Rights watchdog releases torture camp account

[TamilNet, Thursday, 28 June 2001, 15:50 GMT]
Asian Human Rights Commission said Thursday it is issuing an eyewitness account of extreme physical and psychological torture, overcrowding and hundreds of disappearances/ extrajudicial killings at an illegal military detention camp in Wehera, Kurunegala district, 25 miles from Kandy run by the man being appointed Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, Major General Janaka Perera.

Tim Gill, spokesperson for AHRC, said, "We are releasing the harrowing account of the eyewitness not to encourage a witch-hunt of the appointed High Commissioner, but to show the scale of the atrocities committed in Sri Lanka between 1988 and 1992, and to call for those responsible to be brought to justice."

"The detainee recalls the extreme overcrowding and shackling in the cells and halls; the removal of the detainees when humanitarian agencies came to inspect the camp; the 'disappearance' of literally hundreds of fellow detainees; the sadistic forms of torture used on him and on others; and the psychologically impact of having to watch fellow detainees be tortured daily in front of you" Tim Gill said.

Hundreds of Tamils protested outside Australia's Parliament on 18 June, over the government's acceptance of a Sri Lanka Army General accused of human rights violations as Colombo's High Commissioner to Canberra.
Mr. Gill continued, "The fact that a man associated with such heinous crimes has risen to such a high level is not an anomaly - it is characteristic of the systematic nature of the disappearance of up to 60,000 people, carried out by those at the highest echelons of power in Sri Lanka. Instead of facing a court for this crime against humanity, those responsible are promoted on the basis of their experience in creating terror.

"Obviously such a record is sufficient for Mr. Downer to take the extraordinary step of rejecting the appointment to High Commissioner, Mr. Gill said.

"AHRC has known the eyewitness since the early 1990's and has studied the case carefully. AHRC has also independently verified the relevant facts related to this case. Further, the story of the detainee is completely consistent with the details of the detention camps kept during this period according to the official reports published by government appointed commissions. AHRC is also releasing today a summary [attached] of the Crime Against Humanity constituted by the systematic disappearances between 1988 and 1992, as many outside Sri Lanka are still ignorant of this atrocity, despite the fact that a UN Working Group rated it the 2nd highest number of disappearances committed in the world. These disappearances were not part of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. Following is an extract from the AHRC summary:

"These disappearances occurred mainly in the southern part of Sri Lanka and the victims were largely Sinhala youth. The disappearances were not a campaign by a hostile foreign enemy, nor were they part of a bloody civil war or revolution. It was a campaign by a democratically elected government [UNP] to remove an opposition. The victims need not have been involved with insurgents; attending a meeting or a speech or even reading a book was sufficient to be targeted for extra-judicial killing. Many of the victims were outside the insurgency movement; some victims were simply members of legally recognized opposition parties. Many were just children."

The following is the account of a former inmate of the Wehera camp released Thursday by AHRC:

'A Detainee's Reminiscences of Wehera Detention Camp, Kurunegala, Sri Lanka'

"I was a detainee of Wehera Detention camp - an illegal, military detention camp - from March to September 1989. The memories of the camp are very vivid in my mind and I still suffer nightmares due to this experience. My life was saved due to the intervention of Mr. Osi Gunesekara, a prominent politician at the time who had earlier helped Mr. Janaka Perera (the head of the camp at the time of my imprisonment) in his career. Mr. Janaka Perera has recently been appointed the Sri Lankan High Commissioner for Australia.

I was brought to the Wehera Detention camp on information provided by some informer. I had some distant connection with JVP in 1971 and this was the cause of the arrest, though I had no other connection thereafter.

Wehera detention camp was well known to people of the Kurunegela district and in fact it was quite well known in other parts of Sri Lanka too. Detainees from the following villages and towns were brought there: Chilaw, Galgamuwa, Tabutthegama, Giriulla, Mawathgama, Ridigama, Polgahawela and other nearby places.

At the time I was brought to the camp there was only one detention room. It was about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. When I arrived there were about 40 people there.

All the detainees were kept chained to each other all the time and only unchained when going to the toilet.

About two hundred soldiers were there in the camps. They were separated into several groups. There were those who went to make arrests; those who interrogated (consisting altogether of about 50 persons who were always in civilian clothes) and those who guarded the camp.

Every day new persons were brought. When the room was too full, new prisoners were kept tied up in the hall outside.

Every night a few people were taken out. Their names would be called and they had to come out. These persons did not come back. Sometimes, detainees were told that they had been taken to Colombo, but everyone knew they were taken out and killed. Soon we learned that dead bodies were found in the junctions of roads and rivers. Sometimes groups as large as 20 persons were brought from one single village. Usually all of them were killed.

About two months after my arrival, another hall was built and small rooms were created as cells. By then the number of detainees had increased. In this new construction there were places for hanging people by the arms or legs and for performing torture on the prisoners.

There were some common methods of torture. One was to tie the hands and feet (with legs bent backwards) of a person behind their back. Then a nylon rope was put between the legs of the person and their whole body was pulled upwards and downwards, using a pulley system. The moving rope on their crotch supported their entire weight.

Another method was to hang the person upside-down by the legs with a rope and pulley system and to pull him up towards the roof and then down again towards a fire lit on the floor. Sometimes chili powder was put into the fire so that the person would inhale the fumes along with the heat and smoke.

Another method was to put a polythene bag around the head of the person and to tighten it at the neck. In this state of suffocation and with their hands tied behind their backs, they would be pulled up and down with ropes and then jabbed at both sides of the waist with the torturer's fingers.

Yet another method followed at this camp was to use some of the detainees themselves as torturers. These were persons who turned to be informers after being brought to the camp. One day, as a result of assaults by these persons, one person died inside the camp itself.

Some of these things were done to me, and I saw these things done to others every day. Seeing this being done to others while you are in the same cell is as frightening as if it was being done to you and leaves a tremendous fear in your mind.

During the time I was there, 400-500 persons were taken out at night and never returned. There is no doubt they were killed and their bodies put in various public places.

Out of the people in the camp, the cases of two persons were raised in public inquiries. One was a person called Wasantha from Polgahawela, about whose disappearance questions were asked in Parliament. Another was a woman called Kumari from Mahawatte. I saw both of them at the camp prior to their disappearance.

A few months after my arrival at the camp, all of the detainees were put on a lorry and taken out. Several fainted, thinking that they were being taken to their deaths. We were taken to a jungle and kept there until nighttime and were then brought back to the camp. I learned later that Red Cross officers had come on that day to inspect the camp.

Some detainees including myself were taken to Poonai camp (run by police). Before being transferred, police officers took statements from us and also took photographs of us. Thus we managed to pass from the military custody (in Wehera) to police custody. This I know was due to international pressure. I also learned that those who were not transferred were killed before the Wehera Camp was closed.

If the complaints of persons made during and immediately after these times from the places mentioned above are taken it would not be difficult to make a list of persons who were detained at Wehera camp.

However, people have ceased to complain. It is no use. There was and is no real inquiry. If it is possible to convince people that there would be such an inquiry the people will come forward. I will also. And I can think of so many others. Till then, I too must look after my own safety.

The story of the Wehera detention camp is no secret. It is very much known publicly. The images of what people saw are bound to remain quite vivid in everyone's minds - more so of course in the victims' families. It is also quite well known that the head of this camp and its mastermind throughout its existence was Mr. Janaka Perera.

It is the expertise he acquired here at this camp which helped him to go up higher and reached greater heights".

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