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Special Report No: 34 

Date of release: 13th December  2009

Let Them Speak


Addendum: The End of the LTTE’s Vanni Gulag


8.1. Muted Celebration

8.2. Manoharan and Chelvi.

8.3. The End of an Era

8.4. Bearing Witness: Ravi

8.5. Ravi relates the fate of  fellow prisoner, Inspector Jeyaratnam

8.6. Bearing Witness: Satheeshkumar

8.1. Muted Celebration

The end of the LTTE’s Gulag is a matter for celebration, but after years of seeing what the State is capable any inclination to celebrate must be muted.  The Government’s continuing impunity for operating killer squads, its  routine use of torture, quasi-legal prisons and mass detention centres make it difficult to be hopeful.

We do not know what is to come. The first time the LTTE started mass detention centres was after decimating its rival groups from mid-1986. A prison massacre of EPRLF prisoners in Jaffna became public knowledge in March 1987. It began building up its prisons in Neervely, Jaffna, even while the IPKF was here.

The LTTE’s prisons started expanding on a massive scale, once it made a deal with President Premadasa on an agreement to get the IPKF out, and in turn for it to wield untrammelled power informally in the North-East. Its project for cleansing society of ‘traitors’ intensified  as it eliminated members of other militant groups, dissident intellectuals who opposed its politics, supporters of the TULF and India, and those who had any kind of dealing with the Indian Army or rival groups.

Under President Premadasa, Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, JOC Chief General Cyril Ranatunga and Army Commander Hamilton Wanasinghe, the LTTE received not only money and weapons, but the security forces also helped the LTTE to round up its ‘traitors’ from all parts of the country and transport them openly to its prisons, torture and extermination camps.

Once the LTTE went back to war in June 1990, the same Government hammered the Tamils mercilessly with massacres and disappearances, but the LTTE carried on regardless using the war as cover, filling up its prisons and building new ones.

Our reports covered this phenomenon from the beginning, especially in Reports 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10. The last, published on 15th January 1993 had a chapter on the Jaffna Gulag. In Report No.9 of February 1992, we reported:

The number of prisoners now in captivity under the Tigers ranges from 2000 to 6000, according to various sources. But reliable estimates put the number in between 3000 to 4000. The brutal manner in which the LTTE torture the prisoners, using young boys who are even below the age of 16 to torture them, in the underground bunkers, and the sadistic nature of the boys who are involved in this dastardly act brings out the true colour of the struggle.”

The reliable estimate came from a former detainee who helped the LTTE devise a system of counting for the Thunukkai complex, which had about 3000. The estimate of 4000 was arrived at by taking account of several other centres, including houses in the interior of Jaffna and elsewhere in the Vanni, mainly Mullaitivu District. Many years afterwards, a Thunukkai detainee, ‘Rolex’ Mudalali, who is mentioned in Report No.9, told us inadvertently that out of 1350 who were with him, most were called by their numbers and taken out after making them jubilant with the good news that they were being released. He remained to the last with about 450 who were finally released. It was when he came out that he realised that those taken out earlier on the pledge of release had been killed. Undoubtedly, several thousands were exterminated.

Several of those who ended their lives in these prisons were close to us. Our attempts to get some action on the detainees did not get far. By 1992 making peace between the LTTE and the Government was the priority of most INGOs and Western governments – a phase that lasted until 2005. It was very painful and frustrating for us because many of those killed in prison were politically astute, courageous and dedicated people committed to the community’s well being.

8.2. Manoharan and Chelvi.

Among our close affiliates who were killed by the LTTE were students Manoharan and Chelvi. The information that went into Special Report No. 2 on the Army’s operation in the Islands of August 1990 was the daring work of Manoharan, a young man in his third year at the University of Jaffna. Worse than their deaths in a way was the indifference or rejection of most Western NGOs caught up in peacemaking. These two young people who were so special to our community, were non-entities to much of the activist world. We were considered on the wrong side, either anti-peace or at best, arid.  

In the South our exposure of the LTTE served as good propaganda when published selectively, leaving out our records of the security forces’ atrocities. The South did little to correct itself, and instead gave credit to the LTTE’s cause.

The advent of the Norway-brokered peace process in 2002 saw an enhancement of the same trend. We highlighted the fact that the peace process was doing little to stop the LTTE’s conscription of children in preparation for war. A very sad development was a painful meeting in mid-2003 with a delegation, most of whom were from a leading human rights organisation that had until at least early 2002 been forthright in its criticism of the LTTE, particularly in regard to child abduction. The delegation had apparently been persuaded to soft-peddle human rights based criticism and lobbying, and instead to engage with the LTTE in hope of encouraging it to abide by human rights principles.  Naturally, the strategy failed.

