Many say they never worked for the Tamil Tigers. But all tell tales of abduction, sexual abuse, torture and a release negotiated for a bribe, before the victims reached Europe using smugglers. The Sri Lankan government has denied all allegations.

In this July 18, 2017, photo, a Sri Lankan man known as Witness #249 shows brand marks on his back during an interview in London. He said his captors used hot iron rods to make the marks meant to symbolise tiger stripes for the Tamil Tigers rebel group. He, like others, escaped Sri Lanka and was smuggled to Europe where he awaits a decision on political asylum.
In this July 18, 2017, photo, a Sri Lankan man known as Witness #249 shows brand marks on his back during an interview in London. He said his captors used hot iron rods to make the marks meant to symbolise tiger stripes for the Tamil Tigers rebel group. He, like others, escaped Sri Lanka and was smuggled to Europe where he awaits a decision on political asylum. ( Frank Augstein / AP )

One of the men tortured in Sri Lanka said he was held for 21 days in a small dank room where he was raped 12 times, burned with cigarettes, beaten with iron rods and hung upside-down.

Another man described being abducted from home by five men, driven to a prison, and taken to a "torture room" equipped with ropes, iron rods, a bench and buckets of water. There were blood splatters on the wall.

A third man described the prisoners as growing accustomed to the sound of screaming.

"It made us really scared the first day, but then we got used to it because we heard screaming all the time."

Raped, branded or beaten repeatedly, more than 50 men from the Tamil ethnic minority seeking political asylum in Europe say they were abducted and tortured under Sri Lanka's current government. The previously unpublished accounts conjure images of the country's bloody civil war that ended in 2009 — not the palm-fringed paradise portrayed by the government.

Sri Lankan authorities deny the allegations.

In this July 27, 2017, photo, a nineteen-year-old Sri Lankan man known as Witness #267 shows his wounds during an interview in London. His thighs were marked with more than 60 cigarette burns - one of many punishments he endured during his detention in Sri Lanka earlier in the year.
In this July 27, 2017, photo, a nineteen-year-old Sri Lankan man known as Witness #267 shows his wounds during an interview in London. His thighs were marked with more than 60 cigarette burns - one of many punishments he endured during his detention in Sri Lanka earlier in the year. ( Frank Augstein/ AP )

One by one, the men agreed to tell their stories to The Associated Press and to have the extensive scars on their legs, chests and backs photographed. The AP reviewed 32 medical and psychological evaluations and interviewed 20 men.

The men say they were accused of trying to revive a rebel group on the losing side of the civil war. Although combat ended eight years ago, the torture and abuse occurred from early 2016 to as recently as July this year.

Piers Pigou, a South African human rights investigator who has interviewed torture survivors for the past 40 years in the world's most dire countries, says the sheer scale of brutality is nothing like he has heard before.

"The levels of sexual abuse being perpetuated in Sri Lanka by authorities are the most egregious and perverted that I've ever seen."

Most of the men say they were blindfolded as they were driven to detention sites. They said the majority of their captors identified themselves as members of the Criminal Investigations Department, a police unit that investigates serious crimes. Some, however, said it appeared their captors and interrogators were soldiers based on the types of uniforms and insignia they were wearing.

In an interview last week in Colombo, Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake denied the torture allegations.

"The army was not involved — and as for that matter — I'm sure that police also were not involved," he said. "There's no reason for us to do that now."

The Sri Lankan government minister in charge of the police agreed to an interview last month but did not follow through.

Despite its denials that widespread torture still persists, Sri Lanka has repeatedly failed to investigate war crimes allegations stemming from its 26-year civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were fighting for an independent homeland, and the Sinhalese-dominated government. The Tigers, as they were known, were designated as a terrorist organisation after a wave of suicide bombings. The government's forces were accused of targeting civilians, which is considered a war crime under international law.

At the end of August, human rights groups in South America filed lawsuits against Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Brazil and other South American nations. He is accused of overseeing military units that attacked hospitals and killed, disappeared and tortured thousands of people at the end of the war.

Upon the ambassador's return to Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena vowed that neither Jayasuriya nor any other "war hero" would face prosecution — a pledge that rights groups said illustrates the government's refusal to investigate its own soldiers accused of war crimes.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka's international profile is on the rise.

In May, the European Union restored the special trade status that Sri Lanka lost in 2010 after the country had failed to implement key international conventions. Sri Lanka is also paid to participate in UN peacekeeping missions and was recently asked to sit on a UN leadership committee trying to combat sexual abuse.

An AP investigation earlier this year found that 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers participated in a child sex ring in Haiti that persisted for three years — and no one was ever prosecuted.

Zeid Raad al Hussein, one of the UN's top diplomats who has pushed for accountability in Sri Lanka, was aghast at accounts of the 52 tortured men.

"While the UN is unable to confirm this until we mount an investigation, clearly the reports are horrifying and merit a much closer inspection from our part, especially if they occurred in 2016 and 2017," said Zeid, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The International Truth and Justice Project has gathered testimony from more than 60 Sri Lankans across Europe — 52 of whom were part of the AP's investigation. The group has been lobbying governments and international organisations to get justice for victims. Staff assigned the men witness numbers to protect their identities and the AP agreed to share their stories on condition of anonymity because the men fear they or their families in Sri Lanka could face reprisals.

In this July 20, 2017, photo, a Sri Lankan man known as Witness #205 speaks during an interview in London. The 22-year-old said he was beaten, water-boarded, hung upside down, burned with cigarettes and raped during his detention which he said was by the Sri Lankan security forces.
In this July 20, 2017, photo, a Sri Lankan man known as Witness #205 speaks during an interview in London. The 22-year-old said he was beaten, water-boarded, hung upside down, burned with cigarettes and raped during his detention which he said was by the Sri Lankan security forces. ( Frank Augstein/ AP )

The men said they were accused of working with the Tamil Tigers, but the government insisted the rebel group is no longer a threat. Nearly all of the men were branded with tiger stripes. One man had nearly 10 thick scars across his back.

Unlike most of the victims, Witness #249 admits to having been a member of the Tigers nearly a decade ago, joining up when their ranks had been depleted in the final stages of the war. He walks with a limp, caused when a piece of shrapnel left in his leg from a battle in which nine of his friends were blown up.

After the war, he returned to the family farm, helping his father. Last year, he married his high school sweetheart, and began collecting donations for victims of the war.

Soon after his wedding in 2016, he said, he was snatched off the streets, arriving at a torture room hours later.

"They heated up iron rods and burned my back with stripes," he said, closing his eyes and rocking back and forth. "On another occasion, they put chili powder in a bag and put the bag over my head until I passed out. They ... raped me."

His father eventually bribed the security officers to free him. He was hospitalised for 10 days after his release. Most of the men said their families paid an average bribe of 500,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (around $3,250) and up to $20,000 to be smuggled into Europe — hefty sums that sometimes forced their families to sell parcels of land.

Most of the men said they were sexually abused or raped, sometimes with sticks wrapped in barbed wire. Though rape carries a significant social stigma, the victims said they felt obligated to tell their stories.

"I want the world to know what is happening in Sri Lanka," a 22-year-old known as Witness #205 said during an interview in July. "The war against Tamils hasn't stopped."

Source: AP