Sri Lanka
About 70% of Sri Lankan households surveyed by UNICEF in May reported cutting back on food consumption. Representational image

Tied with ropes, slept in toilet: Tamil fishermen recall Lankan prison horrors

A group of fishermen from Tamil Nadu who were released from the jails of Sri Lanka recently relived the horrors of prison life

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A group of fishermen from Tamil Nadu who were released from the jails of Sri Lanka recently relived the horrors of prison life and inhuman treatment meted out to them by Lankan prison officials.

The fishermen were arrested for crossing the international sea border and fishing in Sri Lanka waters.

Antony Siyon was arrested by the Sri Lankan navy on December 18, 2021 at the Palk Strait, an inlet of  the Bay of Bengal that separates India and Sri Lanka. “First they hit our boats and broke them before jumping in and beating us. Then they verbally abused us and tied our hands behind us before taking us to the Sri Lanka shores,” said Siyon, who was among the 56 fishermen arrested that day for straying into Lankan waters.

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At the peak of the LTTE struggle, rounding up Tamil fishermen was a very common practice. “The LTTE is long gone, but we still face harassment at the hands of Lankan forces,” said Siyon.

Soon after the 56 fishermen landed in Sri Lanka, they were tied together in a single chain like slaves, they said. Selva, who was arrested with Antony, recalled the pathetic conditions in the prison. “We were lodged in Yazhpanam prison, where 45 of us were first put in a 10 ft X 10 ft room. Later, 13 fishermen from Pudukkottai district in Tamil Nadu too were brought into the same room. We had no space to sleep and we couldn’t even stretch our legs,” recalled Selva.

Poor food, sleeping arrangements

Since they were short of space, the arrested fishermen unanimously decided that no one would use the toilet after 5 pm. “Since 59 of us could not sleep in that small space, we started using the toilet space to sleep. We all had to stop using the toilet space from 5 pm. We would first clean it and dry it so that we could all sleep at least by lying sideways. That’s how all the days in prison were,” S Kumar, another fisherman, said.

The fishermen also complained of unhygienic food served to them in the prisons. “We do not know whether the poor quality of food was meant for us alone or the same food was consumed by prison officials as well. But, we really could not eat anything they gave us. It was so bad that many would vomit. There were few who survived by drinking water for three days at a stretch,” said Carmel, who was jailed in Sri Lanka in December, 2021 and released recently.

Also read: Scars of civil war haunt Sri Lankan Tamils 12 years on 

The fishermen said they crossed over into Lankan seas just for a good catch. They asked the Government of India to hold talks with their Sri Lankan counterparts and seek permission for fishermen from both countries to put their nets in the Palk Strait.

Sesu Raja, president of the Mechanized Boat Owners’ Association, said the Sri Lankan Navy has arrested as many as 500 fishermen from Rameshwaran and seized over 100 boats in the last three months. “The situation has worsened since the peak of civil war in Sri Lanka. While such tortures were a common phenomenon then, the same torture has started again with more vigour,” Raja said, demanding a permanent solution to the problem.

“The international border is just 13 nautical miles from the Rameshwaram shore. For every fishing slot, we invest at least Rs 50,000 on diesel alone. To make sure we do not lose our investment, at least, we venture deep into the sea for a better catch and get caught,” Raja said.

Bilateral mechanism

On February 7, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister GL Peiris, who came to India on a three-day visit, held a meeting with the Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar. Later, Jaishankar said that he brought up the issue of Tamil fishermen during a discussion with Peiris and they both agreed on developing a bilateral mechanism to address the challenge.

In a continuation of the same, the much expected Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka on March 30, and Sri Lanka has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is expected that the issue will figure in the meeting as well.

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