The LTTE had shown them one of its police prisons and appeared to be receptive to consider changes to its law enforcement and detention procedures. One delegate, who was not a member of the human rights group and was brought along solely for his knowledge of humanitarian law, was impressed by the LTTE’s response. He began criticising us, sounding as though he had on this one visit found out all there is to know about the LTTE and the Vanni. Some of the others, with far more experience were plainly embarrassed. That was the sad direction of things generally under the peace process.  Many of our natural allies and old friends were lured (at least for a time) into hopeless “peacemaking.”

We had reported little on LTTE prisons since 1993 because most of those held at the peak of the drive against ‘traitors’ had been killed or released and our contacts with detainees mostly dried up. We give here a sketch of the prisons in their last days, and how little change there had been, peace process or no peace process. Even more remarkable was to come across the same names of those responsible for torture and execution after 16 years and how some whose job was to rid the soil of Eelam of traitors found new careers as arch traitors. It says much about an organisation that was thoroughly rotten inside.

8.3. The End of an Era

We made contact through old friends with several former detainees, who escaped or were released from the LTTE’s many prisons. By early January the LTTE was anticipating the fall of areas east of Kilinochchi. It decided to execute many key detainees. Among them were Jeya, Farook and Lingan from the PLOTE, and Inspector Jeyaratnam from the Sri Lanka Police. Another person killed was Saman Abeysekere from Anuradhapura who had lost his way, was detained at Puliyankulam in 2004 and was suspected of being a CID agent. Saman was held at Alpha Two in Vallipunam and killed about the beginning of 2009. During the same period, mid-January, the Air Force bombed Vanampadi prison in Visuamadu and some detainees escaped.

Bearing Witness: Iyah

Iyah, was a farmer from West Vanni and father of four daughters and two sons (two daughters were married). He had  lost his wife in 2006 after the LTTE refused him permission to take her to Colombo to remove a growth in the womb. She was allowed to go to Jaffna where she died.).  

In 2008, Iyah did what almost every parent tried to do when the LTTE began conscription. He helped his children evade recruitment. He kept his youngest boy (OL student) in hiding, and he managed to send his remaining children out; they surrendered to the Army and were kept in Kallimoddai IDP camp started in 2008. The LTTE which regarded him as having defrauded them, by protecting his children, arrested him at night in April 2008.

Iyah was taken to a camp for punitive labour. He was put to hammering out plates of lead and cutting numbers on them. These were planted on sticks. When artillery support is called, cadres gave the number on the stick near them, whose GPS coordinates are computerised. 

Iyah was later transferred to Alpha Two. Many of the detainees there were persons like Iyah. Athipar Raveendran, another detainee there, was a principal from Vattakkachchi, who had protected his son from conscription by the LTTE. There was a doctor in the same position. Martin, a 58-year-old engineer who had come from Colombo in connection with some work had been detained on suspicion. An Iyer, a Brahmin priest who used to come from Jaffna to conduct poojas at a temple in Akkarayan, had been detained on suspicion of spying for the Sri Lankan Army. Iyah said his hair was cut, his yellow string (sacred thread) was removed and he had been forced to eat meat. Iyah said Martin was released before the Air Force bombing.

There were 230 prisoners in Alpha Two. Iyah who is a native of West Vanni places the number that escaped at about 150. Many of the escapees mingled with the IDPs on the move and ended up in the NFZ at Puthumattalan. Several others made it along other routes, were killed by the Army’s reconnaissance units or were again caught by the LTTE.

Iyah himself upon escape joined the displaced who were moving further east in Vanni and also found his younger son among the IDPs. He does not know the fate of many of the others.

Iyah was among those IDPs who unreservedly commended President Rajapakse. He said no one took notice of them, not their MPs, not the international community and if not for Mahinda’s military operation, he may not have got out alive. The next case gives more details about the entire system.

8.4. Bearing Witness: Ravi

Ravi is an Indian national who came by sea, as people travelled up and down the Palk Strait freely, from time immemorial, before passports were invented. He and his father came as salesmen, selling textiles and other sundry goods, during the cease fire in 2003. The LTTE detained them on suspicion and held them separately. After six years, he has exchanged his Madurai Tamil for Jaffna Tamil.

Upon being detained, Ravi was sent to the prison Tango Ten in Vallipunam and soon afterwards to Siddharthan Camp nearby where he was placed in a cage with his legs chained. The person in charge of interrogating him was Mathavan Master and a senior person there was Kanthi.

