GENEVA/COLOMBO (Reuters) - A U.N. rights watchdog called on Sri Lanka on Wednesday to investigate “routine torture” of detainees by security forces and rebuked its government for failing to prosecute war crimes committed during the country’s 26-year civil war.
The Sri Lankan military finally vanquished the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan guerrillas in 2009. The United Nations and rights activists have accused the military of killing thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, during the final weeks of the war and have demanded reforms and redress.
In a report, the United Nations Committee against Torture cited continuing reports of abductions of people disappearing into “white vans”, deaths in custody, poor conditions of detention and the use of forced confessions in court.
“We wanted to make it clear that the present is a problem as well (as the past),” committee member Felice Gaer told a news briefing in Geneva.
In Colombo, the government of President Maithripala Sirisena said it had a tough policy on banning any mistreatment.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for torture and any kind of human rights violations. That’s the new government policy and assurance that has been given to all Sri Lankans and international organizations,” Ranga Kalansooriya, director general of the government information department, told Reuters.
“Government is taking every possible step to adhere to this policy and taking steps to adopting legal and policy measures,” Kalansooriya said.
But the panel of 10 independent experts voiced alarm that a member of the government delegation sent to Geneva was suspected of holding “command responsibility” over the most notorious Colombo center for abuse in the last two years of the conflict.
The recommendations cited “consistent reports” from national and U.N. sources that torture remains common in regular criminal investigations in the South Asian island country.
The panel urged Sri Lanka to identify and prosecute perpetrators of “emblematic cases” from the conflict, including the murders in 2006 of the “Trincomalee Five” students, all Tamils, on a beach and 17 local staff members - 16 of them Tamils - of the French charity Action Against Hunger.
Gaer, asked about those cases, said: “What we saw was that there had been promises but that there weren’t investigations, that the investigations weren’t moving forward.
“We didn’t see evidence that the government is moving on the accountability issues either, the truth commission issues that it promised it would institute,” she said.
The Tamil Tigers were also accused of widespread wartime abuses, such as using child soldiers and targeting civilians with suicide bombers.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson