Karikalan, who has agreed only to be identified by a nickname, came to Australia as an asylum seeker by boat in 2010. He was recognised as a refugee – having a “well-founded fear of persecution” in Sri Lanka – and is now a permanent resident, living in Melbourne. Several of the Tamil asylum seekers stranded after arriving by boat in the Indonesian province of Aceh have been tortured in Sri Lanka and face certain persecution if they are returned, a compatriot living in Australia has claimed.
He said he was tortured in Sri Lanka alongside some of the 44 on board the boat, including the woman Anathi (not her real name) who was pictured on the boat, pleading with Indonesian officials to be allowed off, holding her fingers to her heading mimicking a gun being fired into her temple.
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The Guardian has been able to independently verify the details of Karikalan’s own claim to asylum, but cannot corroborate his claims about the torture of others, as they have not been formally assessed.
The current boat, carrying 44 asylum seekers, arrived off the beach at Lhoknga in the northern Indonesian province of Aceh on 11 June.
Indonesian authorities initially refused to let those on board disembark – several women who jumped from the boat on to the beach were forced back on to the vessel.
But as protracted bad weather and damage to the boat prevented it from being pushed back to sea, Indonesian authorities have allowed the passengers to stay in tents on the beach.
Indonesian authorities initially said the boat would be towed back into open water when the weather improved. The passengers said if they were towed back to sea they would continue on their journey to Australia.
But Indonesian officials have conceded it is increasingly unlikely that the boat is seaworthy enough to push back into open water. Indonesia has notified the embassies of Sri Lanka and India, and is seeking travel documents for the Tamils.
Karikalan said he was concerned for the safety of the asylum seekers. He said after those on board contacted him 10 days ago by satellite phone, he has not heard from them since.
Karikalan said he was imprisoned by Sri Lanka police’s Criminal Investigation Department in Colombo in 2005, during the country’s long-running and brutal civil war. He was detained because of his links to the separatist Liberation Army of Tamil Tigers Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. Two of his brothers were killed fighting for the LTTE.
Karikalan said Anathi and her now husband, Wasanth, who is also on the boat, had been in jail alongside him. He said they were all tortured daily, including being hung upside down while being interrogated.
“We watched each other being tortured. They would strip us naked and then beat us on the feet and body and put our heads in plastic bags that had had petrol in them. They would jam our fingers in a drawer and then beat them with a hammer. Once swollen they would pull out the nails with pliers. They would often beat us until we became unconscious.
“Both Wasanth and I had teeth pulled out by pliers. They pulled one bottom tooth on either side of my mouth. They couldn’t get the roots out. They broke the teeth. I finally got them fixed when I came to Australia.”
Karikalan says sexual abuse and torture, of both men and women, was common.
Related: Tamil asylum seeker held at sea wasn’t asked basic questions, high court hears
He said he was later separated from Wasanth and Anathi when they were taken to a different prison. When he was released, Karikalan fled Sri Lanka for India, where he faced further persecution, before boarding a boat to Australia.
He said both Wasanth and Anathi would face torture if they were returned to Sri Lanka.
“I saw a photo of her in the newspaper. It showed her pretending to hold a gun to her head and shooting herself. I know what she means by this. She may as well die rather than be sent back to Sri Lanka or India. They would probably commit suicide if this happened.
“They had a satellite phone on the boat. They contacted me about 10 days into their journey. But I haven’t heard from them since. Something must have happened to the phone.”
Those on board the boat reportedly did not pay a people smuggler to bring them from the southern Indian city of Velankanni from where they left in early May. Instead, the asylum seekers pooled their money to buy the old boat, which is now aground on the beach at Lhoknga and listing badly.
If the asylum seekers’ boat is towed back to sea by Indonesian authorities, and they intend to continue south towards Australia, they face almost certain interdiction by Australian authorities, who are aware of their location.
It is Australian government policy to turn back all asylum seeker boats “where safe to do so”. Asylum seekers undergo an abbreviated interview process at sea, after which an initial, but in many cases final, decision on their claim to refugee status is made. People screened ‘out’ in this preliminary on-water interview are immediately returned, without recourse to an independent appeal.
On-water assessments have been consistently criticised by the UN as “unfair and unreliable” and a breach of international law.
Twenty-one Vietnamese asylum seekers were returned to their country of origin after on-water screening this month.
But Sri Lankan Tamils whose boat has come from India via Indonesia would present a more complicated return.
Australia previously tried to return 157 Sri Lankan Tamils to India, from where they had sailed, in 2014, but failed when India refused to accept them. Those asylum seekers ended up within Australia’s offshore processing regime.
Torture by Sri Lanka’s extensive state security apparatus is well-documented.
Reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom from Torture have detailed physical and sexual abuse of men and women, mainly of Tamils believed to have links to the LTTE, both during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war, which raged from 1983 until the LTTE’s resistance was ultimately crushed in May 2009.
The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, said in May this year that torture remained “common practice” by Sri Lanka’s security officials.
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“Torture is a common practice inflicted in the course of both regular criminal and national security-related investigations,” he said. “Severe forms of torture continue to be used, although probably less frequently [since the end of the war], while both old and new cases of torture continue to be surrounded by total impunity.”
An interim report by Méndez noted that between 16,000 and 22,000 people had gone missing during the war and its aftermath, and reported that torture was a “routine method of work” by police investigators to obtain confessions.
“The nature of the acts of torture consists mainly of transitory physical injuries caused by blunt instruments (essentially punches, slaps and, occasionally, blows with objects such as batons or cricket bats) which heal by themselves without medical treatment and leave no physical scars.
“There were also several accounts of brutal methods of torture, including beatings with sticks or wires on the soles of the feet (falanga); suspension for hours while being handcuffed, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene and hanging of the person upside down; application of chilli powder to face and eyes; and sexual violations including mutilation of the genital area and rubbing of chilli paste or onions on the genital area.”
Several reports have identified asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka by Australia who have been imprisoned and tortured.
Karikalan said if those on board the boat in Aceh are returned to Sri Lanka, they face “certain incarceration and probable torture”.
“Many of them have Tamil Tiger connections, as I do. That makes you a prime target for the authorities.”