The latest report titled Unsilenced, released by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) on September 19, makes for grim reading. The report addresses a form of torture that is rarely spoken about despite being widely practiced – sexual violence against men caught up in conflicts. The report is by Dr. Heleen Touquet, a researcher and an assistant professor at the faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Leuven, Belgium.
The study by ITJP focuses on the so-called “postconflict” era in Sri Lanka from 2009 to date, a period of almost 10 years since the war ended. The report makes it painfully clear that this particular mode of torture is widely practiced by the Sri Lankan security forces. Most importantly, it challenges the commonly held notion that it is women who are primarily subject to sexual violence as part of conflict-related sexual abuse.
Dr. Chris Dolan, who has worked with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, notes in his foreword to the report that the weight of evidence of systematic abuse contained in the pages of this report undermines any assumption that those in overall command had no responsibility for this type of torture.
There have been other reports in the past that have identified male rape as a form of torture used by the Sri Lankan authorities. The issue was raised in the Freedom from Torture Reports in 2012 and 2015, the 2013 Human Rights Watch Report, and the 2016 report on Sri Lanka by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. In fact, the UN report concluded that men in detention in Sri Lanka were as likely to be subjected to sexual violence as female detainees.
But the ITJP report is different in that it focuses just on male victims and provides detailed narratives of the type of torture. The report also exposes the strategic use of sexual torture engaged by the perpetrators — Sri Lanka’s security forces.
Unsilenced is based on 121 testimonials, all by Tamil men from Sri Lanka. The ITJP’s work for this project has been time consuming and challenging. It required trained investigators to spend considerable amount of time with the victims to build trust. On an average] each investigator needed to spend four to five hours per day over three or four days to build this trust. Survivors were willing to speak about their experiences because ITJP could guarantee strict privacy and often the disclosure itself proved to be cathartic. At the same time, as a general rule the victims would not disclose this type of torture to members of their family given the stigma attached to it in Tamil culture.
The alleged perpetrators were from different branches across the Sri Lankan security establishment, including the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and different branches of the military. While most perpetrators were men, according to the victims, there were also many women involved in sexual abuse of male prisoners.
As one of the survivors told ITJP:
I was also interrogated by a female intelligence officer who badly tortured me. She was in uniform. She beat me with batons. She was the worst torturer. She sexually tortured me. She stamped on my private parts and she beat me with sticks on my private parts. She tied my penis with thin thread and pulled it.
The sexual abuse of Tamil men has taken place in many locations: rehabilitation centers, army camps, prisons, detention centers, and houses. Joseph Camp, where detainees were held soon after the war, and Boosa, the prison for men arrested under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, were often cited as places where this type of torture took place.
Unsilenced draws attention to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), which concluded that incidents of sexual violence were not isolated acts, but part of a deliberate policy to inflict torture to obtain information, intimidate, and inflict fear.
The report is replete with detailed accounts of sexual torture. Below is an example:
Two new men came into my room. I saw their faces when they opened the door. They removed my clothes. I was standing against the wall. They removed all my clothes, my shirt, trousers, and underwear. One was wearing a t-shirt and the other a white collared shirt, and both had brown police type trousers. They didn’t say anything. I was able to see that they lowered their trousers. They began to rape me.
According to Unsilenced, this type sexual torture falls into distinct categories that included forced nudity, genital mutilation, rape, and coerced sexual acts. While all of them were humiliating, genital mutilation appeared to be the most painful. Coerced sexual acts were both painful and humiliating, as it involved male detainees forced to have sex with each other or rape a female inmate. In many cases the abuse was public, with several officers watching while the victims abused each other.
The mental, physical, and social consequences of such sexual abuse are enormous. Of all the torture they had gone through, it was the sexual violence that affected the male survivors most. It manifested itself in memories that disrupted their daily lives. Because sexual abuse is associated with shame and the social stigma attached to it, many victims believed they were contaminated and unfit for marriage. The already-married men were inclined to keep the extent of the abuse from their wives. As one of them put it,
I had a lot of pain in my anus. I was bleeding. I did not tell my wife that I was raped, only that I was detained and beaten. These are not things you can say to your wife. You do not talk about these things in my culture and she would be worried and upset. She was pregnant and I did not want to upset her.
The report concludes that sexual abuse of Tamil men in detention in Sri Lanka is massive and widespread and has occurred throughout the conflict and the postconflict period.
Unsilenced ends by noting that, given the political environment in Sri Lanka with its stalled reconciliation process, ongoing massive abuses of human rights, and impunity for war crimes, the situation is not conducive for this issue to be addressed locally.
Ana Pararajasingham was Director-Programmes with the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD). He is the author of “Sri Lanka’s Endangered Peace Process and the Way Forward” (2007) and editor of “Sri Lanka 60 Years of ‘independence and Beyond” (2009).