When the crisis story of Dayan Anthony’s deportation to Sri Lanka by the Australian federal authorities hit the headlines in late July the so-called FACTS retailed by the reporters of the Australian and Ian Rintoul, as spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, were riddled with discrepancies. They also believed his relatives’ claim that Anthony had been tortured when originally arrested in 2009. Rintoul added that “other Sri Lankans who have been forcibly sent back to Sri Lanka have been arrested, tortured and imprisoned” (Amanda Hodge & Stuart Rintoul 2012).
The implications of Rintoul’s claim were not clarified further in the Australian media reportage. Indeed, the media men and women seemed unaware that (a) a number of Tamil refugees who had been in southern India for decades had been returning to Sri Lanka in the last three years; and (b) that Britain had deported a considerable number between 2009 and 2011, using chartered planes for the purpose. Such a horrendous lapse highlights the insular world in which the majority of Australian journalists seem to repose.
At first glance the brouhaha associated with the deportees from Britain would have provided grist to the mill that Ian Rintoul and his kinsman in The Australian, Stuart Rintoul, were peddling: British reporters of the same simpleton mind-set had retailed stories in mid-2012 that alleged harassment and torture of some of those deported. They presented these claims in definitive tone (see below).
These certainties have turned out to be a mess of pottage, but that is not my initial point. What is striking is that the Australian media were totally ignorant about this issue and the support it would provide for their line of sensationalism. So, it is to this terrain I turn, presenting it as an arena of significance for any evaluation of the Australian government’s path of deportation (since another 150 Tamils are presently earmarked in Australia as dubious asylum-seekers according to the media reports).
Deportation from Britain
Between 1 January 2009 and 31 March 2012, a period of fifteen quarter-years, at least 970 individuals have been repatriated from Britain: 207 in 2009, 242 in 2010, 413 in 2011 and 108 in the first quarter this year. These figures were released by the British High Commission in June this year after Shamindra Ferdinando of the Island made inquiries—their response being less than immediate and only after they consulted their superiors back home.
970 is a significant number. Note that they were not all Tamils. The Ministry of Defence sources have indicated only a total of 487 deportees plus 42 others “refused entry” in the period May 2009 to 31 March 2012 — making a total of 529 (the difference in totals is unexplained thus far). The ethnic breakdown in the Ministry figures runs thus: 163 Sinhala, 110 Muslim, 250 “Sri Lanka Tamil” and 06 “Indian Tamil”. Therefore Tamils constituted the majority, or 48 per cent, but significant proportions among these deportees have been Sinhalese or Muslim.
The British High Commission supplied this important statistic – 970 deported over 15 quarters – while informing Ferdinando that “they had not received any substantiated allegations of mistreatment on return of those removed from the UK” (Ferdinando 2012). It is my conjecture that the British embassy had a list of names and home addresses for those deportedv and had been attentive to its duty of care in the light of Sri Lanka’s dubious history on extra-judicial killing and harassment by indicating to all deportees how to contact the embassy if any untoward event occurred.
In any event the central point is that the British High Commission firmly discounted claims of “systematic abuse [directed] against the deportees” that had been raised by the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and such civil liberties associations as Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch (claims also in ANI 2012; Taylor 2012 & Malik 2012).
I have, here, flipped the temporal order of this contretemps on its head. Before the British High Commission was brought into the picture by Ferdinando, a series of efforts were mounted in Britain by Tamil activists and their allies, whether legal eagles, human rights activists and friendly media personnel, to prevent the serial acts of deportation. Facing failure, this campaign then raised a hue and cry about the torture and harassment of deportees who had been repatriated.
One stage of this propaganda campaign was in May–June 2011. On the 31st May 2011 the British chapter of Human Rights Watch (HRW) was said to have “documented 13 credible cases over the past two years in which failed Tamil asylum-seekers from Europe have been tortured after landing in Sri Lanka;” with this claim being leavened by the warning that those cases could well be “just the tip of the iceberg.” This startling allegation was presented by Jerome Taylor of The Independent with a prefatory statement that ran thus: “Dozens of Tamil asylum-seekers will be forcibly removed from Britain on a secretive deportation flight today despite credible evidence that they face arrest and retribution on their return” (Taylor 2012). The sensationalist pitch was capped by a photograph of a saintly President Rajapaksa which could be interpreted in derisive manner as quite the opposite.
Further down his report Taylor notes that Human Rights Watch said that they were aware of “at least three cases of Tamils who had been forcibly removed from the UK and subsequently tortured” and quoted David Mepham, (Director, HRW) thus: “There are likely to be many more cases, because these are the people who have managed to find their way from Sri Lanka to the UK, and that we have managed to interview.”
