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Deported asylum seekers face torture, jail (1)

Yu-Kyung Lee, 16 December 2010

 

“Mum’s dead”. The gloomy faced Sujendran Gunesekaram greeted me, as we met in person for the first time. His mother died of a heart attack on September 5, after suffering for three years.

Sujendran is a 27-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil originally from Muttur in Trincomalee, the war-hit town in the east. He was one of 254 asylum seekers on the Australia-bound boat Jeya Lestari that moored off at the port in Merak, Indonesia in October 2009.

The Indonesian navy intercepted the boat after Australia’s then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to request it.

Sujendran wanted to reach Australia at any cost. But he returned to Sri Lanka in November last year solely because of his ailing mother. “I would have not returned at all, unless my mother was not greatly ill”, he said.

However, on arrival Sujendran couldn’t go straight to his mother. He didn’t expect what would happen next.

Taken to the ‘4th floor’

It was about 1 am on November 26, 2009. Sujendran’s passport was being checked at Bandanaraike International airport near Negombo, 37km north of Colombo.

photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

An immigration officer had called three officers from Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

They took Sujendran to a room. They told him “you are LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — ‘Tamil Tigers’]”, which he denied. After the CID men left the room, a Tamil-speaking man with a “Batticaloa accent” — an eastern Tamil accent — entered the room via another door. The man started to beat up Sujendran.

Sujendran said he is sure the man was from “Karuna’s party”.

Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, or Karuna, is now a deputy minister of resettlement in Sri Lanka’s government. He was once an eastern commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tami Eelam (LTTE), but defected to the government side in 2004.

Ever since, he has run a militia group in a form of political party.

His group – initially TMVP, not split - has been accused of involvement in recruiting children, raping women and abducting Tamils and dissidents and harassing Muslims in the east. According to a 2009 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, it stated.

“… It is also reported that TMVP forces are responsible for extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody and abductions, which have apparently been carried out with the knowledge and tacit agreement of government actors and local authorities…"

The Batticaloa man shouted at Sujendran as he assaulted him.

“Your bag is from International Organisation of Migration [IOM], which supplied arms and ammunition to the LTTE, right?! You yourself have been involved in it, haven’t you?!”

Sujendran explained: “I was traveling with the IOM bag, because IOM has facilitated my return from Indonesia.”

After he was beaten for several minutes, Sujendran was put into a green jeep, where he was blindfolded. “I thought I was going to be murdered”, he said. “But I found myself at the 4th floor.”

The “4th floor” is the satirical word used for the CID’s torture and interrogation unit. There, Sujendran saw dozens of “LTTE suspects”. After a week, Sujendran was transferred to the Boosa Camp, where he said he was tortured.

Hung upside down, he said he was heavily beaten with bicycle parts and pipes. His left eye is “still painful” from the beating, he said. But he has refused to go to the government hospital for treatment.

“I don’t want to tell the government doctor what happened to me”, he said, “because the doctor would report my case to the government, who will catch me again.” As he cannot afford to visit a private hospital, he has endured the pain in his eye for almost a year.

photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Sujendran was released in January 2010 along with 30 other prisoners. But at least two of those released disappeared soon afterwards.

Sujendran said he had started to feel threatened again since early July, when a CID vehicle came to his workplace in Colombo. They called out for him to “come”.

“I ran away as I saw a CID jeep in the distance and I changed my mobile Sim card”, he said.

On October 6, three asylum seekers, including two from the Merak boat, returned to Sri Lanka. They too were “disappeared” at the airport shortly after their arrival but later “appeared” in the “4th floor” said an activist who is close to them.

On November 17, a 37-year-old British Tamil journalist named Karthigesu Thirulogas was arrested at the airport as he flew in to see his ailing mother. As of December 1, no one has heard from him, despite an unconfirmed report that he has appeared at a government function in the east of the country.

“There have been people who were released to be abducted, disappeared or killed”, a Colombo-based activist told me. “If the journalist was released, he would have contacted his family or colleagues with no doubt. But no one has got such contact.”

Another activist in Colombo told me that they also believed the journalist had been disappeared.

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