Shocking Details Emerge On Joseph Camp
by Ashanthi Warnasuriya
- “Joseph Camp” in Vavuniya, is said to have been used to torture detainees during and after the war.
- Most detainees report being kept only in their underwear during their incarceration
Shocking details have emerged about “Joseph Camp” in Vavuniya, said to have been used to torture detainees during and after the war.
The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) led by a former member of the UN panel on Sri Lanka, Yasmin Sooka, have in their possession witness statements, photographs and other details on the alleged torture camp.
A case study by ITJP on the camp quotes, witnesses as saying there were cells at ground level and cells that were underground at the camp. Most were purpose built as detention cells with metal bars or doors.
Ten male witnesses described being led down 10 to 15 steps into an underground cellblock.
Some cells were large and held up to 20 detainees. Others were noticeably tiny. Detainees were held at Joseph Camp for anywhere between a few days and several months.
Three witnesses spent over eighteen months incarcerated at the camp. None was visited by the ICRC at Joseph Camp or by family members.
Two detainees mentioned being handcuffed in the holding cells, secured to metal hoops embedded in the concrete floor.
Experiences were not uniform, but most detainees report being kept only in their underwear during their incarceration. A few were allowed to keep their clothing.
Conditions were generally filthy and cells did not have ablution facilities. Some witnesses held underground, described having to knock on the door of their cell for a long time before a guard escorted them to the toilet, which typically did not have a door.
In many cases, detainees were provided with a bottle to urinate in and a plastic bag in which to defecate, and periodically taken to empty them. Some were taken to wash regularly, others not at all. One witness spent almost three months without an opportunity to clean himself.
Many detainees described receiving a plate of food slid under their cell door; it was cold and of very poor quality to the point of being inedible.
A few received some basic medical attention (one was hospitalised) but most did not, despite the injuries sustained during interrogation and at the end of the war.
There was limited communication between detainees, and the presence of others was sometimes only heard through screams and cries from the interrogation room or holding cells.
Most detainees, including women, were held in solitary confinement during their detention at Joseph Camp, and had very limited interaction with other prisoners although some were held with others for brief periods of time. One woman described being held in a cell in 2010 with four girls aged 16 or 17 years; they were all made to sit naked with their hands and feet tied.
The ITJP is in possession of the names of 36 military intelligence staff who allegedly operated at Joseph Camp and more than 40 names of informers based there, as well as 25 photographs, and several phone numbers, and in some cases details of ranks, service numbers and career histories.
The photographs have been mixed up with 24 other photographs and shown to witnesses thought to have been held in Joseph Camp or the wider Vavuniya area. Several witnesses have recognised figures in the line up and some identified their alleged perpetrators from the photographs.
The violations depicted in the case study are horrifying but by no means represent the totality of suffering inflicted in Joseph Camp.
“We identified many more victims who were tortured in Joseph Camp from whom we could not take testimony because time and resources did not permit. This huge army garrison in the heart of Vavuniya Town has been a well documented site of torture for the last three decades and represents, at least for Sri Lankan Tamils, a potent symbol of impunity. Successive governments, including those of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena have all failed to investigate past violations and prevent future ones,” Sooka said.
The most recent case of torture and rape that the ITJP documented in Joseph Camp took place as recently as December 2016. Political inaction and denial on the part of the political leadership have resulted in military commanders believing they have the license to torture and perpetrate sexual violence.
The extent of torture – and the prevalence of interrogation rooms equipped with manacles, chains, pulleys and other instruments of torture – cannot be ignored or washed away. It is hardly likely that successive military commanders of this torture and detention site can claim not to have known about the extensive violations. At the end of the civil war in May 2009, the camp was used to interrogate and torture large numbers of people suspected to be members of the LTTE.
“The government condoned these violations and several of them occurred when General Jagath Jayasuriya was the commander of the site. Instead of being held accountable for these serious crimes he was promoted and rewarded by becoming army commander in July 2009. After the change of government in 2015, he was given a diplomatic posting to Brazil from where he is also accredited to Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Suriname,” Sooka said.
The ITJP is also in possession of evidence revealing that the officer who ran military intelligence in Joseph Camp at the end of the war was also rewarded with a prestigious UN peacekeeping posting in 2015.
“This level of impunity does not bode well for accountability in Sri Lanka,” Sooka added.
The government has been urged to publicly acknowledge that Joseph Camp has been used as an illegal detention site for decades, shut down immediately any unofficial detention facilities still in operation inside the camp (as already recommended by the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) and install video cameras at all entrances and inside the site, at multiple key points indoors and outdoors, (locations and angles to be identified by an expert in this field nominated by the Special Rapporteur on Torture), with live remote monitoring and recording to be conducted by the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC).
This report substantiates longstanding allegations that Joseph Camp, a centerpiece of Sri Lanka’s security infrastructure, has and continues to be used for illegal detentions and interrogations. It is a site where torture and sexual violence are pervasive and, employed with total impunity, and as recently as December 2016.
Witnesses confirm Joseph Camp maintained purpose built interrogation and torture chambers as an integral component of a carefully planned and deliberate policy of torture and sexual violence as well as other human rights violations and abuses.
The torture facilitated not only the intelligence gathering imperatives of the security services, but in any instances was designed to humiliate and break detainees, whilst gratifying an array of grotesque perversions by security force members.
It is improbable that Sri Lanka’s top military leadership, many of whom have been based in Joseph Camp, are unaware of the unlawful detentions and violations carried out at this camp. Repeated allegations of bribery and extortion by ransom for the release of witnesses corroborate an established pattern of organized crime at the heart of Sri Lanka’s security services.
This should be of grave concern to a government elected on a pledge of “good governance”. Documentation and investigations by the ITJP and others validate allegations that a culture of torture and sexual violence, mainly of Tamils, has become institutionalised within the security forces in Sri Lanka during the conflict and its aftermath. A legacy of violations and accompanying impunity remains entrenched despite Sri Lanka’s international and domestic commitments to investigate and prosecute such abuses.