The Taylor presentation then proceeds to detail the harrowing tale of “Suthan” (a pseudonym to protect him). Suthan, we are told, had been arrested “five years ago,” thus in 2006(?), and subject to beatings in the course of the investigations by the Sri Lankan state agencies. However, he was obviously not detained for long because he reached Britain at some point before being apprehended as an illegal entrant and sent back on a charter plane in 2010. He was questioned by GoSL personnel at the airport in the presence of a British embassy official. However, he alleges that he was subsequently picked up by security personnel and that “he was tortured, including being whipped with electric flex, burned with cigarettes and having his head immersed in a bag filled with petrol.” He then managed to pay a bribe and escape to Britain again, that safe haven where he is “represented by Freedom from Torture, which has used medical evidence to document numerous instances of deportees being brutalised on their return to Sri Lanka” (Taylor 2012).
Jerome Taylor’s news item refers to two other Tamil deportees, one a woman and one a 33 year old man, who had managed to get back to Britain and secured asylum status because the Immigration and Asylum Chamber accepted the evidence they provided of torture and beatings. Whether these three instances overlap with the four described briefly by HRW on the 25th February2012 and said to be supported by medical reports is not clear.
If one accepts this presentation, we have 3-7 deportees who had the monetary capacity and acumen to overcome the surveillance of the SL authorities and slip back into Britain just like that. Their capacities of subterfuge indicate a possibility that they subjected themselves to bodily mutilation by their own hand or that of sympathetic friends as proof of their victimization — a possibility that any Asian who has witnessed the devotional self-flagellation at Saivite religious festivals would have in mind. Medical evidence cannot specify perpetrators. Thus, we face a dead heat in the possibility of torture by Sri Lankan police/military hands versus the possibility of concocted story and suitable “proof” provided by Tamil asylum-seekers seeking to penetrate the British system by whatever it took.
About the same time as Taylor’s outcry, the world was exposed to the story of the sufferings encountered by “Hari,” provided by the Guardian reporters Shiv Malik (2012) and Donna Covey (2012) as well as the ANI news service. This tale was embellished with a picture of his mutilated back. Hari’s previous claims for asylum, we are told, had been rejected by the British authorities “despite documentary evidence … from the International Committee of the Red Cross” which indicated that he “had been tortured by Sri Lankan authorities in the late 1990s” because he was in the intelligence service of the LTTE. He was sent back to Lanka on a charter plane in June 2010. There in Lanka, “disregarding the presence of British high commission officials, Sri Lanka’s security services subjected Hari on arrival to lengthy questioning. Fearing for his life, he took off, fleeing to a relative’s home away from his family in Jaffna …” (Malik 2012b).
After this magical act, it was his misfortune to be apprehended at a checkpoint on the 10th December 2011. Taken to the infamous fourth floor of the CID building in the CBD, Colombo, Hari was then subject to the worst of tortures. But, then, presto, some 17 days later “his uncle bought his freedom by bribing the guards [and] he fled the country and escaped by plane to Russia on 1 January. From there, hiding inside a truck shipping furniture, he made his way across Europe for 10 days and finally arrived at Dover” (Malik 2012b).
“Hari” appears to be a reincarnation of “Suthan.” We can surmise that they are one and the same person. Hari-the-Suthan is also a reincarnation of Houdini. To any Sri Lankan this tale reeks of the best of Sri Lankan cock n’bull, which commonly outdoes Irish blarney. Amidst the many facets of this mini-biography, two stand out: (1) Hari-the-Suthan’s claim that he was an intelligence officer for the LTTE in the 1990s seems nonsensical. Such personnel would have been prime targets in an era marked by suicide operations. If arrested, it is unlikely that any LTTE intelligence agent would have emerged from Boosa camp alive. (2) By his own admission we are told that he had mutilated himself while in a state of depression;
“Two scars on his body are not from Sri Lanka’s torture hall. They seem to follow the line of his tendons from his wrists and up his arms and they date from March when Hari was in Britain. Despondent after hearing that security services had threatened his family after he fled prison, Hari said he decided to end his own life by slitting his forearms and taking an overdose. “I began to feel guilty [about my family’s situation]. I lost all hope and thought my only solution was to end my life,” he said. He recovered and now he says he is angry at the British government as well as his captors” (Malik 2012b).
Self-mutilation!! Add to this a third feature: his extraordinary ability to fly out of Sri Lanka with forged papers in early 2012 – a demonstration of considerable resources and connections.
That hardened British reporters absorbed this blarney speaks volumes about their lack of acumen. That the British HR agencies accept the story is less surprising. Their emotional subjectivity of compassion opens itself to any which tale; while their vocation profits from maximizing the number of “victims” to protect. That said, these facile readings are not without an influential backdrop accounting for considerable prejudice against Sri Lanka in both HR and journalist circles, namely, the record of extra-judicial intimidation and killing in Sri Lanka over several decades and especially during Eelam War IV.
