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Two years ago I started a new job at Freedom from Torture. I write medico-legal reports on individuals who have been tortured and are claiming asylum here in the UK. These reports are expert witness statements that are used by their legal teams.
When I am asked about my job at Freedom from Torture, I explain that I have met extraordinary people from all over the world; along with the brutality and violence, I have heard stories of remarkable courage and of extraordinary humanity and compassion. It is by far the most interesting job I have ever had.
Once you have seen a number of clients who have been tortured in a particular country, a pattern of ill-treatment begins to emerge. The recent Freedom from Torture reports on torture in Sri Lanka and Iran have made it easier for us to talk about human rights abuses in these countries. And I think it is really important to speak out about these things.
Most people I meet seem to think that any human rights abuses committed by government forces in Sri Lanka stopped once the civil war ended in 2009. I now make a point of explaining that they have not stopped. Indeed, the persecution and torture of Sri Lankan Tamils seems to be persistent, systematic and ongoing.
Since I started working at Freedom from Torture in 2011, almost half of the clients I have worked with are Sri Lankan Tamil men (female clients see female doctors) and I have now become familiar with the pattern of ill-treatment our organisation has documented being employed by the Sri Lankan army, police and CID against Tamil men suspected of having been involved with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Of course, we need to remember that the LTTE committed atrocities and human rights abuses themselves. But the situation is not straightforward; many Tamils were forcibly recruited into the LTTE in 2008, when there was a policy of one recruit per family in the north of the island. Others volunteered to help the LTTE because of human rights abuses committed by the Sinhalese and many LTTE members were not directly involved in combat.
But what really struck me among the individuals I saw, were those who were picked up and detained after the civil war finished and the fact that many of these were people who had voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka after the war was over, thinking it would now be safe.
Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that some of these voluntary returners told me they were picked up specifically because they were thought to have taken part in anti-government demonstrations - not in Sri Lanka but here in the UK. Some said their interrogators showed them photos of a protest that took place at Heathrow Airport when the Sri Lankan President was visiting and told them they were identifiable in the crowd.
These men were then detained (most of them taken to a camp) and subjected to torture including rape, branding and electrocution. All were threatened with death.
One thing people never ask me about my job is whether it makes me angry. Usually it doesn’t; I feel amazed, saddened and often disgusted by what my clients have had to go through. And I am astonished by the power of many individuals’ resilience and courage.
But I do get angry about what is still happening in Sri Lanka and I believe we have an obligation to publicise it.
John Hayward is a doctor working for Freedom From Torture in London