Colombo human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias, who is acting on behalf of the man, Kumara, his wife and two children, said the asylum seeker group was put through an abbreviated and unfair refugee assessment process. One of the asylum seekers forcibly returned to Sri Lanka by Australia has said his claim for refugee status was ignored by officials.
“They were only asked their name, where they came from, and why they came,” Dias told Guardian Australia from Colombo. “No other questions. This man has a case for asylum that he wanted to present, but he was not given any opportunity.”
Related: Asylum seekers should not be sent back to Sri Lanka yet, say religious leaders
According to Dias, Kumara, who is illiterate, felt he was not listened to.
“They were not given lawyers’ assistance even after they seek those assistance, their case was not heard and not given any opportunity to tell their story as well.
“They did everything in a secret manner, no transparency.”
Kumara was one of 12 Sri Lankan asylum seekers – some Tamil, some Sinhalese – on board a boat that sailed into the lagoon at Cocos Islands on 2 May. The group was held on board Australian Border Force vessels, before being brought ashore on Cocos, put on a bus with blacked-out windows, and driven to the island’s airstrip, from where they were flown directly to Colombo.
All 12 were arrested upon arrival in Colombo, but, according to Dias, only two, including Kumara, have been charged with leaving the country unlawfully, under section 45C of Sri Lanka’s immigration and emigration act.
The pair is being held at Negombo prison, near Colombo airport. It is understood it will be alleged in court that the two charged were involved in organising the boat journey.
In 2014, after Australia returned 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted at sea, the UNHCR said the abbreviated assessment process was unlawful under international law.
“UNHCR has previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non-compliance with international law,” it said.
“UNHCR’s experience over the years with shipboard processing has generally not been positive. Such an environment would rarely afford an appropriate venue for a fair procedure.”
Under the 1951 Refugees Convention, to which Australia is a party, and under customary international law, countries cannot “refoule” a person, that is, send them back to a place where they will face harm.
Rights groups worldwide have raised serious concerns about Sri Lankan asylum seekers – particularly members of the ethnic Tamil minority – being returned.
In the UK, deportations to Sri Lanka have been halted by the high court, and government documents show at least 15 Tamil asylum seekers sent back to Sri Lanka subsequently escaped again and were granted refugee status because they had been tortured upon return.
Several reports have alleged that asylum seekers returned from Australia to Sri Lanka have faced arbitrary arrest, persecution, police brutality, and torture.
Related: Sri Lankan asylum seeker tells of terror on Nauru: ‘If I am sent back, I will kill myself’
On the same Saturday that the group was returned the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Juan E Méndez, said while progress had been made in post-war Sri Lanka, torture remained a common practice by the government.
“The testimonies I heard from victims, including detainees, who took the risk of speaking to me despite safety concerns, persuade me that torture is a common practice inflicted in the course of both regular criminal and national security-related investigations.
“Severe forms of torture continue to be used, although probably less frequently, while both old and new cases of torture continue to be surrounded by total impunity.”
“More reforms are needed before Sri Lanka can be considered to be on a path to sustainable democratisation.”