were likely held in another site in Colombo before being transferred to Trincomalee. He added that the high security maintained within the premises, and the strong control of the entrance and exit points to the compound indicate that the victims could not have been transported to the location without the knowledge of those standing on guard and the authorities.
“It is an important discovery, and an important site, which we believe should be properly investigated. The dates carved into cell walls indicate that, if there was an effective investigation from 2009 onwards on the disappearances, some lives could have been saved,” UNWGEID expert Dulitzky said.
He went on to state that, so far, only 11 potential victims had been identified in relation to the location; but added that it was probable that many more people were detained in the facility, based on the number of cells and the years that it had been used.
Duhaime said that, despite Sri Lanka’s history of the use of disappearances on a massive and systematic scale for decades, as a means of suppressing political dissent during the war, and even after (which were carried out by state officials or affiliated paramilitary groups; and followed by an almost complete lack of judicial accountability) the present time has presented a historic opportunity to ensure justice is delivered to the victims and their families.
He stressed on the importance of ensuring the rights of the victims’ families and expressed concern over intimidating tactics, threats, sexual abuse and other forms of coercion or vengeance followed by some security and investigatory officials against families who sought justice for their loved ones who were missing. He said they had received information that some of the persons with whom they met were questioned in relation to the visit of the UNWGEID.
“These acts are absolutely unacceptable in a democratic society,” he said.
This is the fourth visit undertaken by the UNWGEID following their visits to Sri Lanka in 1991, 1992 and 1999. Over the years, it has transmitted over 12000 cases to the GoSL, of which 5750 are still pending. While commending the fact that massive scale disappearances no longer occur in the country, the independent experts however announced a series of recommendations to be considered by the government of Sri Lanka to ensure truth, non-recurrence and reparations.
“We are encouraged by the measures adopted by the Government of Sri Lanka in the recent months, particularly the stand taken at the recent UNHRC sessions. But we believe many challenges still exist in delivering justice to the victims,” he said.
The UNWGEID experts also welcomed the proposal to create an office for missing persons, but added that it was vital that it should have all the necessary technical capacity to conduct exhumations and was equipped with the requisite forensic expertise; noting they were concerned with the present lack of technical capacity domestically to conduct a proper exhumation or DNA tests.
They also noted that a separate, comprehensive legislation must be enacted that clearly states that enforced disappearance is a continuous crime to which amnesties, immunities or statute of limitations cannot be applied — especially in the context of crimes against humanity.
Among the other recommendations made was one to ensure the conclusion of the mandate given to the commission appointed to probe into disappearances. “This Commission does not have the confidence and trust of the victims; and its serious shortcomings should be addressed. To that end, its findings should be immediately transferred to the new office that has been proposed,” UNWGEID expert Dulitzky said.
The experts also commended the proposal to include the presence of international judicial experts in the accountability mechanism that is to be established and implemented, and noted that the lack of confidence that victims’ families bear in the government, and the lack of capacity of the judiciary to properly investigate and prosecute certain crimes — all of which could be addressed through such a measure.
Meanwhile, UNWGEID expert Baik proposed the initiation of a system to issue certificates of absence, instead of death certificates, so that the families of disappeared persons could access the compensation systems that have been made available to them for the past few years — but to no avail due to the absence of proof of death. (Lakna Paranamanna)