COLOMBO — Sri Lanka is illegally holding hundreds of detainees who are vulnerable to torture and execution, Amnesty International said Tuesday in a report urging UN support for a probe into alleged war crimes.
The 63-page document entitled “Locked away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees,” said arbitrary and illegal detention and enforced disappearances were routine in Sri Lanka, where rights abuses “go uninvestigated and unpunished.”
Most were arrested under counter-terrorism laws introduced during Sri Lanka’s long struggle against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were defeated after a massive military offensive in May 2009.
Rights groups have said that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the fighting with the Tamil Tigers, and have joined calls for an independent probe into possible war crimes.
“The LTTE had a horrific record of abuse, including killing and imprisoning its critics, but that did not, and does not, excuse the widespread and systematic mistreatment of detainees by the Sri Lankan government,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.
The Amnesty report was published in Geneva where Sri Lanka is currently seeking to head off a US move to censure Colombo at the UN Human Rights Council.
Zarifi said “little has changed” since the end of the war with the LTTE, with security authorities still taking advantage of laws allowing them to imprison people for months or years without trial.
“The message coming from the Sri Lankan government is that those who dare criticise it risk harassment or even disappearance,” he said, adding peaceful government critics, including journalists, had been threatened and arrested.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris said two weeks ago there were 750 Tamil Tiger ex-combatants still in detention.
Amnesty said former detainees had been harassed, re-arrested and physically attacked.
“If Sri Lanka is serious about ending impunity and committed to reconciling communities torn apart by conflict, the rule of law needs to be a large part of that equation,” Zarifi said.
He added that the war crimes alleged in Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war were “of such magnitude” that they risked undermining international justice mechanisms if unchallenged.
“The UN must support an independent international investigation into these alleged crimes,” he said.