BBC World News reveals recent allegations of rape and torture in Sri Lanka


As world leaders gather in Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the BBC Our World team has gathered first-hand testimony that Sri Lankan government forces are raping and inflicting torture on the minority Tamil population including in the government’s official rehabilitation centres. But the government denies such abuses and says the stories are propaganda, designed to further harm the country as it gets back on its feet.

In Our World: Sri Lanka’s Unfinished War, to be broadcast this weekend, reporter Frances Harrison meets Tamils who say they were picked up and brutally attacked as recently as this year. Victims say they were kidnapped, raped, burned with cigarettes, suffocated, beaten with pipes and burned with metal rods and forced to sign confessions in a language they couldn’t understand.

In all the BBC uncovered evidence of 12 people – men and women – who allege they were raped and tortured in Sri Lanka as recently as this year - most of them have medical reports corroborating their stories or have had their requests for asylum in Europe accepted, based on their allegations of rape and torture .

These allegations are coming to light as Tamils flee Sri Lanka and seek refuge in Europe and elsewhere. Many would only be interviewed anonymously for fear of retribution against their relatives back in Sri Lanka and, because of the stigma surrounding rape in Sri Lanka, victims fear bringing shame on their families. However for the first time some of them have agreed to tell their stories on camera and shared their confidential medical reports because they say they want to try to prevent similar attacks on others.

Nandini (named changed) agreed to speak on camera. She told Frances she was picked up from her home earlier this year and repeatedly raped by a succession of men in military and civilian clothing:

“Around five or six persons came in a van and said they wanted to talk to me, but my mum did not let them. They pushed my mum to the ground and tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me and threw me into the van. I couldn’t see where they were taking me but the journey took around five hours. I was thrown in a room. There were guards, they did not allow me to sleep, they started raping me that first night. They continued to rape me the next morning as well. I couldn’t bear the pain. They wore army uniforms.

“I have burn marks on the back of my shoulder, and also scars on my back due to the beating with pipes, and scars on my legs, knee and elbows from when I was dragged on the floor.

“I can’t sleep because of what happened to me, I often feel suicidal. I don’t feel like living.”

Dr Alison Callaway, a doctor who is an expert witness for the UK courts, has investigated more than 200 alleged torture cases from Sri Lanka in the past five years. She examined Nandini and counted more than 30 cigarette burns on her body, including her genitals, and concluded the physical and psychological evidence corroborated her story of recent rape and torture.

While the Sri Lankan Military say there have only been five reported incidents of sexual violence in the predominately Tamil north of the island between 2005 and 2012, the campaign group Human Rights Watch have documented 62 cases since the end of the war.

Charu Lata Hogg, Associate Fellow Chatham House, who wrote the report, tells the programme:

“There were enough pointers in the evidence that we gathered that showed quite clearly that this issue of sexual violence was not perpetrated by rogue officers, or were random acts of violence. There was a level of coordination and a level of, a pattern of abuse which was systematic across all the cases.”

Ravi (name changed) also agreed to speak out on camera. He claims he was forced to join the Tamil Tigers and had only been with them six months when the war ended. He was then detained for four years in the government’s official rehabilitation programme.

“They beat me, punched me in the stomach, they burnt me with cigarettes, I was beaten with plastic pipes filled with sand. They covered my head with a bag soaked in petrol. Then they submerged my head in water.

“I was tortured in all the places I was kept in, they touched my private parts and crushed my testicles. They would take us for interrogation and question us .They would put my testicles in the drawer and slam the drawer shut.

“Sometimes I fell unconscious. Then they would bring someone and force me to have oral sex with him. Sometimes if we lost consciousness during the torture they would urinate on us.

“I cannot say specifically who did it. If five people came two people would be in civilian dress and two would be in the uniform of the Sri Lankan Army.”

Ravi is one of seven men Frances found who said they’d been tortured during rehabilitation; four of them have both documents showing they were in government rehabilitation centres and medical reports establishing torture.

Dr Frank Arnold is an expert on torture; increasingly his caseload includes Sri Lankans:

“My fear is that this is an organised activity and I find it hard to believe if that is true that this could be done without conniving of state authorities.”
He told Our World it would be impossible for the wounds reported to be self-inflicted as some government supporters suggest:

“I’ve heard that rumour on many occasions. Obviously it would be convenient for the Sri Lankan government for that to be believed…It would be impossible for someone to sit still for this unless they were tied down or anaesthetised.”

Former Tamil rebel Siva (name changed) says he suffered torture while in detention. He has the court documents to prove where and when he was held - and letters from the International Red Cross who visited him. Sharing his experience on camera he said:

“I was forced to lie flat on the big table. I was stripped naked and my hands tied down. They hit me with cricket wickets on my hips. I was screaming in pain and pleading them not to hurt me. I told them I had been tortured enough. They had plastic pipes filled with barbed wire. At first I didn’t notice, they kept my head down and then they put the plastic pipe into my rectum. When I screamed in pain, they pulled the pipe out, leaving the barbed wire inside. Then they started pulling the wire out and I couldn’t bear the pain, I told them anything, even lies.”  

Kirsty Brimelow, QC, Chair, Bar Human Rights Committee England and Wales told the programme:

“The cases that you have gathered are striking because they have common features in relation to how the victims are picked up, what happens to them.  Particularly there is evidence of cigarettes being used to burn the victims in order to get compliance basically to carry out torture.  Now the use of cigarettes has long been held to be within the definition of torture so there’s absolutely no dispute upon that.  Is it systematic, is it widespread - there is plenty of evidence to tick both those boxes.  What does that mean?  It all equates to a crime against humanity and therefore in cases like this normally you’d be looking at them being referred to the international criminal court for further investigation.”  

In response to the allegations the Sri Lankan Government told Our World it was not fair to expect them to respond fully to allegations contained in anonymous testimony and suggested those who came forward could have been paid to discredit Sri Lanka or even tortured in the past by the Tamil Tigers themselves. They added:

“All we can say is that allegations of systematic abuse is a travesty of the truth for it suggests that this is the policy of the Sri Lanka Government. It is certainly not so”. 

In a statement the British Foreign Secretary said the UK believed that torture in detention does occur in Sri Lanka along with other serious human rights abuses. He said “We are very concerned by reports of a culture of impunity for rape and sexual violence” and promised to raise this issue vigorously while in Sri Lanka.

Our World: Sri Lanka's Unfinished War will be broadcast on BBC World News this Friday, 8th November at 2030 GMT, then on Saturday 9th November at 1130 GMT and on Sunday 10th November at 1730 and 2230 GMT  |  For more information contact Helen Deller, +44 (0) 7809 597710 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.