Sri Lanka’s latest attempt to legalize state terror

First published at https://www.ucanews.com/news/sri-lankas-latest-attempt-to-legalize-state-terror/84751 on 25th March 2019

Replacing one act that tramples on human rights with another that makes potential suspects of us all is no solution

Five years ago on the night of March 16, a Catholic priest called Father Praveen and I were arrested in Kilinochchi, the former capital of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. We were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and subjected to intense interrogation. The reasons given for my arrest included causing discomfort to the government and sending information overseas to earn money. Unlike many other PTA detainees, we were released after 51 hours — probably due to intense national and international campaigns. But the agony continued after our release. I was almost abducted by armed men in civilian clothes who raided the office of a human rights organization where I was doing some work. Later, the chief of the unit that arrested us told me they were his men, and they had been searching for a different terror suspect.

The overseas travel restriction on me has been lifted, but my electronic equipment that was confiscated has not been returned, and the restrictions on my freedom of expression remain in place. In 2009, Shantha Fernando, an activist working for the Commission for Justice and Peace of the National Christian Council, was also arrested and detained under the PTA. His crime? Carrying photos through the airport depicting the humanitarian crisis that unfolded during the last phase of the 26-year civil war, during which time the military stands accused of conducting war crimes. The PTA has led to the prolonged detention of innocents. In 2015, a court reportedly acquitted a Tamil mother after finding her not guilty of the charges leveled against her — after she had already spent 15 years in detention. The PTA has served as a license for reprisals against dissent, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and prolonged detention. The cabinet formally approved and presented the bill to parliament last year. It is known as the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA).

Problems with the CTA

The CTA uses broad definitions that could make almost anyone a terrorist, and any act of dissent a terrorist act, with intention a key factor. Acts associated with terrorism can include gathering information, and distributing or making information available to a person or the public. Journalists could be penalized for not revealing sources. Participating in or organizing a protest, or a trade union strike, could also make one a terrorist suspect. There is no compulsion to protect an arrested person from physical harm, or to convey the information about their arrest in their own language at the time they are apprehended. What needs to be done is for the government to withdraw the CTA. Failing that, parliament must defeat it. The PTA must be repealed separately. There is no need to link the two laws together. Meanwhile, opposition to the two acts is increasing. But barring some disapproving comments by the bishop of Batticaloa and a few priests, the church leadership, including Caritas, have stayed quiet on the CTA. It is time to stand up and say no to both the PTA and the CTA. Any delay could have dire consequences for people’s human rights, dignity and democracy.

 

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Families of the disappeared: Two years of protests, what must they do next?

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/03/03/news-features/families-disappeared-two-years-protests-what-must-they-do-next on 3rd March 2019

The biggest protest I had ever participated in or seen in Kilinochchi took place last week. It was organised by the Tamil families of the disappeared, to mark two years of roadside protests and demanding information about loved ones who had disappeared. It was a gruelling march of more than six km that took over two hours, through the sprawling A9 road in Kilinochchi, braving extreme midday heat.

Perhaps, this pales in the context of the families having braved the sun, rain, dust, fumes, intimidation, threats and assaults for two years. Several elderly mothers collapsed during the march. But more died in the course of continuous protests, not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Colombo

Colombo seemed indifferent. When one of the women leading the Kilinochchi protest called me, she had a clear request. She asked me to join them on February 25, bringing the Sinhalese and English media, colleagues from Colombo and others from the international community. I did ask many, but predictably, there was not much of a response. The protest coincided with the first year anniversary of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP).

The OMP it had initiated inquiries and made interventions on some cases and referred to its primary mandate as being to ‘Search and trace tens of thousands of missing and disappeared persons’.

But the Office provided no information on the number of persons it had made progress searching for or specific progress made in a single case. Neither did it provide an assessment about progress made in implementing recommendations made in an interim report six months ago. In this context, it was not surprising to hear families of the disappeared protesting in Kilinochchi reiterating that they had no hope or confidence in the OMP.

One woman at the protest was clutching a letter sent by a previous Presidential Commission of Inquiry led by Maxwell Paranagama, which had functioned under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena, The letter promised investigations, but the lady had not heard of any progress or results on investigations. Protesters told me that might be what the OMP might end up doing as well.

Geneva

Geneva also seems indifferent. Last week, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) started its 40th session, where it is due to review progress made by the Sri Lankan Government in terms of commitments made on accountability and reconciliation at the UN body three and half years ago. At the Kilinochchi protest, there were many references to the UN, demanding an increased role from it. The protesters recalled that resolution 34/1 of the UNHRC was due to inaction of the Sri Lankan Government on resolution 30/1 and commitments therein.

They demanded the UN to ‘Stop giving Sri Lanka more time’, instead to consider other options of ensuring reconciliation and accountability. But the first draft of a resolution on Sri Lanka to be adopted by the Council dated February 27, two days after the Kilinochchi protest, had no reference to, nor reflected the spirit, grievances, aspirations and efforts made by families of the disappeared on the road continuously for two years.

For me, it seemed that protesting families increased demands from the UN were not based on faith in the UN, but deep frustration and disappointment in the political leadership, and institutions such as the judiciary and the OMP.

Indeed, when I joined the same families at a similar protest on the 100th day of their continuous roadside protest, they blocked the A9 road for about five hours and their primary demand was to meet the President. The families also seem to have very little faith in Tamil politicians and insisted that Tamil politicians with access to the international community, donot represent them.

Hartal

A significant feature of the Kilinochchi protest last week was the hartal across the Northern Province. Shops, eateries, some supermarkets and banks were shuttered. There were no local buses and very few vehicles on the main roads. Hartals usually inconvenience the poor. Those who use public transport end up being stranded, daily wage earners lose their income. But my impression was that many joined the hartal sympathising and supporting the struggle of families of the disappeared. The popular women led eatery in Kilinochchi, Ammachi was closed, which meant loss of income.

I met some of the women at the protest, easily identifiable by their Ammachi t-shirts. After the protest, a shop keeper in Iranaipalei in the Mullaitivu District, about an hour’s drive away from the Kilinochchi protest, told me he could not go for the protest, but closed his shop in support of the protest. A trishaw driver who had stayed home in Mullaitivu expressed similar sentiments. Some of the female community leaders of the Kepapilavu community, themselves at a roadside protest for two years demanding release of military occupied land, also joined the Kilinochchi protest.

So did families of the disappeared, women’s activists, Christian clergy from across the North and the East. Many Tamil journalists from the North were covering the protest. Some Tamil politicians also joined, but played a low profile role, heeding the explicit demands from protest leaders that politicians should not be at the forefront of the demonstrations.

Reprisals

The day of the protest and hartal was also the day three habeas corpus cases in relation disappearances were being taken up in Jaffna courts, where a serving senior military officer is implicated. A female activist involved in the case had allegedly been assaulted and hospitalised last year and lawyers have allegedly been intimidated.

Even on this day, a lawyer was reportedly subject to intimidation as she was leaving courts after appearing in the case, with men on a motorbike trying to crash into her car. Last year had allegedly seen several incidents of reprisals against both Tamil and Sinhalese families of the disappeared.

Importance of solidarity

My visits and interactions with protesting families had led me to write about my experiences and reflections. The last two pieces I wrote to this paper on disappearances was about 366 days and then 500 days of the continued roadside protests. As I contemplated writing about the 730 days of the protests, I wondered what new things I could write. Not much seems to have changed, except continuing reprisals, increasing frustration and desperation.

The same lines with which I finished off my 500 days articles sums up my feelings today.

“As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. They need continued solidarity from society – Sri Lankan and international. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans”.

The hartal showed that the North is listening and in solidarity with Tamil families of the disappeared. But Colombo (and the rest of Sri Lanka) and Geneva (and the world) doesn’t seem to be listening. What the families can do next remains a big question mark.

புதிய பயங்கரவாத எதிர்ப்புச் சட்டமூலம்: அநீதியை நடைமுறைப்படுத்தும் நவீன அனுமதிப் பத்திரமா?

First published at https://maatram.org/?p=7569 on 19th February 2019

சுமார் 40 வருடங்களுக்கு மேற்பட்ட காலம் சித்திரவதைக்கு உட்படுத்துவதற்கும், பாலியல் துன்புறுத்தல்களுக்கும், வலுக்கட்டாயமாக ஆட்களைக் காணாமல் ஆக்குவதற்கும், நீண்டகாலம் ஆட்களைத்  தடுப்புக் காவலில் வைப்பதற்கும் வழங்கப்படும் ஓர் அனுமதிப்பத்திரமாகப் பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் (Prevention of Terrorism Act – PTA) பயன்படுத்தப்படுகிறது. பயங்கரவாதம் தொடர்பாக, ஒரு சாதாரண சந்தேக நபர் மாத்திரமல்லாமல் ஊடகவியலாளர்கள், சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் என்போர் இச்சட்டத்தின் கீழ் கைதுசெய்யப்பட்டதோடு, அரசாங்கத்திற்கு எதிராக முன்வைக்கப்படும், விமர்சன ரீதியான கருத்துக்களை ஒடுக்குவதற்கும், இச்சட்டம் மிக மோசமாக பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டுள்ளது. குறிப்பாக தமிழ் மக்களுக்கு எதிராக, இது அநேகமான சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் தவறான முறையில் பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டுள்ளது.

தற்போதைய அரசு பதவிக்கு வந்த பின்னர், இவ்வொடுக்குமுறை ரீதியான பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தை நீக்குவதாகவும், சர்வதேச ரீதியாக சிறந்த நடைமுறைக்கு ஏற்பவும் பயங்கரவாதத்திற்கு எதிராக ஒரு சட்டத்தை சமர்ப்பிப்பதாகவே பல்வேறு சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் உறுதிமொழிகள் வழங்கப்பட்டன. இதன் விளைவாகவே, கடந்த ஆண்டு செப்டெம்பர் மாதத்தில் புதிய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் ஒன்று வரையப்பட்டது. இவ்வரைவு ஆங்கிலத்தில் பயங்கரவாதத்திற்கு எதிரான சட்டம் (Counter Terrorism Act – CTA) எனப் பெயரிடப்பட்டது. சிங்கள மொழியில் பழைய பெயரில் பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் என அறிமுகப்படுத்தப்பட்டு, வர்த்தமானப் பத்திரிகையில் வெளியிடப்பிடப்பட்டுள்ளமை ஒரு வகையில் கேளிக்கூத்தாகும்.

“பயங்கரவாதம் என அறிமுகப்படுத்தப்படும் தவறுகள் சம்பந்தமாக நடவடிக்கை எடுப்பதற்கு சுமார் 14 சட்டங்கள் – தண்டனைச் சட்டக் கோவையின் 6 வாசகங்கள் உட்பட சுமார் 20 சட்டங்கள் இலங்கைச் சட்டத்தில் உள்ளடக்கப்பட்டுள்ளன. அதேசமயம், அவசரகால நிலைமையின் கீழ் செயற்படுவதற்கு ஜனாதிபதிக்கு அவசரகாலச் சட்டத்தை பிரகடனப்படுத்தும் அதிகாரமும் உண்டு. நிலைமை இவ்வாறு இருக்கையில், பயங்கரவாதம் தொடர்பாக தனியான விசேட சட்டத்தின் அவசியம், வெறுமனே சிறுபான்மை சமூகங்கள் அரசுக்கு எதிராக முன்வைக்கும் விமர்சன ரீதியான கருத்துக்களை ஒடுக்குவதாகவே அமையும். ஆகவே, பயங்கரவாதத்தை ஒடுக்குவதற்கு ஏற்கனவே உள்ள சட்டங்கள் போதுமானவை என்பது எமது கருத்தாகும்.”

முன்னைய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டது போலவே, இப்புதிய சட்ட மூலமும் சாதாரண மக்களுக்கும், ஊடகவியலாளர்களுக்கும் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்களுக்கும் எதிராக தொந்தரவுகளை மேற்கொள்ளக்கூடிய வகையில் பயன்படுத்துவதற்கு அவசியமான வாய்ப்புக்களை முறையே வழங்கியுள்ளன.

