Weaponizing Human Rights—Swiss on The Frontlines

By Sugeeswara Senadhira

COLOMBO (IDN) — Many Sri Lankans seeking visas to Switzerland end up filling forms listing out all their personnel information including details about Police records, if any. A vast majority of Sinhalese end up with a curt denial of visas despite their clean records.

However, if the applicant is Tamil, one can guarantee the visa to Switzerland even if he or she has a long Police record, court convictions or guilty of blatant violation of immigration rules and enters a foreign country illegally.

In 2019, a few days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s massive victory at the Presidential Election and the change of Government in Sri Lanka, the Swiss Embassy made a public attempt to tarnish the image of the Government when Gania Banister Francis, a local employee of the Embassy made a false charge that security forces had kidnapped her.

Banister, a 38-year-old Tamil, alleged she was kidnapped at Cinnamon Gardens in Colombo by the Sri Lankan Police, treated brutally and subjected to coercion and sexual harassment. She added, the Police asked her for sensitive information on political asylum cases.

Without ascertaining the facts, the Swiss Embassy decided to send her, along with her family to Switzerland granting them political asylum. However, the Police investigated the matter meticulously and after checking CCTV footages in the area, found out the kidnapping charge were absolutely false, and she had made up the story to tarnish the image of the Sri Lanka Police and obtain political asylum in Switzerland for economic reasons.

Ever since the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in battle in 2009, European nations, including Switzerland, have been alleging war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces making unsubstantiated claims at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva of thousands of Tamil civilians killed during the final battles. These claims have become a weapon in geo-political battles being fought in the Indian Ocean region.

Swiss visa irregularities

Last week, an incident similar to the Banister saga, involving a Sri Lankan Tamil couple was reported from India. A Tamil man and his wife, together with their two children crossed the 25 km Palk Strait separating India and Sri Lanka illegally by boat and went to Delhi and submitted visa applications to the Swiss Embassy in India. They claimed they belonged to a Tamil political party and they had been threatened by the activists of another Tamil party in Sri Lanka.

Without considering their criminal act of crossing the border illegally or checking whether the claims of the applicants were true, the Swiss Embassy granted them visas. The Indian immigration officials attached to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) were surprised how visas were issued to illegal immigrants whose passports did not have the departure stamp from the Sri Lankan Immigration and Emigration Authority or an arrival stamp from the Indian immigration authority.

The FRRO denied them the ‘Exit Permit’ necessary for them to leave India for Switzerland and filed a case against them for illegal entry.

Going to courts

The Tamil couple also moved the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, seeking a direction to the Indian authorities not to deport them to Sri Lanka. In their petition, the couple alleged that they were associated with a political party. Due to a dispute with members of another political party, they were advised to flee Sri Lanka. 

The petitioners said that they left Sri Lanka along with their two children by boat. They reached Dhanushkodi (closest landing point in India) and later travelled to Delhi to visit the Embassy of Switzerland in India seeking a Visa. Despite their acknowledgment they had entered India illegally, the Swiss Embassy granted them visas. 

However, when the couple approached the FRRO in New Delhi to receive an exit permit, they were referred to the office in Chennai where they were asked to get a clearance report from the Police.

Following an inquiry, it was found the couple had illegally entered India. They were arrested and produced before the Judicial Magistrate concerned. After they were granted bail they were detained at the Special Refugee Camp in Tiruchirappalli. The children were entrusted in the custody of their relatives in India. The Tamil couple were certain about support from the Swiss Embassy and told the Chennai Police the Embassy of Switzerland would extend their visas.

Chennai police submit charge sheet

The Chennai Police completed the investigation case and submitted a charge sheet.

The petitioners apprehended they could be detained at the camp permanently or could be deported to Sri Lanka. They claimed that if they were sent back to Sri Lanka, they would suffer at the hands of their political rivals and urged the authorities to permit them to go to Switzerland.

The Tamil Nadu Justice G.R. Swaminathan ordered notice to the Centre and the State and adjourned the hearing in the case till January 7. The Court directed the Indian authorities not to deport the couple and their children till then.

Swiss take a step back in India

Although the Swiss diplomats in Colombo granted temporary protection to Banister when she was absconding from Sri Lankan courts in December 2019, and accompanied her to courts later, the Swiss Embassy officials in New Delhi did not try similar tactics with the Indian authorities for they must be well aware of possible strong objections from the Indian External Affairs Ministry.

The Swiss diplomats in Colombo, not only provided legal help to Banister Francis, even after it was proven that her kidnap charge was a fabrication, they also appointed a lawyer to protect her interests. Banister’s counsel, complained to court that he himself has been targeted by individuals and Media for appearing in this case, adding that certain false information about Banister was released discrediting her.

He told Court her employer, the Swiss Embassy, was also targeted and misinformation about the Embassy and its other employee was spread to change the narrative of the story and to discredit Banister.

However, the Swiss Embassy completely refrained from making any announcement or apology, when it was proven that Banister had taken them for a ride.

The Swiss Embassy is yet to make an apology, although its employee Banister was indicted under the Penal Code by the Colombo High Court for allegedly making a false claim that she has been abducted and sexually harassed. She was accused of lying to embarrass the Government and fabricating evidence in her abduction claim. [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 December 2021]

* A version of this article first appeared in Ceylon Today.

Photo: Embassy of Switzerland in Sri Lanka © FDFA

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