Ravi says he was regularly taken out of the cage, tied to a banyan tree and beaten by Kanthi. Others who came there also beat him and tortured him, among whom were Thooyavan, Mithilan and Sutha. The charge against him was that he had been sent by Indian Intelligence.

We have already encountered Kanthi as the big man in the torture chamber at Thunukkai Complex, which included Charles Camp, in the early 1990s (Ch.4 of Report No.10). The Complex, which was built with materials obtained with the assistance of the Government during the previous peace talks, was closed after the commencement of war in 1990 and the key men, like Kanthi, were moved to the complex of smaller camps in Jaffna.

Ravi says he was in the cage for five months during which time the meals were brought to prisoners on time, but to defecate and urinate they were given plastic bags to do it inside the cage. His legs were chained. Meanwhile in order to avoid further torture, he had falsely admitted that he was sent by Indian Intelligence.

After the five months he was allowed out, but forbidden to talk. After a year he was in a

cell with others and that was when he got to know his fellows. Ravi also got to know four Sinhalese men who were fellow prisoners. One who became very friendly with him was Saman Abeysekere. Saman who was from Anuradhapura had lost his way and was caught by the LTTE in Puliyankulam during the peace process in 2004 and was immediately suspected of being a CID agent. Saman who could speak Tamil told him wistfully about his home and sisters in Anuradhapura. He said he had been tortured with electric shocks.

Another detainee he met was Ruthiran, a businessman from Vavuniya who used to come to the Vanni on business. The LTTE arrested him on suspicion of aiding the Sri Lankan forces to plant landmines in the Vanni. He was kept in a lone cage.

Remarkably, businessmen and Brahmin priests have been suspected and targeted by both sides. Brahmin priests were among those killed by state killer squads in Jaffna. Their professions gave them a wide range of contacts, which made them suspect in the eyes of paranoid security men.

Ravi told us he also met Sri, who kept a betel shop at Paranthan Junction who was detained as a suspected spy. He met Xavier from Vidathalthivu, who was arrested for smuggling. The LTTE was very sensitive to smuggling as the same smugglers also made money by transporting young persons avoiding conscription out of the LTTE’s area. Xavier, like many other detainees was sent chained to several others to cut bunkers on the frontlines. He was killed while cutting bunkers at Muhamalai in a Kfir bomber attack in June 2008. Ravi also knew that soldier prisoners from the Sri Lankan Army were kept in a camp at a cocoanut grove in Udayarkaddu.

Ravi spoke warmly of Farook, Lingan and Jeya. They comforted him saying the LTTE would release him. Farook, he said, once tried to escape, was caught near Omanthai and brought back.

During the Madhu Festival of 2006, Ravi heard that the LTTE arrested several hundred who had come from other areas, suspecting them of spying.

In due course he was sent to Alpha Five, later renamed TELO – India, which was also in the Vallipunam area, across the lagoon from the Sea Tiger base at Chalai, giving it additional security from escape. Alpha Five had about 350 prisoners. The places where prisoners were held included 24 cages, six cells and three larger iron cages.

Ravi also noticed that Alpha Five was for many prisoners the final destination. Sometimes the guards would call out a few dozen names of prisoners telling them that they were being released. The inmates knew that they were going to be executed. They were never heard of again. This was the same pattern followed at Thunukkai 16 years earlier. Ravi said that during his five years in prison, about 150 prisoners had been taken out individually and killed. Many more were killed in 2009.

Alpha Two and Alpha Five had boards at the entrance, which said, “You may enter here and leave. But if you enter again you will never leave.” What read like a homely old riddle, meant that these were the camps to which people were first brought, and if they were brought again after doing the rounds to various other camps, it meant that they were going to be executed. The Tigers cannot be accused of a lack of transparency.

Ravi said that about 1000 prisoners in the Vallipunam area were put to work in manufacturing mines, including plastic covers for them. He was amazed how the LTTE obtained the materials. All the camps had engineering divisions for various forms of manufacture, including making buckets.

8.5. Ravi relates the fate of  fellow prisoner, Inspector Jeyaratnam

Jeyaratnam and Nilabdeen had been leading men in counter-insurgency work during the 1990s. Following the commencement of the 2002 peace talks, Jeyaratnam was taken out of counterinsurgency and posted at Mt. Lavinia Police Station. It was a loss of caution on his part that a Tamil man from London, who worked for another group earlier, took Jeyaratnam’s family out to dinner at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, plied him with alcohol and abducted him in the pretence of driving him home. Jeyaratnam became friendly with Ravi and told him that he had been smuggled by sea to Vidathalthivu in the Mannar District.

