The return to Sri Lanka of three at-risk Tamils violates Malaysia’s international obligations, says Human Rights Watch.
Sri Lankan authorities should ensure the safety of two refugees and an asylum seeker whom Malaysia forcibly returned to Sri Lanka in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said on 28 May 2014.
All three were under the protection of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, which recognised two as refugees and was in the process of determining the claim of the third for refugee status.
Although Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, customary international refugee law and international human rights law require it to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits countries from sending anyone back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
“Sri Lanka’s treatment of these three men who have been forcibly returned by Malaysia is now in the international spotlight,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia should now do all it can to stop further abuses for which it might be complicit.”
Malaysian authorities initially arrested the three men, all ethnic Tamils, on 15 May 2014, and detained them for 14 days for offences under the immigration act. However, in a news release issued on 25 May, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar announced that the three were “terrorists”, and they were returned to Sri Lanka that night without any evidence being presented to substantiate the terrorism allegations.
The men are reported by government media sites to be detained by the police’s Terrorist Investigation Division in the northern town of Kilinochchi. The official website of Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry has posted an article denouncing the three men as supporters of the defeated armed group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), heightening concerns for their safety.
For nearly three decades the government of Sri Lanka was engaged in a brutal civil war with the separatist LTTE. Although the LTTE were decisively defeated in May 2009, the government has maintained a high military presence in Tamil-dominated areas. Draconian wartime legislation remains in place, giving security forces wide berth in dealing with those suspected of links to the LTTE.
The forced returns took place in the midst of intensified security operations by the Sri Lankan government since March 2014, in which there have been scores of arrests and several deaths. Freedom of movement in large parts of the country’s predominantly Tamil north and east has been restricted in recent months.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented the Sri Lankan authorities’ use of torture against people suspected of links to the LTTE, including those returned as failed asylum seekers from countries such as the United Kingdom.
The report ‘We Will Teach You a Lesson’ detailed 75 cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse from 2006 to 2012 in both official and secret detention centres throughout Sri Lanka. Both men and women detainees reported being raped on multiple occasions, often by several people, with the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups frequently participating.
Victims described being beaten, hung by their arms, partially asphyxiated, and burned with cigarettes, among other forms of abuse. None of those who spoke to Human Rights Watch had any access to legal counsel, family members, or doctors while they were detained. Most said that they ultimately signed a confession in the hope that the abuse would stop, though the torture, including rape, often continued.
“Malaysia’s forced return of these refugees to Sri Lanka is no free pass for torture and mistreatment,” Robertson said. “Governments can’t just pick and choose when to protect refugees. Malaysia seemed more interested in burnishing its ties with Sri Lanka than honouring its obligation to protect refugees from possible persecution and torture.”