Extra-judicial Intimidation and the white van phenomenon in Sri Lanka, 2006-09
Eelam War IV (from August 2006) itself was the culmination of a long period of intermittent but vicious warfare wherein (A) the Sri Lankan government gained control of the western two-thirds of the Jaffna Peninsula in 1995 and held it with difficulty in the face of popular resentment and LTTE underground networks; (B) the presence of a significant Tamil populace in Colombo and its environs which enabled the LTTE to penetrate and hit selected targets (both key personnel and strategic sites). In the result both these regions were intermittently shrouded by a siege situation that could be likened, albeit approximately, to the circumstances enveloping parts of Western Europe in the darkest days of World War II.
The consequences were a dirty war, especially in the years 2006-09. Jaffna residents refer to the appearance of corpses every now and then, and believe they were suspected Tigers and/or civilians eradicated by the security forces and the Tamil paramilitary elements associated with the state. The Colombo locality was beset by a number of killings, disappearances, kidnappings for ransom, besides assaults. In several instances these acts were perpetrated by assailants who arrived on the scene in a white van. Many observers deemed some specific instances to be the work of the military’s intelligence arms.
Criminality is also rife in Sri Lanka. It did not require much intelligence for criminal gangs to resort to white vans in their kidnapping and killing operations because that could provide them with some leeway in police investigations. Criminals, however, could not be blamed for the 34 journalists (1 Muslim, 3 Sinhalese, and 30 Tamil) who were killed over the space of five years. One of these was the high profile Editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was killed by rod-thrust into head on 8th January 2009. Earlier, the Deputy Editor of The Nation, Keith Noyahr, was bundled into a white van at 10.30 pm on the 22nd May 2008 and returned the next day after a severe beating. The WHITE VAN is such a potent symbol of extra-judicial killings that Dayan Anthony referred to it just the other day (in Sinhala as sudhu van) –smiling as he discounted the claim that he was in physical danger from the Sri Lankan authorities.
This background clarifies the prejudice against Sri Lanka that is deeply ingrained in Western media circles. The issue relating to the debate I am addressing, however, is whether it (a) justifies sweeping generalizations now in 2012 when the warring siege mentalities and killings in Sri Lanka have been sharply reduced; and (b) whether it justifies the simpleton acceptance of every “horror story” of alleged victimization by a Tamil seeking to beat the international system of passport control.
Whither Now on Deportees?
Moreover, the issue we are addressing is that of deportees. Previous histories of a dark kind in state operations do not provide even prima facie ground for a conclusion that deportees will automatically be subject to duress and harassment. One must attend to difference in the temporal phases of the local situation. One must also distinguish “domains,” so that, say, the domain of journalists-under -ntimidation cannot be automatically extended to the domain of deportees. By failing to provide chapter and verse for the 13 instances of deportees said to have suffered punishment, Human Rights Watch weakens its advocacy. If some of these thirteen are still in Sri Lanka, their names and complaints could be indicated to the British High Commission and kept under wraps till investigated. If others have returned to UK and gained asylum, then their identity and specific claims will only sustain the sweeping declamation that HRW conveyed through the British journalists.
It is surely significant that HRW and other such agencies have remained silent on the issue of deportees after the initial foray and after the British High Commission negated the claims in late June. The ball is now in their court and in that of the civil liberty NGOs and agencies located in Sri Lanka, most of whom remained vocal in defence of human rights throughout the war despite a measure of intimidation. Circumstantial evidence rooted in the period of Eelam War IV does not carry weight at the present moment without specifics in the here and now.
Whatever the outcome of such reviews, it is clear that the history of deportation from Britain must be studied by the Australian government as well as the civil liberty organisations, such as Refugee Action Coalition. In criticising the Australian federal government for its “underhand action” in deporting Dayan Anthony, Ian Rintoul of RAC was totally convinced that he would face incarceration and torture because he believed the affirmations of Anthony and his relatives (Hodge and Rintoul 2012). When Anthony returned to Lanka and was trotted out by the Sri Lankan authorities to tell the world that he had arrived in Australia on a forged passport and relayed a farrago of lies, Rintoul immediately dismissed this evidence: “I think it’s fairly clear that any recantation is a result of duress” (Hodge 2012). Alas, for Rintoul there is a video of Anthony’s rambling interview which suggests otherwise.
Whatever one’s verdict on this point, Rintoul’s contentions on both occasions indicate obduracy rooted in prejudice and a horrendous blindness to the parallel story of some 970 deportees from Britain. There is a prima facie case here for us to brand Rintoul as a “secular fundamentalist” who would be more than a match, say, for today’s Islamic extremists or yesterday’s Christian evangelists in his tunnel-vision — albeit inhabiting a different kind of tunnel. There are none as blind as those so profoundly moral.
The author’s opinions are his own.
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