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Chilling fear of rape haunts Tamil women in Sri Lanka reports Associated Press
Associated Press reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka on 23 August 2001:
"Exhausted after a night's work at a busy cafe and an anxious encounter with police, Velu Arshadevi was fast asleep when the loud thumping came at the door of a house shared by the cafe's employees. ''I sat up in the bed. It was about 3 in the morning and who would come?'' Arshadevi recalled asking herself.
At the door, the 28-year-old mother of two found the police officer who had stopped her on the street hours earlier. He said she would have to come with him to the station as police needed to further verify her identity because she was a Tamil.
The identity check earlier was routine, and — as always — unnerving. Police regularly question Tamils about possible ties to the militants who have waged a civil war for 18 years to establish a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's 3.2 million minority Tamils. But what came next scarred Arshadevi's life, and her case has come to represent the worst fears of Tamil women — being raped by members of the Sinhalese-dominated security forces who exercise control over their day-to-day lives.
While the government denies the rebels' charges that Tamils are discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese — 14 million of the 18.6 million population — Tamils point to their treatment at police checkpoints as just one example of how their lives are different.
A Sinhalese who presents his national identity card usually is allowed to go on. A Tamil in most cases will be detained if they don't also have a separate police report verifying their name, age and address.
Standing outside her home after the knock on her door that night in June, Arshadevi was afraid to go with the policeman. She argued that her ID papers had already been checked and were in order.
But he insisted, and she had no choice. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the police and military in this island nation have special powers to interrogate, arrest and indefinitely detain anyone they suspect of connections to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Arshadevi told The Associated Press in an interview that instead of being taken to the police station, she was pushed into a narrow concrete staircase leading to an army camp. For the next hour and a half, she said, she was gang raped as she cried out for her attackers to stop. The policeman who led her to the stairway, S. Premathilake, now faces charges of rape along with two of his colleagues.
Arshadevi's ordeal has brought protests from Tamil parliament members and human rights organizations.
Selvy Thiruchandran of the Women's Education and Research Center, a government-funded rights group, said the rapes are another manifestation of a civil war born of an ancient conflict between two ethnic groups, each with its own language and religion. ''This rape is as much an ethnic issue, as it is a gender issue,'' she said.
The London-based Amnesty International said in a statement: ''Any security officer found responsible for rape, sexual abuse or other torture, or for encouraging or condoning them, should be brought to justice.''
Women's right advocates say many cases of rape or sexual harassment have been reported by Tamil women in the past, but there have been no convictions against security forces except one where the victim was murdered.
In March, two Tamil women detained by navy and police in the Tamil-majority northern town of Mannar reported they were gang-raped by members of the security force. No arrests have been made.
Kumudini Samuel of the Women & Media Collective, a women's rights group, said in many cases Tamil women don't report rape or abuse because they fear further harm from police and doubt action will be taken. ''It is imperative that the state afford some kind of protective system for those who are detained by the security forces,'' she said. She blamed much of the problem on the ''intense militarization'' in Colombo.
Between 5,000 to 10,000 security personnel are on duty at any given time in the capital, on guard against Tamil rebels who have often set off bombs and on July 24 attacked the country's only international airport outside Colombo.
Because of Arshadevi's difficult life — and her courage — her case has drawn sympathy for the cause of Tamil women in the island. Her father died when she was a child, leaving her with an invalid mother and five siblings, who soon left home. The youngest in the family, she dreamed of being a nurse or a teacher. But she had to leave school at 14 to work. She was married at 18 and widowed at 25. To support her two young daughters, she traveled to Colombo to find a job. Arshadevi recounted how her attackers had warned her not to tell anyone what happened. But she filled out a report to police, with help from her employer, only hours after the rape. ''I reported it because I don't want anyone to go through what I did,'' she said."