Thenral’s Story – Kidnap by the Tamil Tigers

Thenral was forcibly given training by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Tigers (LTTE / Tamil Tigers) and was compelled to do non-combat work for the LTTE, before being tortured, detained and imprisoned by the Sri Lankan government for two years without charge or trial.

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Photo credit: European External Action Service

Sarva’s release from detention was legally ordered by the Attorney General of Sri Lanka. The country’s Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) demanded that he be produced to the TID headquarters for further enquiry, and relentlessly insist that he has links with the LTTE, despite the fact he had been legally released. Threnal fears that he will be re-arrested and tortured if he appears before the Terrorist Investigation Department in Sri Lanka. He received protection from human rights organisations in Colombo who arranged safe accommodation until he was able to flee his home. His parents and extended family have been placed under strict surveillance. In 2011, there was an attempt to detain his parents from their home by a group of men in a white van who threatened to come back and harm the family if Threnal was not produced.

Threnal was about to start work as a seaman when he was arrested by the Harbour Police in Colombo. “On 19th July 2008 I was abducted by the police in a white van, and until 22nd June 2010 I was in prison.” The van crossed his taxi and another van closed in behind. “ A police officer came and pulled me out and removed my belt which he used to tie my hands together. He then made me kneel down on the road.” The taxi driver called on the crowd to help. “No one dared and they fled after the police spoke to my driver. I will never forget the face of the police officer whilst he was cocking the pistol at my head. He asked three questions: my name, had I been to Vanni (The former LTTE stronghold) and did I have a cyanide capsule on me?”

“I was put inside the van blindfolded and they put me on the ground and rested their feet on me. I cannot calculate the time or the hours that passed because my mind was not there, I thought so many things. After they took me out, they gave me a chair with no seat – still I am blindfolded and cuffed – and they start to enquire and torture. I say I have not been to Vanni, the former LTTE stronghold and mainland area of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. I said “no” because when I say “yes” they will not understand. They tortured me for two to three hours.”

As a desperately dark and ironic reminder of Britain’s colonial legacy, Sarva was told not to look behind as they beat his backside with cricket wickets, so hard that the wickets shattered in sympathy before his feet. His hands handcuffed to the shackles imprisoning his ankles, Threnal talked of the room in which he was questioned. “It was so very dirty, walls so soaked in urine that no one can stay there for more than two or three minutes as it smells so bad.” On his first day he was offered nothing and on the second day there was only water.

The Government has since admitted that he was abducted during his month of torture. Threnal’s family believed him to be missing. “They invented so many stories and tried to implicate me in all manner of crimes.” The police hung his handcuffed hands to a hook on the wall and bound them to the ceiling, his toes lightly touching the ground as he was beaten. “They knew the parts of the body to beat.” After admitting he would talk about Threnal was suffocated with a petrol-infused plastic bag. “I tried not to breath but they beat me. I can’t explain that pain.”

Threnal later admitted that he was trained by the LTTE: “But that didn’t do anything for them. They can’t prove I have done anything because I haven’t.” It was 2002, a brief interim of peace in this war ravaged island of serendipity. Diplomats, journalist and human rights defenders were freely passing through Vanni. Threnal went to rescue his brother’s business from bankruptcy. Threnal was in Vanni to retrieve money from those who owed his brother. Members of the LTTE offered to help him and he remained in their headquarters for days without news. Threnal was then told by the LTTE, that it was not possible for him go back home unless he had training or work here for six months.

Instead of farm work, Threnal opted for three months of basic arms training with the LTTE instead. Threnal’s mother appealed to the LTTE, international aid agencies and the police to release him; but to no avail. On completion of the training, it was decided that Threnal was too much of an asset to be released from the ranks. His Sinhalese language skills and physical prowess made him an indispensable asset and he was enrolled on an eight month advanced training scheme. Threnal’s mother convinced the LTTE to release her son for an operation. They finally accepted her pleas and Threnal was told to go to Colombo and work there for the Tamil Tigers as a go-between.

Threnal wanted to have nothing to do with the LTTE, and after his third day in Colombo, Threnaland his brother fled to Malaysia. “Now the LTTE and I have no connection. When I went to Malaysia the LTTE came and asked my mother where I am. She said she has no idea.” For years Threnal worked as a seaman around the world, but his commander training means, “many people know about me, my face.” Threnal told me about the homemade cyanide capsules the Tamil Tigers wore round their necks. This was standard LTTE modus operandi, in which they could silence themselves into submission by taking their own lives before being interrogated, if arrested by the Government. The cyanide vial could be bitten and would immediately enter the body, killing them before they could be interrogated or give out any information pertaining to the LTTE. Dying this way too was considered to be a form of martyrdom. “There was a bunker inside my teeth where I could hide the cyanide capsule.” Then began the third phase of Threnal’s story.

The International Committee of the Red Cross monitored the state of prisons both during and after the war. Threnal told me of how the police got round this. “When they enter the gates, the Police are alerted, as the road to the distance from gate to building is so long.” On one such occasion Threnal was held in a bunker during an inspection. “At that time there was a Hindu priest who identified that I was also a Hindu Tamil. The showcase prisoner and priest managed to get a message to ICRC representative – that when he leaves l will come out. You need to see him. So the ICRC representative went to the gate but never left and returned to see me.”

It was only then that Threnal’s parents were told that their son was alive and he went from being abducted (disappeared / missing) into the lawfully arrested category. The ICRC subsequently went to the ward in which Threnal had been detained and took photos of absolutely everything, “rice all over the place- we could leave footmarks in the rice.” On 22nd July 2008, Threnal was produced before a Magistrate and remanded first at the Colombo Remand Prison and later at the Magazine Prison in Colombo.

Threnal smiled and spoke with a courage that can only come from experiencing true despair hold you in its unforgiving embrace. Threnal told me of the Tamil and Sinhala prison divide, prisoners would beat him and fellow Tamils, and the guards would watch on and encourage the beating. On 13th November 2009, Threnal was severely beaten during a prison riot where a small number of Tamil political prisoners were brutally attacked and beaten by a mob of Sinhalese prisoners and jailers. A guard had asked a Tamil speaking political prisoner how many prisoners were in his unit, the Tamil, misunderstanding, responded by saying that it was the guard’s job to count. In anger the guard chooses seven Tamil names to torture as punishment for the prisoner’s rudeness. Threnal is first on the list. Three hundred other prisoners from all the cells in the ward, “carried me around and gave me to the prison officers who also beat me. That day they broke my tail bone.”

On Threnal’s first night at the new prison centre, there were as many as fifty prisoners in a room the size of the one we are now sitting in – the size of a standard room in university halls. On one occasion, Threnal was laid out on a table, as a prison guard sat on his backside and rolled a cricket wicket up his left leg. “The pain, I can’t explain, maybe a thousand times he hits me. You can’t stand or take that pain.” After a while, his leg numbs to the world and he doesn’t feel the pain. “That day there was much vomit. The next day I was visited by family, the police covered my face and I couldn’t walk.”

After he left Sri Lanka, Threnal went through South America, and finally from Argentina, he arrived in London airport, seeking asylum. Threnal has been in England for four months waiting on his request to claim political asylum. If returned, Threnal faces the imminent risk of persecution, arrest and torture upon arrival in Colombo. Through last year, including in December, military and intelligence officials have been visiting Threnal’s parents and relatives houses asking about him. The UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and various local and international human rights organisations have noted that torture in detention is widespread. In 2012, during two separate prison riots, 29 prisoners have been killed and many others injured.

Laura Hughes

First published in Nouse

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