The choice of vehicle was almost inevitable. While describing his terrifying abduction ordeal in Sri Lanka, political activist Premakumar Gunaratnam said his captors came in a white van.
The Sri Lankan-born Australian citizen says he was grabbed by six to eight gunmen outside his house in Colombo earlier this month, stripped and then “sexually tortured” during his detention that lasted four days.
His colleague and fellow hard-left Marxist dissident Dimuthu Attygalle suffered a similar fate. He was also freed after four days in captivity, shortly after Gunaratnam was kicked out of the country.
Unlike others to have disappeared since the end of the country’s Tamil separatist war in May 2009, they both lived to tell their tales after diplomatic pressure from Australia.
Being “white-vanned” — it has become a verb synonymous with being abducted in Sri Lanka — was a widely reported tactic employed by the security forces to deal with troublesome opponents during the nation’s ethnic war.
However, rights activist groups such as the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) say more than 50 people have been kidnapped in the past six months alone, highlighting what they say are continuing abuses on the Indian Ocean island that is re-emerging as a popular holiday destination.
“I believed they were going to kill me after they took me away at gunpoint,” Gunaratnam, 47, told reporters via Skype from Australia after he was deported. “They blindfolded me, tied my wrists and legs and sexually tortured me.”
“I am lucky to be alive and one of the very few to have survived an abduction by security forces. But, this is not a question about me, but about democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka,” he added.
Attygalle, 43, a Sri Lankan national, said she was taken to the same place where Gunaratnam was being tortured.
“They said I should enjoy a comfortable life abroad without doing politics in Sri Lanka,” Attygalle said. “I thought they would kill me, but I told them I expected something like this and that I am not afraid to die.”
She was blindfolded and then later dumped in a Colombo suburb.
“Even after the official announcement of the end of that [Tamil separatist] conflict, there has been no end to abductions,” AHRC said.
“A tacit policy that the use of abductions may be extended, not only to counter insurgency, but also to the suppression of any opposition to the government, has been followed by all recent governments,” it said.
The AHRC said the only way Sri Lanka could answer allegations of its involvement in the “white van abductions” was by demonstrating “credible action” to stop kidnappings.
The abductions of Gunaratnam and Attygalle came two weeks after the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) urged Sri Lanka to probe alleged war crimes committed in the final stages of its war.
“Though the UNHRC called the regime to order ... abductors in white vans have thumbed their noses at the world and continue to ply their trade with impunity,” Kumar David of the South Asia Analysis Group think tank said.
The government denies any involvement in the abductions and says police cannot be expected to prevent criminals using the tactic to settle scores.
Rights groups concede that at least some of the documented abductions are likely to be by criminals taking advantage of the climate of fear and the inability of police to find the perpetrators.