The LTTE’s intention was to use Jeyaratnam’s intimate knowledge of security arrangements in Colombo for sabotage and assassinations. Ravi said that Jeyaratnam was not tortured, but treated well in the hope that he would consent to work for the LTTE. But Jeyaratnam declined. Next, he was placed in prison with those who had been detained for around seven years or more with no hope of ever getting out. This was done with a view to breaking Jeyaratnam mentally. But he withstood it. Inspector Jeyaratnam was sent to Alpha Five where Ravi met him towards the end of 2007.

On 21st September 2008, Alpha Five was bombed by the SL Air Force. Two prisoners were killed and 16, including Ravi, were injured. The latter were taken to Ponnampalam Memorial Hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu. The ICRC got wind of it and came to meet the prisoners. The prisoners were led out through a side entrance, along a path, to a room in an outer building and hidden there.

After being cured Ravi was sent to Alpha Two in Vallipunam, which is very close to Alpha Five, and then to Alpha Five. He saw no further signs of Jeyaratnam. This was the usual pattern of switching prisoners between camps. Ravi was then sent to Vanampadi in Visuamadu. Here he did odd jobs for a salary of 12 500 rupees a month. This enabled him to escape during an air raid in January 2009. He ended up in Puthumattalan, where he met several prison inmates and they became a kind of unofficial network. It was imperative that they escape at the earliest lest someone in the LTTE recognised them.

Ravi had earlier met an EPDP prisoner Ratheepan in Alpha Two who did the job of serving food to other prisoners. Ratheepan knew he was not meant to get out alive. During bombing and shelling as the Army got close to Vallipunam in February 2009, Ratheepan took his chance and escaped when he went pretending to collect a bucket of food. He later gave Ravi the information that 35 prisoners including Jeyaratnam, Farook, several Sinhalese and members of rival groups had been executed by the LTTE.

It was through such sources that Ravi learnt about the aerial bombing of the prison known as the ‘Reform Centre’ at Anandapuram on 18th February. Ravi said that many prisoners were kept chained and that 45 had been killed, agreeing with information obtained from other sources. Ravi said that naval officers were generally kept there and Officer Boyagoda was one of its former inmates.

The Singular Fate of Kanthi: Kanthi who had long been a torture king in the camp system had also tormented Ravi. However, Ravi learnt that Kanthi had come under suspicion of being a government informant after the air attack on 2nd November 2007, which successfully targeted the LTTE’s political leader, Tamilchelvan. Kanthi had evidently been questioned and let off because of his good standing with Pottu Amman. There followed another scandal. Kanthi had apparently detained dozens of members of his own intelligence unit on charges of betrayal, tortured and killed them. The reason as many believed was Kanthi’s fear that some of his juniors who were rising in the intelligence wing might outshine him (in whatever the unit was supposed to do). Ravi heard that the LTTE leadership, which received many complaints about Kanthi from the families of those he killed, finally decided to execute him. By that time Kanthi’s patron Pottu Amman’s star was also on the decline as Ratnam Master was being pushed up as a parallel operator.

Thooyavan, whom Ravi found also a nasty operator, who gave him much offence by insulting his mother in the lowest terms, was among many that met a fate characteristic of the organisation’s character. Thooyavan who came out with the IDPs has now joined the ranks of ex-LTTEers whose star talents are now at the service of the CID and Sri Lankan intelligence.

8.6. Bearing Witness: Satheeshkumar

Satheeshkumar, a mason, was from Jaffna, which he left for the Vanni during the 1995 exodus. He was detained after being caught by the LTTE while transporting his cousin whom the LTTE sought to conscript from Vidathalthivu by sea,. He was placed under a prison boss named Venthan. After enduring much torture, he was posted to Vanampadi camp. In January 2009 Vanampadi came under pressure from the SL Army. Some escaped. About 300 survivors were transferred to a camp named Tango Ten in Suthanthirapuram adjoining Udayarkaddu. (Ravi believes that this was the same place where members of the Sri Lankan Army were held. Although the original Tango Ten was in Vallipunam, Ravi says that the LTTE had the practice of moving camps and retaining old names.)

On 8th February, the Army was very close at Iruddumadu. The prisoners pleaded with intelligence chiefs Pottu Amman and Kapil Amman who came there to release them.       

After conferring with other LTTE officials, Pottu Amman ordered the release of ten persons. He ordered 140 others to be executed. They were mainly members of other Tamil groups, Sinhalese or Muslims suspected of security forces connections. Satheeshkumar understood that they were killed in the nearby jungle and their bodies were burnt.

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