By Katie Nguyen
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The torture of minority Tamils in Sri Lanka by the police and military remains a major problem six years after the end of the civil war with victims beaten, burned and sexually abused, a UK-based charity providing medical care to survivors said.
In a report released on Thursday, Freedom from Torture said that in 2014, for the third year in a row, Sri Lanka was the top country of origin of those the charity helped.
The report, published ahead of elections next week in which wartime president Mahinda Rajapaksa hopes to reclaim power, was based on medical evidence relating to 148 Sri Lankan torture survivors, 94 percent of them Tamils.
Eight months after he was ousted as president, Rajapaksa is challenging the reformist coalition that replaced his government and that enjoys the broad support of Sri Lanka's Tamil and Muslim minorities.
"All this will be addressed after the final report of the U.N. Human Rights Commission will be made available," Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe told Reuters on Thursday when asked about Freedom from Torture's findings.
Wikremesinghe was referring to a U.N. investigation into civil war atrocities whose publication has been delayed until after the Aug. 17 vote.
All the victims, who had been tortured between 2009 and 2013, had been beaten, some with pipes filled with cement or pistol butts, Freedom from Torture said.
Nearly 80 percent had been burned with cigarettes or heated pieces of metal and 71 percent had suffered sexual violence. Some were subjected to waterboarding or suffocated with the fumes of burning chillies or petrol, the report added.
"Despite the fact the civil war ended in May 2009, torture has been ongoing in Sri Lanka in every year since, right up to the present time," Sonya Sceats, Freedom from Torture's policy and advocacy director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"As an organization we've continued to receive very high volumes of referrals of Sri Lankans and in fact, we've had a couple of cases of torture this year after the change of president," she added.
TORTURE ON RETURN
In January, President Maithripala Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa, whose crushing of a 26-year insurgency by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka in 2009 won him support among the island's Sinhalese majority.
Reviled by some who accuse him of brutality and abuses while in power, Rajapaksa has now set his sights on becoming prime minister - a position that has been given more powers under constitutional reforms.
Sceats said Tamils associated with the Tamil Tigers, or perceived to be involved with the group - even if they were not frontline fighters but had supplied medicine or food during the war - "remain at very serious risk of torture in Sri Lanka".
More than one third of the torture cases involved people who had returned to Sri Lanka from Britain after the end of the war.
"In all of our 30 years, we've never seen anything like this in terms of the numbers of people who've been tortured after returning from the UK to a particular country," Sceats said.
One 25-year-old Tamil, referred to as John by Freedom from Torture, said he was detained at the airport in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo upon arrival from Britain and questioned for hours about an anti-government protest he attended in London.
He said he was later moved to a prison and beaten repeatedly for 13 days before his family paid bribes to get him out.
He had previously fought for the Tamil Tigers and been captured and held by government forces, before coming to Britain on a student visa after the war.
"They beat me every single day I was in that prison. I was tied by my ankles and hung naked upside down from the ceiling. They hit my body with steel wires and plastic pipes filled with sand," he told Freedom from Torture.
"My head was held under water until I was suffocating and choking. They also put petrol in plastic bags and held them over my head till I passed out ... they also practiced some sexual torture on me."
Set up 30 years ago, Freedom from Torture treats 1,000 people at any given time. Its doctors assess claims of torture by looking for physical or psychological evidence.
If confirmed, their reports are submitted to the Home Office (interior ministry) to support a survivor's claim for asylum.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Colombo for Reuters; Editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)