Friday, April 22, 2011

Ex-detainees claim AFP officer witnessed torture in Sri Lanka

By Joel Keep and Rebecca Leaver | ABC News

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) has expressed concern over the conduct of security forces working in cooperation with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Sri Lanka.

Two former Christmas Island detainees arrested by Sri Lanka's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) after they were deported from Australia in 2009 claim to have been abused by members of the unit in the presence of an AFP officer.

Their lawyer, Lakshan Dias, says CID officers beat the men with wooden planks and threatened to rape their family members.

He says an AFP agent was visiting the CID headquarters in Colombo at the time.

"I was tortured. I was unable to pass urine for two days. I had unbearable pain in my body," said one of the men, Sumith Mendis, 31.

The CID denies the allegations.

The AFP has been providing the CID with equipment, training and intelligence support in an effort to combat people smuggling in the area, as civilians attempt to flee Sri Lanka following the end of the country's brutal 26-year civil war.

Mr Mendes and fellow ex-detainee Lasantha Wijeratna are being held at the country's Negombo prison, charged with illegally attempting to flee Sri Lanka.

Prior to their imprisonment they spent more than seven months on Christmas Island after leaving for Australia on a fishing vessel in 2009.

They were arrested by Sri Lankan authorities in August 2010 after attempting to flee the country a second time.

The AFP strenuously denies witnessing the abuse but has confirmed one of its officers was in the building at the time.

"The AFP can confirm records indicate an AFP officer was present in the building on the day the offence was alleged to occur," a spokesman told the ABC.

"At no stage did the AFP officer witness any mistreatment by CID officers of any persons held in custody.

"As part of the Sri Lankan legal process, all defendants appearing before court must first be examined by a judicial medical officer. The AFP has no knowledge of any concerns being raised."

However, Amnesty International reported in March 2010 that the two men were hospitalised at the recommendation of a judicial officer.

According to the men's lawyer, the AFP would have been aware of the abuses being carried out at the CID headquarters that day.

"There is no reason that the particular AFP officer [would] not have seen the interrogation and atrocities towards my clients, and my clients told me that they saw the AFP officer [witness] this interrogation," Mr Dias said.

Vetting procedures

Human Rights Watch has called on the Federal Government to institute vetting procedures when working with security forces with poor human rights records abroad.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the group raised concerns over "the lack of accountability for crimes committed by security forces... in many of the countries where Australia provides training and assistance".

The CID is known as a byword for brutality in Sri Lanka and has been accused of involvement in the forced disappearance and murder of an unknown number of civilians in recent years.

"If you say you are going to be taken into [the] CID, everybody gets scared. It is a known thing in Sri Lanka," Mr Dias said.

Since the separatist Tamil Tiger movement was defeated in 2009, an unknown number of civilians have been killed, forcibly disappeared or placed in internment camps as the Colombo government seeks to cement its grip on power.

Mr Mendes and Mr Wijeratna, both Singhalese, claim to have been persecuted for supporting the country's main opposition figure, Sarath Fonseka, who remains in prison on charges said to be politically motivated.

The revelations come as rioting continues at the Immigration Department's Villawood detention centre outside Sydney.

Several Tamil asylum seekers held there claim to have been tortured by the CID and the Sri Lankan military before they managed to flee the country.

One man described being raped with metal implements after he was detained by CID officers during a mass sweep of a Tamil neighbourhood in the town of Batticolo in 2006.

"After that, whenever I went to the toilet, I thought I could see my intestines coming out of me," he said.

He says of the 13 people arrested by the CID in the raid, seven were released. Six were never heard from again.

Other Villawood detainees described various details of arbitrary detention and torture by CID officers, including suffocation with plastic bags filled with petrol, sustained beatings and rape.

Mr Dias says the Federal Government should apply its commitment to human rights practices while combating people smugglers in the region and that its relationship with the CID was in contravention with democratic values.

"Common standards should be based on human rights, universally accepted human rights standards. Nothing else," he said.

© ABC News

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