CCIJ is helping Roy Samathanam seek justice for the torture and imprisonment he suffered in Sri Lanka. We worked with him to file a complaint in November 2013 against the government of Sri Lanka before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, accusing Sri Lanka of several violations of Roy’s rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We asked the Committee to declare that Sri Lanka violated Roy’s rights, to call on Sri Lanka to take criminal action against those responsible, and to compensate Roy. In June 2014, the Committee transmitted Roy's complaint to the government of Sri Lanka.
We continue to work with Roy to review other avenues for justice and accountability.
The facts of Roy’s case
Roy, now a Canadian citizen, was born in Colombo. Growing up in Sri Lanka as an ethnic Tamil, Roy experienced persecution because of his ethnicity. In 1983, Sinhalese rioters torched his parents’ home. At age 18, Roy was arrested with other young Tamil men in his neighbourhood without cause. He remained in custody for a few days before being released without charge. Soon after, Roy fled Colombo and arrived in Canada as a refugee in 1990. Roy ultimately became a Canadian citizen.
In 2005, Roy took advantage of the lull in the civil war to return to Sri Lanka and get married to his wife. When she became pregnant, they decided to remain in Sri Lanka until the child was born. On September 14, 2007, in the middle of the night, plainclothes officers arrived at Roy’s home, armed with machine guns. The officers identified themselves as being from the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). On the pretense that Roy had done something improper by helping import goods for a friend’s electronics shop, the TID officers demanded a bribe. When Roy did not have enough money to meet their demands, they handcuffed and blindfolded him and put him in a van. Roy’s pregnant wife and child were placed under house arrest, guarded by TID officers. They were not permitted to speak to anyone, and Roy’s wife was only able to contact her family and the Canadian embassy after she threw a note through a window to a neighbour.
In the van with Roy, officers made threats in Sinhalese about killing Roy and dumping his body. They took him to the TID detention facility near the Colombo Harbour. They also arrested Roy’s friend. Roy was not held in a regular cell but was handcuffed to a desk in the office of the unit commander, Sergeant Abdeen. He would spend the next eight months handcuffed to a desk, forced to sit or lay on the floor in an uncomfortable position, often among cockroaches and rats. He was permitted little sleep and small amounts of food and water. He was continually hungry and thirsty.
Guards berated him, called him a “Canadian Tiger,” accused him of operating the intelligence wing of the LTTE in Toronto, and threatened to beat or kill him. The Officer in Charge (OIC) of the detention facility, Prasanna de Alwis, also accused Roy of being a member of the LTTE. During those eight months, TID guards frequently re-handcuffed Roy and other foreign-nationals held in the office in painful positions, interrogated them and beat them with hard rubber or metal pipes. They often threatened to arrest Roy’s wife and rape her. They told him that they would shoot him in the head. Roy was also forced to watch as TID guards tortured other detainees, including by administering electrical shock through the palms of the handcuffed prisoners.
During the months he was detained at the TID facility, Roy was not brought before a judge. The lawfulness of his detention was never reviewed. He was not permitted to see a lawyer. After a particularly brutal beating, OIC Prasanna de Alwis told Roy he would be released if he signed a confession but if he refused the TID would arrest his wife and child. Roy refused to sign.
In April 2008, Roy was transferred to the Boosa Detention Centre in Galle. He was kept in solitary confinement in a small cell without a toilet or water. Each day, Roy was taken to an interrogation room where he saw other prisoners being abused. They were hung upside down and guards poured gasoline and chili peppers in plastic shopping bags and tied them over prisoners’ heads then beat the prisoners with wooden poles and iron pipes. Guards sexually assaulted female detainees.
In July 2008, Roy was temporarily taken back to the TID headquarters in Colombo, where he was again handcuffed to Sgt. Abdeen’s desk. He was pressured to confess to being a member of the LTTE’s International Intelligence Wing. The interrogators threatened to arrest Roy’s wife, rape her, and kill his child if he refused to confess. Finally, in order to protect his wife from these threats, Roy hand-wrote a statement that Sgt. Abdeen read aloud from his notebook stating that Roy had imported an illegal GPS device for the LTTE.
After close to a year in detention, Roy was finally brought before a magistrate. The police filed a report full of false statements in order to justify his continued detention. The magistrate ordered Roy’s transfer to Welikada Prison. He was placed in a maximum security area of the prison, alongside murderers. Guards refused to provide him with his diabetes medication, and he began experiencing chest pains. On March 2, 2010, the Canadian High Commission sent a letter to the Commissioner of Prisons saying Canada “would highly appreciate if you could make immediately the necessary arrangements to take him to the hospital for medical treatment.” Roy was eventually taken to see a doctor but the police refused to allow him to be admitted to the hospital. The doctor prescribed medication for the chest pains but Roy never received any medication, and it was not until he later saw a doctor in Canada that he learned he was suffering from an irregular heartbeat and hypertension.
Roy was eventually able to negotiate with the prosecutor to drop all the charges, except one regarding possession of a GPS device. Believing he had no other choice, Roy agreed to plead guilty to this charge and pay a fine. He was finally released from prison in August 2010.
Roy returned to Canada and began working to get his wife and children to Canada. After he recounted his story to the National Post, the Sri Lankan government refused to give police clearance for his family to leave the country. Finally, in February 2012, Roy’s wife and children were able to enter Canada. They now reside together in Toronto. Roy continues to suffer from pain in his left leg, and pain and numbness in his hand. He has been treated for depression and diagnosed with PTSD. As a result of his suffering and medical condition, he is unable to work.
History of Discrimination and Abuses against Tamils*
Ethnic Tamils have faced persecution since Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. Numerous laws and policies were enacted by the Sri Lankan government, dominated by officials of Sinhalese ethnicity, that increasingly disenfranchised and marginalized ethnic Tamils. Anti-Tamil pogroms of 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977 and 1983 resulted in the killing of Tamils, sexual violence against Tamil women, the burning of Tamil homes and the internal displacement of almost 200,000 Tamils. Each pogrom had levels of government involvement as well as the participation of right-wing Buddhist fundamentalist groups. The Constitution institutionalized the secondary status of Tamils through language and religion provisions. Emergency Regulations (ERs) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) enabled the militarization of the Tamil-populated North and East and provided the security forces with wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention.
In 1983, in what is commonly known as ‘Black July,’ a week-long anti-Tamil pogrom claimed the lives of 3,000 ethnic Tamils in the capital city of Colombo. Evidence suggests that the pogrom was supported and possibly aided by the Sri Lankan government, police and army. Following Black July, a war began between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel army of ethnic Tamils. The war continued from 1983 until 2009 and claimed between 80,000 to 100,000 lives.
Between 2005 and 2008, the government of Sri Lanka increased its military and policing operations both in the North and East as well as in Colombo. Tamils were frequent targets of arrests, enforced disappearances, harassment and arbitrary detention. The Ministry of Defence even removed ethnic Tamils from the capital. By 2009, the Sri Lankan government successively took over LTTE-controlled territory and decisively defeated the LTTE.
There are credible allegations that the Sri Lankan government committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly during the final stages of the war. Tens of thousands died in the final stages of the war. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, “Sri Lanka has the most number of unsolved cases of disappearances reported to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances.” A high volume of the disappeared are Tamils or those who are critical of the Sri Lankan government, such as journalists, human rights workers, civil society leaders and NGO workers.
Human rights groups have condemned abuses in the detention facilities over many years, particularly those under the control of the TID. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, concluded in 2008 that “torture is widely practised in Sri Lanka.” According to Nowak, “The considerable number of clearly established cases of torture by TID and other security forces, together with various efforts by TID to hide evidence and to obstruct the investigations of the Special Rapporteur, leads him to the conclusion that torture has become a routine practice in the context of counter-terrorism operations, both by the police and the armed forces.”
*For sources on the history of discrimination and abuses against Tamils, please read our complaint to the Human Rights Committee.