இச்சட்டத்தில் பரந்துபட்ட தெளிவின்மை காணப்படுகிறது. பயங்கரவாதம் என்பதற்கு வரைவிலக்கணமாக கருதக்கூடிய தவறுகள் பற்றி சரியான விளக்கம் வழங்கப்படவில்லை. இதன் காரணமாக இச்சட்டத்தைப் பயன்படுத்தி, அரசியலமைப்பின் மூலம் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ள கருத்துச் சுதந்திரம், ஒன்றுகூடும் சுதந்திரம் மற்றும் ஒரு சங்கத்தை உருவாக்கும் சுதந்திரம் என்பன மட்டுப்படுத்தப்படுவதற்கான வாய்ப்பு உண்டு. அடிப்படை மனித உரிமைகள் கூட நல்லெண்ணத்தோடு அமுல்படுத்தியிருந்தால் மாத்திரமே பயங்கரவாத செயலாகக் கருதப்படமாட்டாது.

இச்சட்டத்தின் கீழ் கைதுசெய்யப்பட்ட நபர் உடல் ரீதியாக பாதிப்புக்கு உள்ளாக்கப்படாத வகையில் பேணப்படுவது கட்டாயப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை. கைது செய்யப்படும் நபர், கைது செய்யப்படுவதற்கான காரணமும் அதற்கு ஏற்புடைய ஏனைய தகவல்களையும் அறிவித்தல் கட்டாயமாக்கப்படவில்லை. பின்னர் இவ்வாறு செய்வதற்கான காலச் சட்டகம் வழங்கப்படவும் இல்லை. குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்கள் கைதுசெய்யப்படும்போது அந்த இடத்தில் பிரசன்னமாக இருந்தாலும் கைது செய்யப்பட்டமைக்கான விவரங்களை அவர்களுக்கு அறிவிப்பதற்குக் கூட 24 மணித்தியாலங்கள் வழங்கப்படவில்லை. குடும்பத்திலுள்ளோர் கைதுசெய்யப்படக்கூடிய வேறு சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் அவ்விடத்தில் இருந்தவர் அல்லது அவர்கள் கைது செய்யப்பட்டமையை அறிவிப்பது கட்டாயப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை. அதே சமயம் பெண் சந்தேக நபர்கள் பெண் பாதுகாப்பு உத்தியோகத்தர்களால் கைது செய்யப்பட வேண்டுமெனவும் அவர்கள் விசாரணைக்கு உட்படுத்தப்படும் போது கட்டாயமாக ஒரு பெண் உத்தியோகத்தர் அவ்விடத்தில்  பிரசன்னமாக இருத்தல் வேண்டுமென்பதும் அத்தியாவசியப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை.

பொலிஸார் தாக்கல் செய்த தடுத்து வைக்கும் கட்டளைக்கு நீதவானின் அங்கீகாரம் பெறல் வேண்டும். அதே சமயம், ஒரு நபர் இரண்டு வாரங்கள் வரை தடுத்து வைப்பதைத் தீர்மானிப்பவர் பொலிஸ் உத்தியோகத்தர் ஆவார். மேலும், இத்தகைய தடுத்துவைக்கும் கட்டளையை, 8 வாரங்கள் வரை நீடிப்பதை  நீதவான் அங்கீகரிக்க முடியும். பொலிஸார் கைதுசெய்தமை தொடர்பாக மனித உரிமைகள் ஆணைக்குழுவிற்கு அறிவிப்பதற்கு 22 மணித்தியாலங்கள் கால அவகாசம் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ளது. அவருடைய வழக்கு ஒரு வருடத்தை விட அதிக காலகட்டத்திற்கு இழுபட்டுக்கொண்டு போனால் மாத்திரமே சந்தேக நபருக்கு பிணை வழங்கப்படும். தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருப்பவரின் சட்டத்தரணி மற்றும் குடும்ப அங்கத்தவர்கள் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருக்கும் அமைவிடத்திற்கு பிரவேசிப்பதாயின் அந்த நிலையத்திற்குப் பொறுப்பான அரச அதிகாரியின் முன்னங்கீகாரத்தைப் பெறுதல் வேண்டும். அமைச்சர் ஒருவர் தீர்மானிக்கும் அமைவிடத்தில் மற்றும் நிலைமைகளின் கீழேயே முடிவு எடுக்கப்படுகிறது. இத்தகைய தடுத்து வைத்தலுக்கு எதிராக ‘மீளாய்வுக் குழுவிடம்’ மேன்முறையீடு செய்ய முடியும். எனினும் இம்மீளாய்வுக்குழு அமைச்சர், அமைச்சுச் செயலாளர், அமைச்சரினால் நியமிக்கப்படும் மேலும் இருவரை உள்ளடக்கியதாக அமையும். சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்களுக்கும் ஊடகவியலாளர்களுக்கும் எதிரணி அரசியல்வாதிகளுக்கும் எதிராக ஆட்சி அதிகாரத்தில் உள்ள அரசியல்வாதிகளும் பொலிஸாரும் பயங்கவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தைப் பயன்படுத்தும் எமது வரலாற்றைக் பின்னோக்கிப் பார்க்கையில், இச்சட்டத்தின் மூலம் அமைச்சருக்கும் பொலிஸாருக்கும் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ள அதிகாரம் ஒரு நரியிடம் கோழிக் குஞ்சுகளை ஒப்படைப்பதற்கு ஈடாகும் என்ற கருத்து எமக்கு  மேலும் சந்தேகத்தை ஏற்படுத்துகிறது.

இச்சட்டத்தின் மூலம் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருப்போரின் உடலில் ஏதாவது காயங்கள் உண்டா என பரிசீலனை செய்வதற்கு பொலிஸ் நிலையப் பொறுப்பதிகாரியிடம் அதிகாரம் ஒப்படைக்கப்பட்டுள்ளதோடு, அவர் அத்தகைய காயங்களை அவதானித்தாரேயாயின், ஒரு சட்ட வைத்திய அதிகாரியிடம் தடுப்புக் காவலில் வைத்திருப்பவரை ஒப்படைத்து, சட்ட வைத்திய அறிக்கையைப் பெற வேண்டும். நீதவான் அல்லது மனித உரிமைகள் ஆணைக்குழு உத்தியோகத்தர் ஒருவர் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருக்கும் இடத்திற்கு வருகை தரும் சந்தர்ப்பத்தில் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டவர் மனிதாபிமானம் அற்ற கவனிப்பின் கீழ் தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டிருப்பின், அவர்கள் சிறைச்சாலை கண்காணிப்பு உத்தியோகத்தருக்கு அல்லது பொலிஸ் மா அதிபருக்கு அறிவித்தல் வேண்டும். இது தொடர்பாக உரிய நடவடிக்கைகளை எடுத்து ஏற்புடைய மனிதாபிமான நிலைமைகளை வழங்குமாறு நிர்ப்பந்திக்க முடியாது. சந்தேக நபர்கள் தடுப்புக் காவலில் இருக்கும்போது, துன்புறுத்தல்கள் இடம்பெறுமாயின் அல்லது  பாலியல் வன்முறைகளுக்கு உட்படுத்தப்படுவார்களேயாயின், முன்னைய  பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச்சட்டத்தின் கீழ் அதற்கான ஏற்பாடுகள் இருந்தன. ஆனால்,உத்தேச புதிய சட்டம்  நிலைமைகளை மேலும் மோசமாக்கலாம்.

அமுலில்  உள்ள பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தின் கீழ் கைது செய்யப்படுதல், குறிப்பிட்ட அமைவிடங்களுக்குப் பிரவேசித்தல் மற்றும் பொருட்களை கைப்பற்றுதல் ஆகிய  நடவடிக்கைகளை பொலிஸ் உத்தியோகத்தர்கள் மாத்திரமே  மேற்கொள்ள முடியும். ஆனால், புதிய சட்டத்தின் கீழ் முப்படையினருக்கும், கரையோரப் பாதுகாப்பு பிரிவினருக்கும் இவ் அதிகாரங்கள் கிடைக்கின்றன. அதேசமயம் பொலிஸார், பாதிக்கப்பட்ட தரப்பினருக்கு அவர்களது மனக்குறைகளை எடுத்துக்கூற சந்தர்ப்பம் வழங்காமல், ஒரு கூட்டத்தை, ஒரு பேரணியை அல்லது ஒரு செயற்பாட்டை நிறுத்துவதற்கு நீதவானிடம் கோரிக்கை விடுக்கலாம். மறுபுறம் ஏதாவது ஓர் அமைப்பை, பொது அமைவிடத்தை அல்லது வேறு ஓர் இடத்தைத் தடை செய்யப்பட்ட அமைவிடமாக கால வரையறையின்றி பிரகடனப்படுத்தும், கட்டளையை விடுப்பதற்கு முன்னர், அவ்விடயத்தைச் சவாலுக்கு உட்படுத்துவதற்கு பாதிக்கப்பட்ட தரப்பினருக்கு வாய்ப்பு கிடைக்கமாட்டாது. அதேசமயம் அமைப்புக்களின் கூட்டங்கள், நடவடிக்கைகள் மற்றும் நிகழ்ச்சித்திட்டங்களை நடத்துவதைத் தடுத்தல், வங்கிக் கணக்குகள், வேறு நிதி வைப்புக்களை பயன்படுத்துதல் அல்லது அவற்றை ஈடுபடுத்துவதைத் தடை செய்தல், உடன்படிக்கைகளுக்கு வருவதை தடை செய்தல், நிதி சேகரித்தல், நிதி அளித்தல், சொத்துக்களை ஒப்படைப்பதை தடை செய்தல், நிதி அல்லது சொத்துக்களை ஒப்படைப்பதை தடை செய்தல்,  ஓர் அமைப்பின் சார்பில் அழுத்தங்களைப் பிரயோகித்தல், கோரிக்கைகளை முன்வைத்தல் என்பவற்றை தடுப்பதற்கு அமைச்சருக்கு அதிகாரம் உண்டு.

தற்போதைய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தில் வழங்கப்படாத, புதிய சட்டமூலத்தின் மூலம் ஒப்படைக்கப்படும் மேலதிக அதிகாரங்கள் ஜனாதிபதிக்கு உண்டு. உதாரணமாக, ஊரடங்குச் சட்டத்தை பிரகடனப்படுத்துவதற்கும், பொது மக்களின் ஒழுங்கைப் பேணுவதற்கு முப்படையினரை அழைப்பதற்கும் அதிகாரம் ஜனாதிபதிக்கு  வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ளது.

அதே சமயம், புதிய சட்டத்தின் கீழ் பகிரங்கமாக மன்னிப்புக் கோருவதற்கும், புனர்வாழ்வு அளிக்கப்படுவதற்கும், சமூக சேவையில் ஈடுபடுத்துவதற்கும் அதிகாரம் உண்டு. இவற்றின் மூலம் இழைத்த குற்றத்திற்கு நஷ்ட ஈடு செலுத்துவது ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளப்படமாட்டாது. இந்நிலைமையின் கீழ் வழக்கு விசாரணைகளுக்கு நீண்டகாலம் எடுக்கப்படுவதனால், சட்டத்தரணிகளின் கட்டணம் என்பன பாதிக்கப்பட்டோர் தாங்க முடியாத அளவு உயர்ந்து செல்கின்றது. எனவே, பலர் நீதிமன்ற நடவடிக்கைகளின் மூலம் தமது குற்றமற்ற தன்மையை நிரூபிப்பதற்கு கஷ்டப்படுவதற்குப் பதிலாக, குற்ற ஒப்புதலை ஏற்றுக்கொள்வதற்கு இடமுண்டு. இத்தகைய சந்தர்ப்பங்களில் குற்றப்பகர்வு பத்திரத்தின்படி சட்டமா அதிபர் குற்றச் சாட்டுக்களை வாபஸ் பெறும் போது, தண்டனைக்காக நீதிமன்ற அங்கீகாரத்தை கோரும் மேலதிக அதிகாரமும் வழங்கப்பட்டுள்ளது.

புதிய சட்டத்தை வரைந்து வர்த்தமானி அறிவித்தலில் வெளியிட்ட பின்னர், சிவில் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் இச்சட்டத்தின் மூலம் அரசியலமைப்பின் அடிப்படை உரிமைகள் மீறப்படுவதாக பிரகடனப்படுத்தி, உயர் நீதிமன்றத்தில் மனுக்களை சமர்ப்பித்ததோடு, உயர் நீதிமன்றம் மனுக்களைப் பொருட்படுத்தாமல் மரண தண்டனையை கொண்டுவருவதன் மூலம் அனைத்தும் ஏற்கனவே இருந்ததை விட மோசமான நிலைக்கு தள்ளப்பட்டுள்ளது.

புதிய பயங்கரவாத எதிர்ப்புச் சட்டமூலம் தொடர்பாக இலங்கையின் பல்வேறு மாகாணங்களிலும் இடம்பெற்ற கலந்துரையாடல்களின்போது மதத் தலைவர்கள், ஊடகவியலாளர்கள் மற்றும் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் பலர் வருகை தந்திருந்தனர். பல பெண்களின் குழுக்களினால் இக்கலந்துரையாடல்கள் ஏற்பாடு செய்யப்பட்டன. இவற்றில் உருவாகிய முக்கியமான கருத்துக்களும் கோரிக்கைகளும் பின்வருமாறு: ஏற்கனவே அமுலில் உள்ள பயங்கரவாததத் தடைச் சட்டத்தை நீக்கவேண்டிய அதேவேளை புதியதோர் சட்டம் அவசியம் இல்லை என்பதாகும். மட்டக்களப்பில் இடம்பெற்ற ஒரு கலந்துரையாடலில் பங்குபற்றிய 3 தமிழ் நாடாளுமன்ற உறுப்பினர்கள் கூறியதாவது: இந்த வரைபை அவர்கள் எதிர்ப்பதாகக் குறிப்பிட்டனர். ஆனால், தமிழ் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பு இது பற்றி தெளிவான ஒரு நிலைப்பாட்டை வெளியிடவில்லை. பழைய மற்றும் புதிய பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்திற்கும் தெளிவான எதிர்ப்பை சுட்டிக்காட்டிய ஒரே அரசியற் கட்சி மக்கள் விடுதலை முன்னணி மாத்திரமே என்பதை இங்கு குறிப்பிட்டேயாக வேண்டும்.

கடந்த 6ஆம் திகதி, இச்சட்டம் தொடர்பாக 20 நாடாளுமன்ற உறுப்பினர்களை உள்ளடக்கிய துறைசார் மேற்பார்வைக் குழுவின் கூட்டம் இடம்பெற்றது. இதன்போது சிவில் சமூகச் செயற்பாட்டாளர்கள் மற்றும் சுயாதீன சட்டத்தரணிகளுடன் இது பற்றிய கலந்துரையாடல் இடம்பெற்றது. அடுத்த கூட்டம் பெப்ரவரி மாதம் 20ஆம் திகதி (நாளை) இடம்பெறவுள்ளது. அன்றைய திகதிக்கு முன்னர் இது பற்றிய எழுத்து மூலமான சமர்ப்பணங்களை வழங்குமாறு வருகை தந்தோரிடம் கேட்டுக்கொள்ளப்பட்டது. பெப்ரவரி 11ஆம் திகதி இது தொடர்பாக இடம்பெற்ற கலந்துரையாடலின் போது வெளிவிவகாரஅமைச்சர் பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டத்தை அமுல்படுத்தும்போது மனித உரிமை மீறல்கள் இடம்பெற்றதை ஏற்றுக்கொண்டாலும், அத்தகைய ஒரு புதிய சட்டத்தின் தேவையை உறுதியான நிலைப்பாடாக முன்னெடுத்தார். அரச தரப்பினரினதும் சட்டத்தரணிகளினதும் சட்டமா அதிபர் திணைக்களத்தினதும் கருத்து பின்வருமாறு அமைந்துள்ளது, “புதிய சட்டம் அத்தியாவசியமானது – தற்போது சிறு சிறு மாற்றங்களை மாத்திரமே செய்ய முடியும்.”

ஏற்கனவே, அமுலில் உள்ள பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் மற்றும் புதிய வரைவு ஆகிய இரண்டின் மூலம் தடுத்து வைக்கப்படுவோரின் உயிர்வாழ்வுக்கான பாதுகாப்பு, சுதந்திரம், உடல் உள நலத்திற்கான அச்சுறுத்தல் ஏற்படும் அதேவேளை, அடிப்படை மனித உரிமைகள் மட்டுப்படுத்தப்படுகின்றன. அதேசமயம் பரந்துபட்டதும் தெளிவற்றதுமான வரைவிலக்கணங்களின் மூலம், சட்ட ரீதியாக வேறு கருத்துக்கள் முன்வைக்கப்படுகின்றன. அடிப்படை உரிமைகளை அனுபவிப்பதற்கும் ஜனநாயகப் பிரஜைகள் என்ற வகையில் செயற்படுவதும், பயங்கரவாத நடவடிக்கைகளாக மாறுகின்றன. அதேசமயம், இதன் மூலம் நீதிமன்ற மேற்பார்வையையும் தற்றுணிபையும் குறைக்கும், அமைச்சரினதும் பொலிஸாரினதும் ஆயுதப் படைகளினதும் கரையோரப் பாதுகாவலர்களினதும் தற்றுணிபுக்கு ஏற்ப நடவடிக்கைகளை மேற்கொள்வதற்கு அத்துமீறிய அதிகாரங்கள் அல்லது பாரிய அதிகாரங்கள் வழங்கப்படுகின்றன. அடிப்படையில் பொலிஸாரும் அமைச்சரும் விசாரணையாளர்களும் நீதிபதிகளும உரிய வகிபாகத்தை மேற்கொள்கின்றனர்.

தேசிய பாதுகாப்பு, பயங்கரவாதம் ஆகிய சொற்களைப் பயன்படுத்தி, நீதிமன்றம் மேற்பார்வை செய்யாமல் இருப்பதற்கும் இச்சட்டத்தில் ஏற்பாடுகள் உண்டு. இதனூடாக சிவில் சமூக வாழ்க்கை இராணுவ மயமாக்கப்பட முடியும். அதேவேளை சட்டத்தின் ஆட்சியினூடாக நிர்வகிக்கப்படும் ஜனநாயக சமூகம் அமுலில் உள்ள ஒரு நாட்டிற்குப் பதிலாக தேசிய பாதுகாப்பை முன்னுரிமைப்படுத்தி அதிகாரபூர்வமான ஓர் ஆட்சியாக சமூகம் மாறக்கூடும். இது நல்லிணக்கத்திற்கு பாதகமாகவே அமையும். இதன் மூலம் அதிகாரத்திலுள்ளோருக்கு இனத்துவம், மொழி, மதம் மற்றும் அரசியல் கருத்திற்கு ஏற்ப தம்முடன் உடன்படாத குழுக்களை ஒடுக்குவதற்கு சந்தர்ப்பம் கிடைக்கின்றது. அது எதிர்கால நெருக்கடிக்கு (பயங்கரவாத்தை தடை செய்யும் சட்டத்தின் வரலாற்றை நோக்குகையில் இடம்பெற்றது போலவே) காரணமாக அமையலாம்.

பயங்கரவாத தடைச் சட்டத்தை நீக்கி அதற்கு ஒப்பான மற்றுமோர் சட்டத்துடன் தொடர்புபடுத்துவது எந்த வகையிலும் அவசியமில்லை. நாடாளுமன்றத்தின் மூலம் கட்டாயமாக பயங்கரவாதத் தடைச் சட்டம் நீக்கப்பட வேண்டும். அதனைச் செய்ய முடியும். அமைச்சரவை புதிய சட்ட வரைவை வாபஸ் பெற வேண்டும் அல்லது நாடாளுமன்றத்தினாலேயே அது கட்டாயமாக தோல்விக்குட்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும். தற்போது அமுலில் உள்ள சட்டங்களின் ஊடாக பயங்கரவாதம் என அடையாளப்படுத்தப்படும் தவறுகள் தொடர்பாக நடவடிக்கை எடுக்க முடியும்.

 தமித் சந்திமால் மற்றும் ருக்கி பெர்னாண்டோ

 


(17.02.2019 அனித்தா’ வாராந்திர சிங்களப் பத்திரிகையில் வெளிவந்த கட்டுரையின் தமிழாக்கம்)

නව ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත අවනීතියට අලුත් අවසරපතක්ද?

First published on Anidda newspaper of 17th February and also published at https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=34293

රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත(Prevention of Terrorism Act -PTA) වසර 40කට වැඩි කාලයක් තිස්සේ වද හිංසා පැමිණවීම, ලිංගික හිංසනය, බලහත්කාරයෙන් අතුරුදහන් කිරීම සහ දීර්ඝ කාලීන ලෙස රැඳවුම් භාරයේ තබා ගැනීම සඳහා අවසර පත්‍රයක් ලෙස භාවිතා වී ඇත. ත්‍රස්තවාදී සැකකරුවන් පමණක් නොව ජනමාධ්‍යවේදීන්, සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරීන් මේ යටතේ අත්අඩංගුවට ගත් අතර, රජයට එරෙහි විවේචනාත්මක අදහස් මර්දනය කිරීම උදෙසා මේ පනත දැඩි සේ භාවිතා වී ඇත. විශේෂයෙන්ම දෙමළ ජනතාවට එරෙහිව මෙය බොහෝ අවස්ථාවලදී වැරදි ලෙස භාවිතා විය.

වත්මන් රජය බලයට පැමිණිමෙන් පසු, මේ මර්දනකාරී ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත ඉවත් කරන බවට සහ අන්තර්ජාතික යහපත් ව්‍යවහාරයනට අනුකූල වන ත්‍රස්ත විරෝධී පනතක් ගෙන එන බවට විවිධ අවස්ථාවල පොරොන්දු ලබා දෙන ලදී. පසුගිය වසරේ සැප්තැම්බර් මාසයේ දී නව ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනතේ කෙටුම්පතක් ඉදිරිපත් කරන ලද්දේ මෙහි ප්‍රතිඵලයක් ලෙසය. මෙම කෙටුම්පත ඉංග්‍රීසි භාෂාවෙන් ත්‍රස්ත විරෝධී පනත (Counter Terrorism Act – CTA) ලෙස නම් කර තිබුනත්, සිංහල බසින් පැරණි පනත හැඳින්වූ ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත ලෙසම ගැසට් කර තිබීම එක්තරා ආකාරයක සරදමකි.

ත්‍රස්තවාදය යැයි හැඳින්විය හැකි වැරදි සම්බන්ධයෙන් අදාළ වන පනත් 14ක් ද, දණ්ඩ නීති සංග්‍රහයේ වගන්ති 6 ක් ද ඇතුළුව නීති 20ක් පමණ ශ්‍රී ලංකා නීතිය තුළ පවතී. එසේම හදිසි තත්ත්ව තුළ දී කටයුතු කිරීමට ජනපතිවරයාට හදිසි නීතිය පැනවීමේ හැකියාව ඇත. මෙවැනි තත්වයක් තුළ ත්‍රස්තවාදය සම්බන්ධයෙන් වෙනම විශේෂ නීතියක අවශ්‍යතාවය හුදෙක් සුළුතරයන් සහ රජයට එරෙහි විවේචනාත්මක අදහස් මර්දනය කිරීමක් වන අතර, ත්‍රස්තවාදය මැඩලීමට පවතින නීති ප්‍රමාණවත් වන බව අපගේ මතයයි. පෙර ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත භාවිතා වූ පරිද්දෙන්ම, මෙම නව පනත විසින් ද සාමාන්‍ය ජනතාවට, ජනමාධ්‍යවේදීන්ට, සහ සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරීන්ට හිරිහැර කිරීමට අවශ්‍ය ඉඩකඩ විධිමත්ව සපයා ඇත.

මේ පනත තුළ පුළුල්, අපැහැදිලි නිර්වචනයක් ත්‍රස්තවාදය ලෙස නම් කළ හැකි වැරැදි සම්බන්ධයෙන් ලබා දී ඇත. මේ හේතුව නිසා මේ නීතිය යොදා ගනිමින් ව්‍යවස්ථාව විසින් ලබා දී ඇති ප්‍රකාශනයේ නිදහස, එක්රැස්වීමේ සහ සමාගමයේ නිදහස සීමාවනට ලක් කිරීමට ඉඩ ඇත. මූලික මිනිස් අයිතිවාසිකමක් පවා “සද්භාවයෙන් ඉටු කළේ නම්” පමණක් ත්‍රස්තවාදී ක්‍රියාවක් ලෙස නොසැලකේ.

මෙම නීතිය යටතේ අත්අඩංගුවට ගත් පුද්ගලයා ශාරීරික හානියකට ලක් වීමෙන් ආරක්ෂා කර ගැනීම අනිවාර්ය නොවේ. අත්අඩංගුවට පත් වෙන පුද්ගලයාට අත්අඩංගුවට ගැනීමට හේතුව සහ ඊට අදාළ අනෙකුත් තොරතුරු දැනුම් දීම අනිවාර්ය නොවන අතර, පසුව එසේ කළ යුතු කාලරාමුවක් සපයාද නැත. පවුලේ අය අත්අඩංගුවට පත් වෙන අවස්ථාවේ එතැන සිටියද අත්අඩංගුවට පත් වීම ගැන විස්තර ඔවුන්ට දැනුම් දීමට පවා පැය 24ක කාලයක් ලබා දී ඇත. පවුලේ අය අත්අඩංගුවට පත් වෙන අවස්ථාවේ එතැන සිටියේ නැත්නම් ඔවුනට අත්අඩංගුවට පත්වීම සම්බන්ධයෙන් දැනුම් දීම අනිවාර්ය නොවේ. එසේම කාන්තා සැකකරුවන් කාන්තා නිලධාරීන් විසින් අත්අඩංගුවට ගැනීමට ප්‍රශ්න කරනු ලැබීමට හෝ කාන්තා නිලධාරිනියක් එතැන සිටීම අත්‍යවශ්‍ය නොවේ.

පොලිසිය විසින් නිකුත් කළ වලංගු රඳවා ගැනීම් නියෝගයකට අනුමැතිය මහේස්ත්‍රාත් විසින් ලබා දිය යුතු අතර, පුද්ගලයා සති දෙකක් දක්වා රඳවා තබා ගැනීම තීරණය කරන්නේ පොලිස් නිලධාරියාය. මේ රඳවා තබා ගැනීම් නියෝගයක්, සති 8ක් දක්වා මහේස්ත්‍රාත් අනුමැතිය ඇතිව කාලය දිගු කළ හැකිය. පොලිසිය විසින් අත්අඩංගුවට ගැනීම සම්බන්ධයෙන් මානව හිමිකම් කොමිසමට දැනුම් දීමට පැය 72ක කාලයක් ලබා දී ඇත. සැකකරුවාට ඇප ලැබෙන්නේ ඔහුගේ නඩුව වසරකට වඩා වැඩි කාලයක් ඇදි ඇදී ගිය හොත් පමණි. රැඳවියාගේ නීතිඥයාට සහ පවුලේ අයට රැඳවුම් ස්ථානයට පිවිසිය හැකි වන්නේ ස්ථානභාර නිලධාරියාගේ පූර්ව අවසරය සහිතවය. පුද්ගලයා රඳවා තබා ගන්නේ අමාත්‍යවරයකු විසින් තීරණය කරන ස්ථාන සහ තත්වයන් යටතේ ය. රඳවා තබා ගැනීම්වලට විරුද්ධව “සමාලෝචන මණ්ඩලය” වෙත අභියාචනය කළ හැකි නමුත් එම මණ්ඩලය සමන්විත වන්නේ ද අමාත්‍යවරයා, අමාත්‍යාංශ ලේකම්, සහ අමාත්‍යවරයා විසින් පත් කළ තවත් දෙදෙනෙකු ය. දේශපාලනඥයන් සහ පොලිසිය විසින් සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරීන්ට, ජනමාධ්‍යවේදීන්ට සහ විරුද්ධ දේශපාලනඥයන්ට එරෙහිව ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත භාවිතා කිරීමේ ඉතිහාසය දෙස බලන විට, මේ පනත විසින් ඇමැතිවරයාට සහ පොලිසියට ලබා දී ඇති මේ බලතල නරියාට කුකුළු කොටුව භාර දීමක් ද යන සැකය අප වෙත නැගෙන්නේය.

පනත විසින් රැඳවියාගේ දැකිය හැකි තුවාල තිබේදැයි පරීක්ෂා කිරීමට ස්ථාන භාර නිලධාරීයා(OIC) වෙත බලය පවරන අතර, ඔහු විසින් එසේ දුටුවේ නම්, ඔහුට ඇත්තේ අධිකරණ වෛද්‍ය නිලධාරියකු වෙත රැඳවියා ඉදිරිපත් කර වාර්තාවක් ලබා ගැනීම පමණි. මහේස්ත්‍රාත්වරයකු හෝ මානව හිමිකම් කොමිසමේ නිලධාරියකු විසින් රැඳවුම් ස්ථානයට පැමිණි අවස්ථාවක රැඳවියා රඳවා ඇත්තේ මානුෂීය සැලකීමට ගැලපෙන පරිදි නොවන බව නිරීක්ෂණය කළේ නම්, ඔවුන්ට කළ හැක්කේ බන්ධනාගාර අධිකාරී වෙත හෝ පොලිස්පති වෙත හෝ දැනුම් දීම පමණකි. ඒ සම්බන්ධයෙන් ක්‍රියාමාර්ග ගෙන අදාළ ‘මානුෂික තත්වයන්’ සැපයීමට කටයුතු කිරීමට බල කිරීමට ඔවුනට හැකියාවක් නැත.

සැකකරුවන් රැඳවුම් භාරයේ සිටිය දී වද හිංසා පැමිණවීමට, සහ ලිංගික අතවර ආදියට ලක් වීම් ගැන සිදු වීම් ගණනාවක් පෙර ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත යටතේ වාර්තා වී ඇති අතර, මේ පනතේ ඉහත වගන්ති තුළින් එම තත්වය තවදුරටත් වැඩි විය හැකිය.

දැනට පවතින ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත යටතේ පොලිස් නිලධාරීන් විසින් පමණක් අත්අඩංගුවට ගැනීම, ස්ථානවලට ඇතුළු වීම, සහ භාණ්ඩ භාරයට ගැනීම ආදිය කළ යුතු වුවත්, නව පනත යටතේ ත්‍රිවිධ හමුදාවලට සහ වෙරළාරක්ෂකයන්ට ද මෙකී බලතල ලැබේ. එසේම පොලීසියට, වින්දිත පාර්ශ්වයට කරුණු දැක්වීමට අවස්ථාවක් නොදී, රැස්වීමක්, රැළියක්, හෝ ක්‍රියාකාරකමක් නැවැත්වීමට මහේස්ත්‍රාත්වරයාගෙන් ඉල්ලීමක් කළ හැකිය. එසේම ඇමැතිවරයකුට කිසියම් සංවිධානයක්, පොදු ස්ථානයක්, හෝ වෙනත් ස්ථානයක් තහනම් ස්ථානයක් බවට කාල නියමයක් රහිතව නියම කළ හැකි අතර, එසේ නියෝගයක් නිකුත් කිරීමට පෙර මෙය අභියෝගයට ලක් කිරීමට අනෙක් පාර්ශවයට අවස්ථාවක් ලැබෙන්නේ නැත. එසේම සංවිධානවල රැස්වීම්, ක්‍රියාකාරකම් සහ වැඩසටහන් පැවැත්වීම තහනම් කිරීම, බැංකු ගිණුම් සහ වෙනත් මූල්‍ය තැන්පතු භාවිතය හෝ යෙදවීම තහනම් කිරීම, ගිවිසුම්වලට එළඹීම තහනම් කිරීම, අරමුදල් රැස්කිරීම සහ ප්‍රදාන සහ දේපල පැවරීම් ලබා ගැනීම තහනම් කිරීම, අරමුදල් සහ වත්කම් පැවරීම තහනම් කිරීම, සහ සංවිධානයක් වෙනුවෙන් බලපෑම් කිරීම, ඉල්ලීම් සිදු කිරීම ආදිය සිදු කිරීම තහනම් කිරීමට ද ඇමැතිවරයාට බලය ලැබේ.

පවතින ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනතින් ලබා නොදෙන මේ පනත හරහා පැවරෙන අනෙකුත් අමතර බලතල වන්නේ ජනපතිට ඇඳිරි නීතිය පැනවීමටත්, මහජන සාමය පවත්වා ගැනීමට ත්‍රිවිධ හමුදා කැඳවීමටත් ලබා දෙන බලයයි.

එසේම නව නීතිය ඔස්සේ ප්‍රසිද්ධියේ සමාව ගැනීමත්, පුනරුත්ථාපනයට ලක් වීම, සහ ප්‍රජා සේවයේ යෙදීම වැනි දෑ හරහා වරදට වන්දි ගෙවීමත් පිළි ගැනේ. මේ තත්වය තුළ නඩුවලට දීර්ඝ කාලයක් ගත වෙන නිසාත්, නීතිඥ ගාස්තු ආදිය දරා ගැනීමට නොහැකි වීම නිසාත් බොහෝ දෙනෙක් අධිකරණ ක්‍රියාවලියක් තුළ තමන්ගේ නිරවද්‍යතාවය ඔප්පු කිරීමට මහන්සි වීම වෙනුවට වරද පිළි ගැනීමට බොහෝ දුරට ඉඩ ඇත. මෙවැනි අවස්ථාවල අභිචෝදකයා වන නීතිපතිවරයාට චෝදනා අස්කර ගැනීමේ දී දඩුවම් සඳහා අධිකරණ අනුමැතිය ඉල්ලීමේ අමතර බලයක් ද ලබා දී ඇත.

මේ නීතිය කෙටුම්පත් කර ගැසට් කිරීමෙන් අනතුරුව සිවිල් ක්‍රියාකාරීහු මෙම නීතිය විසින් ව්‍යවස්ථාවේ මූලික අයිතිවාසිකම් කඩ කරන බවට ප්‍රකාශ කරමින් ශ්‍රේෂ්ඨාධිකරණයේ පෙත්සම් ගොනු කරන ලද අතර, ශ්‍රේෂ්ඨාධිකරණය විසින් ඒ කිසිවක් සැලකිල්ලකට නොගෙන මරණ දඬුවම ද ගෙන ඒමෙන් සියල්ල තිබුණාට ද වඩා නරක තත්වයකට පත් කරන ලදී.

නව ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත සම්බන්ධයෙන් දිවයිනේ විවිධ පළාත්වල පැවැත්වුනු සාකච්ඡාවලට ආගමික නායකයෝ, ජනමාධ්‍යවේදීහු සහ සමාජ ක්‍රියාකාරීහු ගණනාවක් පැමිණියහ. මේවා බොහොමයක් සංවිධානය කළේ කාන්තා කණ්ඩායම් ය. මෙම සාකච්ඡාවල මතු වූ ප්‍රධාන මතය සහ ඉල්ලීම වූයේ, පවතින ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත අහෝසි කළ යුතු අතර නව පනතක් අවශ්‍ය නැති බවයි. මඩකලපුවේ පැවැති එක් සාකච්ඡාවකට සහභාගි වූ දමිළ පාර්ලිමේන්තු මන්ත්‍රීන් තිදෙනෙකුම ප්‍රකාශ කළේ මෙම කෙටුම්පතට ඔවුන් විරෝධය දක්වන බවයි.

එහෙත් දමිළ ජාතික සන්ධානය (TNA) මේ පිළිබඳ පැහැදිලි ස්ථාවරයක් ප්‍රකාශ කර නොමැත. පැරැණි සහ නව ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත් දෙකටම පැහැදිලි විරෝධයක් පළ කර ඇති එකම දේශපාලන පක්ෂය වන්නේ ජනතා විමුක්ති පෙරමුණයි.

පසුගිය 6 වැනිදා මෙම නීතිය සම්බන්ධයෙන් පාර්ලිමේන්තු මන්ත්‍රීවරු 20 දෙනෙකුගෙන් යුක්ත ආංශික අධීක්ෂණ කාරක සභාවේ රැස්වීම පැවැත්වුනි. එහිදී සිවිල් ක්‍රියාධරයන්, සහ ස්වාධීන නීතිඥයන් සමග මේ පිළිබඳව සාකච්ඡා වුනි. මීලඟ රැස්වීම පෙබරවාරි 20 වැනි දින පැවැත්වීමට එකඟ වී ඇති අතර, එදිනට පෙර මෙය පිළිබඳව ලිඛිත ඉදිරිපත් කිරීම් ලබා දෙන ලෙස පැමිණි සිටි අයගෙන් ඉල්ලා සිටින ලදී. පෙබරවාරි 11 වැනි දින මේ පිළිබඳව පැවැති සාකච්ඡාවක දී විදේශ කටයුතු ඇමැතිවරයා ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීම තුළ මානව හිමිකම් උල්ලංඝණය වීම් සිදු වූ බව පිළිගත්තත්, එවැනිම නව පනතක් අවශ්‍යය යන දැඩි ස්ථාවරයේ සිටියේය. රජයේ පාර්ශ්වයේ සිටි නීතිඥවරුන්ගේ සහ නීතිපති දෙපාර්තමේන්තුවේ මතය වී ඇත්තේ ද නව පනතක් අත්‍යවශ්‍ය බව සහ දැනට කළ හැක්කේ අවම වෙනස්කම් පමණක් බවත්ය.

පවතින ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත(PTA) සහ අලුත් කෙටුම්පත(CTA) යන දෙකින්ම රැඳවියන්ගේ ජීවිත ආරක්ෂාව, නිදහස, ශාරීරික හා මානසික යහපැවැත්මට තර්ජනයක් වන අතර, මූලික මිනිස් අයිතිවාසිකම් සීමා කරයි. එසේම පුළුල්, සහ අපැහැදිලි නිර්වචන තුළින්, නීත්‍යනුකූල ලෙස වෙනස් අදහස් ප්‍රකාශ කිරීමට, මූලික මිනිස් අයිතිවාසිකම් අත්විඳීම සහ ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදී පුරවැසියන් ලෙස කටයුතු කිරීම ත්‍රස්තවාදී ක්‍රියා බවට පත් කරයි. එසේම එයින් අධිකරණමය අධීක්ෂණය සහ අභිමතිය අඩු කරන අතර, අමාත්‍යවරයාගේ, පොලිසියේ, හමුදාවේ, සහ වෙරළාරක්ෂකයන්ගේ අභිමතයට කටයුතු කිරීමට සුවිසල් බලතල සපයයි. මූලික වශයෙන් පොලිසිය සහ අමාත්‍යවරයා විසින් විමර්ශකයාගේ සහ විනිසුරුගේ යන දෙදෙනාගේම භූමිකාවන් ඉටු කරයි.

ජාතික ආරක්ෂාව’ සහ ‘ත්‍රස්තවාදී” යන වචන භාවිතා කරමින්, අධිකරණය අධීක්ෂණයන් නොකර සිටීමට මේ පනත තුළ ප්‍රතිපාදන ඇත. මේ හරහා සිවිල් ජීවිතය හමුදාකරණය විය හැකි අතර, නීතියේ ආධිපත්‍යය හරහා පාලනය වන ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදී සමාජයක පවතින රටක් වෙනුවට ජාතික ආරක්ෂාව ප්‍රමුඛත්වය ගත් බලාධිකාරී රෙජීමයක් බවට පරිවර්තනය විය හැකිය.

මෙය සංහිඳියාවට හානි කර වනු ඇත්තේ, එය විසින් බලයේ සිටින අයට ජනවාර්ගිකත්වය, භාෂාව, ආගම, සහ දේශපාලනික අදහස් අනුව තමන් සමග එකඟ නොවන කණ්ඩායම් මර්දනය කිරීමට ඉඩ ලැබෙනු ඇති නිසාය. එය අනාගත අර්බුදයකට (ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනතේ ඉතිහාසය දෙස බලන කල සිදුවූවාක් මෙන්) හේතු සාධක විය හැකිය. ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත ඉවත් කිරීම එහා සමාන තවත් නීතියක් සමග සම්බන්ධ කිරීමේ කිසිදු අවශ්‍යතාවයක් ඇත්තේ නැත. පාර්ලිමේන්තුව විසින් අනිවාර්යෙන්ම ත්‍රස්තවාදය වැළැක්වීමේ පනත ඉවත් කළ යුතු අතර, එය කළ හැක්කකි. කැබිනට් මණ්ඩලය විසින් නව පනත් කෙටුම්පත අකුලා ගැනීම හෝ පාර්ලිමේන්තුව විසින් එය පරාජය කිරීම අනිවාර්යයෙන්ම සිදු විය යුත්තකි. දැනට පවතින නීතින් හරහා ත්‍රස්තවාදය යැයි හඳුන්වන වැරදි සම්බන්ධයෙන් කටයුතු කළ හැකිය.

(දමිත් චන්දිමාල් සහ රුකී ප්‍රනාන්දු)

Keppapulavu: Land Struggle Reaches Boiling Point after 700 days of protest

First published at https://groundviews.org/2019/01/22/keppapulavu-land-struggle-reaches-boiling-point-after-700-days-of-protest/ on 22nd January 2019

“We want to sleep, cook, eat in our own house and farm our own land”

700 days is a long time for a day and night protest outside an Army camp. Since March 1, 2017, the people of Keppapulavu, located in the Mullaitheevu district in Northern Sri Lanka, have been doing just that. They have had to brave intimidation and harassment from the Army, Police and intelligence agencies, and also brave the sun, rain, heat, cold and dust. They have faced challenges in continuing their livelihoods, sending children to school and caring for their elderly. It is the longest running community-led day and night continuous protest for land in Sri Lanka. They have also engaged in protests in Colombo and elsewhere, and have participated in meetings with government politicians, local Tamil politicians, government officials, the media, religious clergy, representatives of international community and others.

Last year, President Sirisena promised to return occupied lands in the North and East by December 31, 2018. When this promise was broken, Keppapulavu residents marched to the Army camp and demanded their land. The Army refused to speak to them. In subsequent discussions with government officials, an Assistant Government Agent (AGA) had promised them their land would be released by January 25, 2019.

Soon after, one of the staff officers of the newly appointed Northern Governor had met some members of the Keppalulavu community. Afterwards, on Sunday, (January 20) the Governor also met them. Both had requested more time, but the community members, who had seen so many similar “time-buying” exercises, insisted that January 25 be the final day when all the land would be returned to them. One lady had asked the Governor whether he was going to ensure release of land by January 25, or whether he wished to see the guns of the Army turned on her and other villagers.

“If our lands are not released by 25th January, we will go and reclaim our lands” is what the villagers told me, and what they had told the Army, the Governor of the Northern Province and government officials in meetings they had had the last few days and weeks.

The occupied land sits between the main road between Puthukudiyiruppu and Vattrapalai and borders the Nanthikadal lagoon. It’s very fertile agricultural land and the lagoon has plenty of fish, prawns and crabs. “We can cross our legs and sit in the garden and still have enough food” one man told me. In addition to the houses, most of the community buildings such as the community hall, school, Rural Development Society (RDS) and places with strong emotional attachments such as the church and cemetery remain occupied by the Army. The community life in this village, woven around agriculture and fishing, and the traditional and rich cultural and religious practices, was destroyed first by the war and then by the Army occupation.

“We work hard, fish, farm, and the Army which gets government salaries, enjoys the fruits of trees in our gardens, lives in our houses, and use our community buildings” says Vivekanandan, a villager from Kepapulavu. He goes on, “Why can’t they at least allow us to enjoy the fruits of trees in our gardens?”

His home, as well as the land and homes of other Keppapulavu residents’, now Army-occupied, was visible from across the road, with the beautiful view of Nanthikadal lagoon beyond it. Listening to them was heart breaking as well as making me angry.

“Why are they (the Army) in our houses, our lands, when there is so much forest land around the area?”

“We want to live peacefully with Sinhalese. Why are they (Army) obstructing this by occupying our land? Do they want Prabhakaran (the late leader of the LTTE) to come back?” was another question that was raised.

I recalled similar sentiments heard during my previous visits spanning several years. “Every year our land changes more and more. Some houses have been destroyed. The wells have been closed. Other buildings have been put up. Boundaries have been demarcated differently. But the jak and coconut trees which we planted have started bearing fruit.”

“When I enter my home, it feels as fondly familiar to me as the love of my mother and father…”

I had known some of these community members for around 10 years, when they were being detained in “Menik Farm”. Even then, they always talked about the richness and beauty of their lands and their yearning to return. Even when I met them after they had been compelled to accept alternative lands in a nearby jungle area, they insisted on the right to return to their own land.

The day I visited Keppapulavu was also the day President Sirisena had visited nearby Mulliyawalai, around 10 kilometres away from the protest site. But the long suffering and struggling Keppapulavu people were clearly not of concern to the President who is the son of a farmer, and from an agricultural area.

It is now nearly 10 years since the end of the war. And it is more than 10 years since the Army had forcibly occupied Keppapulavu. For the people of Keppapulavu, justice, peace and reconciliation remain empty words – until and unless they are able to return to their houses, lands, and way of life.

As they said, “We have survived the war but, now we have to die for our lands!”

Iranaitivu: eight months after reclaiming land from the Navy

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/01/13/news-features/iranaitivu-eight-months-after-reclaiming-land-navy on 13th January 2019

Iranaitivu is also a story of resilient community consolidating their claim of the land by reinvigorating their traditional livelihoods and strengthening community institutions. But the missing factor is the Government. At least now, the Government must step in, ensure reparations, and facilitate resettlement.

It was on April 23, 2017 that I joined the Iranaitivu residents in their journey to reclaim their traditional island, which had been denied to them by the Navy for more than 25 years. When I visited last week with some friends and colleagues, I again experienced their love for their land, resilience and determination to strive in their traditional home.

Fighting restrictions on accessing the island

There are no passenger boats between the mainland and the island, hence the fisheries cooperative had arranged a special boat for us. The boat ride was beautiful, but not easy. We had to brave the hot sun, shallow waters in which the engine stalled and rough seas in which we were drenched with sea water. But it was a journey well worth its while.

“I could not help but imagine the precarious journeys these Islanders would have undertaken during the years the war intensified in this region and the natural barrier it would have posed to leaving their valuable belongings when they were suddenly displaced.I had heard that both Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans have been stopped from going to the island by the Navy officers and not surprisingly, we were also stopped when we tried boarding the boat from the mainland.

The officers kept insisting on my disclosing my profession and reasons for going to the island, even as I tried to patiently explain constitutional rights of freedom of movement, and asking them based on what laws were they stopping us and demanding some form of special authorisation.

The Human Rights Commission intervened swiftly, and informed us that the North Central Commander for the Navy had clarified that there was no legal restrictions and anyone was free to go to Iranaitivu.

The officers who stopped us became apologetic, and tried to explain their concern was rough seas and dangerous animals on the island, but were helpless to answer when asked why a special authorisation based on profession and purpose was necessary to ward off these new concerns. Refreshingly, the next day, journalists were allowed to travel to Iranaitivu without obstructions, and I hope more people will visit and assert their right to movement.

My previous landings were on the larger island of Periatheevu, but this time, we landed on the smaller island of Sinnatheevu. We met several people who were repairing St. Sebastians Church, a small church on Sinnatheevu, the feast of which they are due to celebrate today, January 13. We were shown wells with drinking water. Some had been cleaned and was the source of water for people living there. Others have been damaged or unusable due to long years of abandonment. A major challenge that needs to be addressed is a system to take the water to the other island where there is less potable water.

The ruins of the brick houses they were forced to leave were visible, often next to the thatched huts they had erected to live since April last year.

There is no motorised transport on the island except for one tiny old roofless mini-lorry. So, from the smaller island, we walked through lush greenery, small lakes and waded through a beautiful strip of sea to the larger island.

The main church in the larger island had been repaired with some assistance from the Navy. But other community buildings suh as the school, cooperative, women’s society, the residences of the priest and nuns, the hospital, the Village Council and the elaborate systems for collecting and storing rain water, both overground and underground, are still in ruins.

An elder told us that they rarely used medicine, showing us some medicinal leaves from a plant he plucked as we were walking.

They residents seemed the happiest about advances they had made in livelihoods after reclaiming the land. We saw dried fish and sea cucumber, which the women said they can harvest just by walking out to the sea in the morning and sometimes evenings as well, leaving the rest of the day free for other activities. We saw tomatoes being grown in a home garden beside a thatched hut. Others we met were repairing by hand nets for lagoon crabs and sea crabs.

There is no electricity on the island. They have received some small solar panels for basic needs from a private well-wisher, which is being used at present.

Reflections and the future

There are still many communities struggling for land around the country, especially in the North and the East. Many are due to Army and Navy occupation, such as in Jaffna, Mullikulam and Pallimunai in the Mannar district, Kepapilavu in the Mullaitheevu district and the Kanagar village and Panama in the Ampara district. I hope Iranaitivu will inspire others struggling to reclaim their lands and fighting for justice.

Iranaitivu is also an inspiring story of a resourceful and beautiful island, unjustly denied to its historical residents by the Navy, but reclaimed by a determined, sustained campaign including a 359-day continuous protest, and finally, by a well-planned, and daring sea journey and landing to reclaim the island, defying the Navy.

Well established community institutions such as the women’s group and fisheries cooperative and the parish priest was instrumental in the community’s survival during decades of displacement and the struggle to reclaim their lands.

Support from other Catholic clergy, activists, media and international community was also important. Iranaitivu is also a story of a resilient community consolidating their claiming of the land by reinvigorating their traditional livelihoods and strengthening community institutions.

But the missing factor is the Government. At least now, the Government must step in, ensure reparations, and facilitate resettlement. Among those who are unable to live on the island are school-going children and some of their family members, which indicates the urgency to rebuild and restart the school on the island as soon as possible.

The hospital also needs to be rebuilt and the school and hospital needs to be adequately staffed. Rebuilding houses, cleaning the wells and installing a water distribution system is urgent. Community buildings too need to be rebuilt.

Government officials must be present on the island. New projects could be initiated, such as for electricity, particularly by exploring the option of solar-power.

Passenger transport boats between the island and the mainland, and at least some minimal transport facilities within the island for emergencies and essential needs need to be established.

 

The terror of counter-terror laws

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/10/21/opinion/terror-counter-terror-laws on 21st October 2018

With the second reading of the Counter Terrorism Bill scheduled for Tuesday (23), rights activists are still raising grave concerns about the proposed legislation.

For about 40 years, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) served as a license for torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and prolonged detention. Three years have passed since the governmental commitment to repeal it, and it must be done now.

There are also many problematic clauses in the draft of the proposed new counter terror law,which has been tabled in parliament, with the original Sinhalese name, and a new English name – “Counter Terrorism”. Crimes must be prevented and responded to, including serious ones termed as “terrorism” and we already have a plethora of laws to do this. It is also possible to amend existing laws to include any new types of crimes that are not included. Therefore there is no need for a new counter terror law.

We have been living in a state of almost continuous emergency for about 40 years from1971 to 2011. Emergency regulations were reintroduced in March 2018 for a short period when there was violence against Muslims around Kandy. Under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO), the President has absolute discretion, without judicial scrutiny, to declare a state of emergency and ‘emergency regulations’ that can override all laws except the Constitution. Parliament can extend such emergency laws beyond 14 days. Emergency regulations can take away procedural protections on arrests, detention, and trials, which are guaranteed under criminal law, and they can be used for entry, search, seizure of assets and properties, providing powers of arrest to the armed forces, and accepting confessions made to the police. 1

Emergency regulations have also introduced definitions of terrorism. Our Constitution also provides for restrictions of rights2 in the name of national security, without them even being required to be ‘proportionate’. In addition to the PSO and emergency regulations, Sri Lanka has about 15 other laws,3 which can deal with offences that are listed under the proposed counter-terrorism law.

The Bill contains vague and broadly worded definitions of the intention required for the offence of terrorism:4 The defined actions include ones that can infringe on dissent and fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution.5 Even the exception clause to the above – the exercising of a fundamental right – is subject to that of being done in “good faith”.

There is no compulsion to protect an arrested person from physical harm. Conveying information about the arrest to the arrestee in her or his own language is not compulsory and where it cannot be given immediately, there is no specified time frame to do so. Even if family members are present at the time of arrest, there is a 24 hour period provided, to notify the family of the arrest details. If family members are not present at the time of arrest, serving acknowledgement of arrest is not compulsory. It is not compulsory for female suspects to be questioned by female officers or have a female officer present.

The time frame for a detainee to be produced before a Magistrate is doubled to 48 hours from the 24 hours limit allowed under ordinary laws, increasing the possibility of abuse. A person could be remanded for upto one year without charges and without bail.

Through Detention Orders (DOs) a police officer can tell the judiciary (a Magistrate) what to do, and the Magistrate must obey, in terms of detaining a person, granting bail or discharging an arrestee. These DOs can last up to two weeks at a time and with approval of a Magistrate, can be then extended for eight weeks. Detention is in places and conditions decided by a Minister. Appeals against DOs are to be made to a“Board of Review”, comprising the Minister the Ministry’s Secretary, and two others appointed by the Minister. A detained suspect’s lawyer and family can only access her or him with the prior permission of the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the detention facility or prison.

Lawyers cannot be present during interview and taking of statements. Police are given 72 hours to notify the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) of a detention under a DO, but no time frame is given for the HRCSL to be given a copy of the DO. The Bill gives power to an OIC to do a medical examination of a detainee to check for visible injuries, and if there are visible injuries, the OIC only has to produce a suspect before a Judicial Medical Officer(JMO)and obtain a report.

If a Magistrate or the HRCSL thinks a place of detention/remand does not conform to the requirements of humane treatment (after a visit), they are to notify the Inspector General of Police/Superintendent of Prisons. However, neither of them are obliged to provide ‘whatever is necessary for humane treatment’.

Under the PTA, only police officers can make arrests, enter premises, conduct searches, and seize material, but the new Bill also grants sweeping powers to the armed forces and the coast guard. Police can seek an order from a magistrate to stop a gathering, a meeting, rally or activity, without a chance for an affected party to be heard. A Minister can proscribe an organization and declare any public place or any other location as a prohibited place indefinitely- without prior possibility for the affected to challenge this- powers that even the PTA doesn’t provide for. Additional powers that the Bill provides but the PTA does not have, are for the President to declare a curfew and call out armed forces so as to maintain public order.

The PTA only allowed seizure and forfeiture of properties of a convicted person, but the new draft law expands this to include those acquitted by courts or anyone else.

The Bill also legitimizes acceptance of a penalty such as a public apology, or reparation to victims of the offence- such as undergoing rehabilitation or engaging in community service. In the context of decades long court cases and high legal costs, the threat of fresh charges with high penalties may compel individuals to admit guilt rather than establish their innocence in a Court of law. The Bill also allows the Attorney General, the prosecutor, to play a judicial role by imposing penalties when withdrawing charges.

The new draft Bill improves on some of the draconian provisions of the PTA, but also goes on to provide the Minister, President, armed forces more powers than the PTA. We must not lower our standards to use a much abused draconian law like the PTA as a benchmark for any new law.

Extraordinary powers should always be an exception for limited purposes, limited periods and a limited geographical area, but the new law is a permanent all island law. It introduces offences that are vague and could criminalize exercise of human rights and dissent. It reduces checks and balances to safeguard life, liberty and wellbeing, reduces judicial discretion and grants extraordinary powers to a Minister, police, army and coastguard on top of the wide powers they could exercise even now through proclamation of emergency by the President. These are powers that have been heavily abused in the past and the new bill can facilitate continuation of such abuses. It can permanently militarize civil life, based more on security obsessed authoritarianism than democracy and rule of law. This must be opposed.

(The writer is a rights activist. A significant part of his work in the last few years has been about those detained under the PTA and those released. He has also been detained under the PTA, has a pending investigation for four and half years, and a court order restricting his freedom of expression)

[1]In the past, this has even included bypassing inquests required under ordinary laws for death of persons caused by the police or the army, or the death of persons while in their custody, and made it mandatory for all media organizations to submit their reports to the ‘Competent Authority’ prior to publication or broadcast.

[2]Such as right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and movement, equality before the law and non-discrimination.

[3] For example, Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure, Offences Against Aircraft Act No. 24 Of 1982, Suppression Of Unlawful Acts Of Violence At Airports Serving International Civil Aviation No. 31 Of 1996, Suppression Of Unlawful Acts Against The Safety Of Maritime Navigation No. 42 Of 2000, Prevention Of Hostage Taking No. 41 Of 2000, Prevention And Punishment Of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons No. 15 Of 1991, Suppression Of Terrorist Bombings Act, No. 11 Of 1999, Chemical Weapons Convention No.58 Of 2007,, Convention On The Suppression Of Terrorist Financing Act No. 25 Of 2005, Financial Transactions Reporting Act No. 6 Of 2006, Prevention of Money Laundering Act No. 05 of 2006 (as amended), Proscribing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Other Similar Organizations Law No. 16 of 1978, SAARC Regional Convention On Suppression Of Terrorism Act No. 70 Of 1988, United Nations Act No 45 of 1968 and regulations made under that to deal with terrorist financing and money laundering and which has led to listing of persons and organizations.

[4] Such as “intimidate a population”, “wrongfully or unlawfully compelling the government of Sri Lanka, or any other government, or an international organization, to do or to abstain from doing any act”, “prevent any such government from functioning” or “causing harm to the territorial integrity or sovereignty of Sri Lanka or any other sovereign country”.

[5]obstruction to essential services, obstruction, interference to any electronic or automated system and causing serious risk to safety of a section of a public.

The Struggle for Justice

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/10/20/the-struggle-for-justice/ on 20th October 2018

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from a speech made at the Human Rights Education Award ceremony at the Law & Human Rights Centre in Jaffna, on 19th Oct. 2018

Dear friends,

I want to congratulate the Law and Human Rights Centre for organising this course. It is difficult but very important to do this in Jaffna, a place that sees continuing rights violations, impunity for serious violations in the past and courageous dissent and resistance, be it through protests, the arts, writing, or filing court cases.

Rights violations and struggles for justice

Today, after this event, I will be going to the Jaffna Press Club – for a commemorative event to remember life and work of Nimalarajan, a Tamil journalist killed on 19th October 2000. He is among many Tamil journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, threatened, and intimidated during and after the war. No one has been held accountable. For many, justice for Tamil journalists appear to be less important than justice for Sinhalese journalists. Even now, Tamil journalists continue to face threats, intimidation, surveillance, interrogation. Not just them, but also families and friends.

This year and last year has been a year of protests in Sri Lanka – especially in the North and East. This includes continuous protests for more than one and half years by families of disappeared and by communities whose lands are occupied by the military. In addition to long drawn out roadside protests, families of the disappeared in Mannar and Vavuniya have published books documenting their stories. Some have met the President, others have made representations to international community representatives in Sri Lanka and Geneva. Some have filed court cases. Some of the leaders have been assaulted, threatened, intimidated and subjected to interrogation and surveillance. Even those inside prisons have been protesting – such as female detainees and political prisoners engaging in hunger strikes.

There have been a few significant victories emerging from these struggles. For example, last year, month long overnight roadside protests by communities in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu led to the release of Army and Air Force-occupied lands. This year, the people of Iranaitheevu made a daring landing on their Navy-occupied island and reclaimed their traditional lands. Hunger strikes by political prisoners have led to reversal of unjust transfer of cases from Tamil areas to Sinhalese areas, and release on bail of some. Sandya Ekneligoda, whose husband disappeared, was threatened by a rough Buddhist Monk Gnanasara while inside court in 2016 – she refused mediation, insisted and courageously pursed justice in courts and finally, Gnanasara was convicted and put behind bars. These are exceptions to the rule, but it’s good to recall these struggles, and see what we can learn from those that were leading and involved in these.

We also need to be conscious of rights abuses, injustice and repression from non-state parties. Last month, a film looking at Tamil militancy, including the LTTE, in a critical way, was removed from the Jaffna film festival due to pressure from some people in Jaffna. Earlier this week, a photo exhibition, a substantial part of which included photos about rights violations in the North and East including disappearances and land, was not allowed to be held in the Peradeniya University by a student group. Last year, several months long protest was held against caste based oppression in Jaffna.

Protests have been held across the North and East against unjust schemes by microfinancecompanies that pushes people into debt and even suicide. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo preached that human rights are not so important, that it’s a Western concept, that it’s only for people without religions, despite strong views supporting international human rights framework by successive Popes including Pope Francis. Most Muslim men and clergy resist reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which legalises blatant discrimination of women and child marriage of girls. Some Buddhist clergy and their followers have been at forefront of violence against Christians and Muslims. Even as we try hold the state accountable, we must also expose and challenge armed groups, business enterprises, religious groups and in general oppressive social – cultural practices that facilitates, justifies and promotes rights abuses and undermines struggles for justice.

It is also a challenge to critically engage with new laws and institutions that we are faced with. These often fall short of legitimate expectations of survivors, victim families and affected communities. They are often compromised, or seek to whitewash old and existing violations and paint a rosy picture of the present situation. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) established earlier this year and the Act on Reparations approved in Parliament last month are examples. But they also offer tiny rays of hope for a minimal degree of redress to at least a few survivors, victim families and affected communities and thus, we should be careful about rejecting them totally or boycotting them. The Right to Information Act and the Commission is an example of a recent development that have provided answers to some citizens who proactively sought answers about what’s hidden – such as military occupied land and military run businesses, entitlements in terms of flood relief etc.

I want to spend some time to talk about another draft law that’s before parliament now. The Counter Terrorism Bill. We must all stand for immediate and long overdue repeal of the PTA – the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But we must resist the temptation to compare the Counter Terrorism Act with the draconian PTA, and instead, focus on looking at extremely problematic clauses of the CTA which have the potential to restrict our rights and takes away essential lifesaving checks and balances in face of arrest and detention. It is not even compulsory to have a female officer question a female. It is not compulsory to serve acknowledgement of arrest and detention to family of the detainee. The draft restricts roles of the judiciary and confers extraordinary powers to the police, military, the Minister and the President. But we must also ask the more fundamental question of why we need a CTA, especially when we have a Public Security Ordinance, which gives enormous discretionary powers to the President to declare emergency regulations? Why do we need a CTA when our constitution allows restrictions on fundamental rights in special circumstances including for national security? When we have around 15 other laws, including those dealing with terrorism, hate speech that may cause communal disharmony, and money laundering? Laws such as the PTA, have served as license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and prolonged periods of detention, torture and sexual violence, and crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement. This is true for Sri Lanka and across the world. In Sri Lanka, it is Tamils who have been disproportionately affected by PTA and it is crucial that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the major political alliance representing Tamils in parliament, and also the opposition party, stands for the full repeal of the PTA, highlights the problematic clauses of the new counter terror law and oppose it’s enactment. And I believe all of us, especially Tamils in the North and East, must demand this from the TNA.

Human Rights Education and certificates

We cannot talk about human rights education, human rights courses and diplomas isolated from the above context. I would like to mention three elements I consider to be important in human rights education. One is the need to study philosophy, history, laws, institutions, gaining skills to research, theorise, analyse. Secondly, to learn about rights violations and abuses. Thirdly, to learn about struggles for justice. I have not followed any course or diploma in human rights, and learned the first in the process of the being involved in the second and the third. Unlike the first, the last two cannot be studied from the comfort of meeting rooms, or in hotels, classrooms, libraries or research online. We have to learn about violations and struggles against them from survivors of violations, families of victims and affected communities. By meeting them where they are – such as in their homes, in hospitals, prisons, IDP camps, or by joining them in their struggles – at a roadside protest, a hunger strike, an overnight vigil, in court battles, or negotiating with authorities.

I’m aware that some of you in the class, your friends, and your family members may also be survivors of violations. Some of you maybe already be involved in struggles for justice. I was impressed when most of you following the course agreed to visit the families of disappeared at the overnight roadside protest. And I’m happy to hear that some who participated are involved in LHRC work as volunteers.

Today, you will get a certificate. Receiving a certificate can be a nice feeling, give a sense of achievement, and practically, they can help you advance in your education and career. The certificate is a small indicator of you completing the course on human rights. But the real indicator of learning about human rights will be from what you do to prevent violations, fight against them, and support the struggles of survivors, victim families and affected communities. You may not get certificates when you do this, but instead, face persecution and reprisals from state, from your own community, colleagues, friends and families. I have faced and still face such challenges and often ask myself whether it was worth it. I hope you will rise to this challenge. I hope the course will support the emergence of a new generation of activists and strengthen ongoing struggles for justice.

No Peace in Rest

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/10/19/no-peace-in-rest/ on 19th October 2018

The Sri Lankan State’s erasure of the complex history and experiences of the war manifest in varying ways across the country; military monuments that showcase a single victory narrative, the construction of Buddhist statues in Tamil-majority areas and the blatantly incorrect signboards at several of these locations. Then, there is the desecration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) ‘maaveerar thuyilum illam’, which loosely translates to ‘great heroes’ resting places’.

Here lie bodies of LTTE cadres killed in combat. In the several cases where bodies could not be recovered, memorial headstones are erected. The people who remember them in their original state are quick to say that they were graveyards as much as they were gardens, or even temples, meticulously designed and maintained by the LTTE and their families. Now, some of them are cement fragments piled in the centre of a vast field, while others now form the foundation of a few of the many army camps that cover the peninsula.

On November 27, the thuyilum illams across the Northern and Eastern provinces would become the sites of community mourning and celebration of ‘Maaveerar Naal’, the LTTE’s ‘Great Heroes Day’ celebration. Held on the anniversary of the death of Shankar, considered to be the first ‘maaveerar’, a symbolic lamp is lit and the LTTE flag raised at 6.05pm, allegedly his precise time of death. It was the day Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, would make his annual speech. These observances are said to provide the community with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives, the dead cadres would grasp eternity.

Commemorations are no longer carried out at the scale they were during the conflict, however they remain problematic due to the explicit promotion of the flag and symbols of a proscribed organisation. There are also questions around the heroic remembrance of those who, by giving their lives to their cause, orchestrated the death of civilians. This is so in the case of the Black Tigers, who dedicated themselves to specialised suicide missions at specific targets, many of which were civilian spaces. Survivors and families of victims of the LTTE’s atrocities, including Tamils, question why the cadres should be remembered and celebrated as heroes in public collectively, in events that often have a political dimension. However, those interviewed in this piece say the former cadres’ families only want the right to remember and grieve.

Conflating Remembrance Day With Maaveerar Naal

Efforts in 2017 to remember those who perished in Mullivaikkal in May 2009 were restricted, because the police thought that those being mourned were LTTE cadres. The two are distinctly separate; Mullivaikkal commemorations in May are regarded as remembrance of all those who perished in the war, but a larger focus is on civilians. Similarly, journalists have written that it is ‘a grave blunder to assume that the ‘Maaveerar Naal’ of the LTTE is a day of national mourning for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.’

Though many in the North and East had family members who joined the LTTE and many Tamils are sympathetic towards the LTTE even today, not all Tamils have connections to the LTTE. There are those who have suffered under the LTTE; surviving assassination attempts, forcibly recruited, recruited as children, shot at when attempting to flee LTTE-controlled areas in May 2009, and more. These survivors, as well as families of Tamils who fell victim to LTTE’s violence, do not regard the LTTE as their representatives or as heroes.

There is also controversy as to why the JVP, who also took up arms against the state, and engaged in abuses against civilians, are allowed to mourn their dead publicly in heroes remembrances (viru samaruma) when the thuyilum illams have been destroyed by successive governments. It is interesting too to note that the JVP and the LTTE were described differently during the JVP insurgencies – the English and Sinhala media often referring to the former as ‘subversives’ and the latter as terrorists.

The destruction

The army would destroy the thuyilum illams in its path as it gained ground during the war, reducing the headstones and graves to rubble and in a few instances, we were told had even dug bodies out of the ground.

The State’s efforts to clamp down on post-war memorialisation meant that families of the fallen cadres had no opportunity to mark Maaveerar Naal. But there were also restorations and reconstructions as the LTTE gained access to and varying degrees of control of areas the Army had earlier captured. For example, in Kopay, in the Jaffna district the thuyilum illamwas destroyed once the Army gained control of the area in 1995. But after the ceasefire of 2002, the LTTE regained access, rebuilt and memorials began again. They even had placed a plaque at the entrance, with remnants of the destruction. As the ceasefire collapsed, the Army again destroyed it and built a camp over it, which still stands. Around 2012, some Tamils in the North and East defied government’s crackdowns and organized remembrance events, but these were not held in thuyilum illam sites. In 2012, when Maaveerar Naal fell on the same day as Karthiaai Vilakeeduu, the Hindu festival of lights, residents lighting lamps at the University of Jaffna came under attack from the security forces.

From 2016, families and communities, supported by some Tamil politicians, clergy and diaspora, started to publicly but mutedly markMaaveerar Naal. Some did this by arranging remaining fragments of headstones, clearing the overgrown fields, and restoring some order to what had been destroyed. Surveillance and the presence of intelligence personnel was recorded in many locations, and some thereby resorted to a single lamp lit near where the resting place used to be.

The Right to Remember and Mourn

The right of all communities, and families, to remember their dead who were lost in combat is laid out in international humanitarian law. Government-appointed bodies such as the LLRC and the Office on Missing Persons have also made recommendations on remembrance and memorialisation in general while the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms (CTF) has explicit reference to remembrance of dead LTTE cadres. One submission, quoted in the report, said ‘20 LTTE graveyards from across the North and East of Sri Lanka, comprising thousands of graves and commemorative plaques for LTTE fighters were bulldozed after the war’ and acknowledged that “the destruction of LTTE cemeteries, the grief it had caused and the need to preserve the sanctity of the dead’ was raised frequently during its hearings. The CTF then recommended the restoration of burial plots to family members and the removal of all buildings subsequently erected on them. The CTF also made a general recommendation noting that the ‘sanctity of all sites, where those who perished or disappeared in armed conflicts are buried, interred or symbolically remembered is respected.’

possible reason for the destruction of the thuyilum illams could be that the military who carried out these acts were motivated by a wish to ‘deny the defeated LTTE any focal points for resurgence’ . These actions, however, only serve to deepen divide between the ‘conquering’ and the ‘conquered’, hindering possibilities of understanding and reconciliation between groups.

As Sri Lanka nears ten years since the end of the conflict, many of the initiatives intended to address wartime abuses and post-war issues are yet to come to fruition. The families of the disappeared still wait for answers, and some have been engaged in protests for around 600 days at the time of writing. Land release is slow, and militarisation in the North and East remains an ever-present issue. These issues are compounded by the denial of their right to mourn their loved ones. The desecration of the thuyilam illam, in this light, acts not as a deterrent but as a ‘focal point for enhanced embitterment towards the government’.

Note: For a map of 14 locations, photos, description of each site with history, statistics, quotes from local people including family members of Maarveerar, see the full story at https://cpasl.atavist.com/nopeaceinrest

Political prisoners and counter terror laws

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/09/23/news-features/political-prisoners-and-counter-terror-laws on 23rd September 2018

On 14th September, eight Tamil detainees in the Anuradhapura prison, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) since around 2009 commenced a fast. Their cases are yet to be concluded, with a major reason for delays being the non-attendance of officials from the Attorney General’s department who are prosecuting the cases. One of the cases has not had a hearing for about 5 years. They are demanding to be released or be subjected to short term “rehabilitation” – a form of detention that doesn’t entail a judicial trial and sentence.

The term ‘Political Prisoners’ is used in relation to those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The Government rejects the term ‘political prisoner’, insisting that cases need to be resolved through legal than political perspective, though the crimes these detainees are suspected to have committed have a political context involving an armed struggle with political objectives. The Opposition leader, who is also the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has stated in Parliament that “these cases have a certain political dimension and cannot be addressed as purely as a legal issue” and that “circumstances of not addressing the national question reasonably makes it obligatory to address this issue politically”.[1]

Examples of prolonged detention

Prolonged detention has been a hallmark of detention. In the last few years, men and women have been acquitted as not guilty after being detained under the PTA for as long as 15, 10 and 6 years.[2]A 2015 report indicated that as of early 2015, there were persons in detention for 18-19 years under the PTA without having their cases concluded and that it has taken up to 15 years to even file charges in some cases[3]. The National Movement to Release Political Prisoners has indicated there are 107 political prisoners as of now. A July 2018 document provides more details, such as;

* Up to 7 year’s detention without charge being filed

* Up to 13 years detention without completion of trials

* 46 against whom charges have been framed without their cases being concluded – with 16 of them being in detention for 10-13 years

* Another 13 have not even been charged – with 6 being in detention for 5-7 years

They are being held in 10 prisons in Colombo, Negombo, Mahara, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa and Moneragala. There are also 37 who have been convicted and 17 who have appeal cases pending. Some have been detained for 15-17 years before being sentenced. The severest sentences range from death sentence, life sentence, 600 years, 200 years and lesser sentences ranging from 1.5 years to 6 years.

Even some who had been released after going through the Government’s rehabilitation for those connected with the LTTE, have been re-arrested. In the case of two such detainees, they were re-arrested in 2010 and charges filed in 2013. After a few months, the Attorney General (AG) had withdrawn the indictment to change the charges. On Feb. 21, 2016, the three suspects had started a hunger strike. They had been brought before courts 36 times by this time. They stopped the hunger strike based on a commitment by the AG to present the amended indictment before courts within 2 weeks. But the amended indictment was only presented to courts in June 2017.

Re-arrests and transfers

Subsequently, the AG had informed them that the case will be transferred to the Anuradhapura High Court, which led to two of them, along with another accused, starting an another hunger strike, demanding the case to be brought back to Vavuniya High Court, insisting they will not be able to get a fair trial in Anuradhapura. The language of the courts in Anuradhpura is Sinhalese, while the language of the Courts in Vavuniya is Tamil. The three Tamil suspects does not understand Sinhalese. It is also very difficult to obtain legal representation for Tamil political prisoners in a Sinhalese majority area like Anuradhapura, and in this particular case, the senior counsel for the three suspects had refused to appear in Anuradhapura.

There is an ethnic bias in transfer of cases of Tamil suspects and accused from Tamil majority North and Eastern provinces to Sinhalese majority areas. When the complainants / victims were Tamils and the accused have been Sinhalese military personnel, cases were transferred on basis of security of accused. In the past, courts in Sinhalese majority areas had accepted confessions made by suspects in detention, whereas Courts in Tamil majority North have rejected such confessions.

Past protests and promises by politicians

In April this year, the “speedy release of all Tamil political prisoners” was one of the ten guarantees the TNA had reportedly sought when they had supported the Prime Minister during No Confidence Motion.[4] In July, TNA leader had promised activists to speedily resolve the problem of political prisoners. According to an activist, a Tamil Minister has not responded for a week to requests for a discussion after the latest fast had commenced. TNA MP and spokesperson Parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran had visited the detainees presently engaged in the fast and taken up the matter with the Prime Minister, but there has been no response yet.

Fasts and protests by political prisoners in Sri Lanka have been common, including in 2015, 2016, 2017 and now 2018. After the 2015 protests, bail was granted to about 40 detainees. Last year, it took a fast of more than a month by three detainees to correct an unjust transfer of cases from Vavuniya to Anuradhapura. When detainees resort to drastic steps such as fasts and protests, there is temporary interest among politicians, media, activists and international community, but momentum and interest had often been lost afterwards, until another fast or protest is initiated by desperate prisoners. The negative impacts on mental and physical health of detainees and their families due to regular fasting is likely to be high, coming on top of the inhumane and degrading treatment and torture they are usually subjected to.

Negative impacts of the PTA

The PTA had resulted in arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charges, long drawn out court cases and multiple cases against one suspect. Mental and physical well-being of detainees have been severely affected due to long term detention and as a result of rigorous interrogation, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture. Many detainees have spent most of their youth behind bars. The stigma attached to having been a “terrorist suspect” lingers even after they are acquitted or released by Courts, with society still considering them guilty.

There have been many cases of forced/coerced confessions where the detainee had not even known she/he was signing a confession as she/he could not understand the language it was written in. The detainees currently on a fast have claimed that the only evidence against them are forced confessions.

A 2018 UN report indicated that 80% of those arrested under the PTA in late 2016 had complained of torture and physical ill-treatment following their arrest, in cases which were later dealt with under ordinary criminal law.[5] The same report quoted the most senior judge responsible for PTA cases as saying that in over 90% of the cases he had dealt with in the first half of 2017, he had been forced to exclude the essential confession evidence because it had been obtained through the use or threat of force. The judge in special High Court in Colombo had been quoted as saying he had only been able to accept one out of eleven confessions as evidence, while in Anuradhapura, out of fourteen cases, twelve were said to have been based solely on unreliable confessions.

The PTA has been used against opposition politicians, journalists and rights activists to suppress dissent. I have also been arrested and detained under the PTA and along with others such as Balendran Jeyakumary, and we are considered terror suspects more than four and half years after our arrests.

Do we need a PTA or any counter-terror laws?

The present Government promised to repeal this law more than three years ago. But it is still being used and there is no date announced for it’s repeal. Instead, the Government had engaged in secret processes to draft laws that would replace the PTA. Media reports earlier this month about a draft counter – terror law approved by Cabinet indicates that problematic clauses such as admission of confessions made to Police and enabling the Defense Ministry to be the authority to implement the provisions of this bill as a piece of legislation dealing with national security will be introduced at the Parliamentary Committee stage, eliminating possibilities of judicial review of such amendments.[6]

However, a more fundamental question is whether we need any counter–terror laws. There is wide-ranging powers available under the Public Security Ordinance, the possibility of including new offences under ordinary law, powers of Magistrates to deny bail in a variety of situations etc. Counter-terror laws provides the executive and security establishment extraordinary powers with minimal checks and balances as well as discretion usually vested with the judiciary, negatively affecting life and liberty, rights and dignity of persons, often serving as a license for enforced disappearances and torture.

Comparisons have also been made to the way detainees were treated in relation to the JVP insurrections, highlighting that Sinhalese political prisoners connected to JVP insurrections were released faster or pardoned than political prisoners connected to the LTTE, the vast majority of whom are Tamil. Protests, including fasts unto death, have been held regularly across the country, including by detainees themselves and their families, and discussions have been held with politicians, but with very little results. Until solutions are found for all political prisoners, both through legal and political processes, and unless we stop resorting to counter-terror laws, reconciliation and democracy will remain distant in Sri Lanka. Most urgent, and immediate, is to respond constructively to the ongoing fast in Anuradhapura. Blurb

The term ‘Political Prisoners’ is used in relation to those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The Government rejects the term ‘political prisoner’, insisting that cases need to be resolved through legal than political perspective, though the crimes these detainees are suspected to have committed have a political context involving an armed struggle with political objectives.

[1] http://srilankabrief.org/2017/10/tamil-political-prisoners-in-sri-lanka-…

[2] https://twitter.com/rkguruparan/status/923671056300339200 and http://groundviews.org/2015/10/05/court-acquits-tamil-mother-after-15-ye…

[3] http://groundviews.org/2015/09/05/pta-detainees-ignored-under-yahapalanaya/

[4] http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/TNA-s-key-role-in-defeating-no-confide…

[5] https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/LK/Sri_LankaReportJuly2018.PDF

[6] http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Cabinet-nod-for-Counter-Terrorism-Bill… Attachments area

Sri Lanka’s Stalled Reforms

First published at https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/09/12/sri-lanka-s-stalled-reforms/ on 12th September 2018

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This interview has been edited lightly.

Three years on, what’s your broad take on the coalition government’s performance? Where does the reform agenda currently stand?

Some reforms have happened since 2015 to varying degrees, but many of the promised reforms have come to a standstill and seem unlikely to happen by next year.

The release of some lands occupied by the military after months of protests, the release and indictments of some political prisoners, more space for free expression and assembly compared to years under the previous regime, arrests of some Navy and Army personnel in relation to a couple of disappearance cases, convictions of Police and Army personnel (for torture, killing of civilians and rape), are also some positive things seen since 2015. The passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution reducing the powers of the executive president and strengthening independent institutions and checks and balances, the ratification of the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances and making this a crime in Sri Lanka, the passing of the Right to Information Act were some progressive legislative changes – while the proactiveness and independence displayed by the leadership of the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission were also positive features.

But the reluctance of the government and lack of leadership by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to carry forward the reform agenda overshadows these gains. Much of the land occupied by the military during and after the war still remains in their hands. Releases were often due to long drawn out overnight protests and direct action by affected communities. The possibilities of reconciliation through land releases was negatively affected by the arrogance and viciousness of the military – who after benefitting from decades of occupation, called the return of lands “gifts,” organized ceremonies for themselves where military leaders were glorified and had destroyed and damaged some properties just before handing them over.

Political prisoners acquitted by courts after up to 15 years in detention have received no apology or reparations and many still languish in prison, including based on confessions made during detention, which are likely to have been under duress. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn despite the commitment to do so three years ago. Alternatives to the PTA were drafted in utmost secrecy from the citizenry and leaked versions contained draconian provisions. Abduction, assaults, death threats, intimidation, discrediting and surveillance of activists continues. An attempt to bring in a draconian amendment to the Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act was only withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from civil activists and organizations. Violence against Muslims and Christians continued, including on a mass scale, such as in March this year around Kandy. Debt has reached life-threatening proportions.

Three years after ambitious promises to set up institutions to deal with wartime abuses, only one, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up, and that too is limping forward. A draft bill was rushed through the cabinet to establish an Office for Reparations. There is not even draft legislation for the two other institutions promised – a truth commission and judicial mechanism with a special counsel. The president, prime minister and other politicians have backtracked on the promise to include foreign judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and investigators in the judicial mechanism. 

More specifically, what do you expect to happen in terms of constitution-building?

There has been some progress, with some public consultations, six subcommittee reports and a steering committee report from the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of all the parliamentarians. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether a new constitution will see the light of day. Even if it does, there are serious concerns about whether it will bring substantial changes – such as the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights as justiciable rights, doing away with ancient laws that facilitate the applicability of discriminatory laws against women and children, providing the foremost place to the majority religion and a lesser place to other religions, abolition of the executive presidency and power-sharing arrangements, which is also crucial for resolving the ethnic conflict that led to war.

How effective will the Office on Missing Persons be?

The OMP has been functioning for just over six months, but it’s too early to tell how effective it will be. OMP members tried make up for a lack of consultations before it was set up, by having a series of consultations about how it should function. It has stronger enabling legislation than previous Commissions of Inquiry and the chairperson and members have shown sensitivities in acknowledging the frustration, disappointment and anger of many families of the disappeared and missing who have approached multiple commissions, police, courts, et cetera and not received the answers they are seeking. But other than passionate appeals to give the OMP a chance and stating that they will try to do better than previous government initiatives, and publishing an interim report, I have seen nothing to indicate the OMP will be more effective than the large number of previous Commissions of Inquiry. The inclusion of a senior retired Army officer as a member of the OMP, in a context where many families believe their relatives were taken away by the Army (and where Army personnel have been convicted by courts and both Army and Navy personnel have been arrested on suspicion in relation to disappearances), has also contributed to making many families of the disappeared lose confidence in the OMP and be skeptical. It is this anger, suspicion and frustration that have led to protests against the OMP by some families of disappeared, leading to even the unacceptable situation of them blocking other families of the disappeared from engaging with the OMP. 

The first major specific public promise made by the OMP was to release an interim report on the 30th of August – the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. But instead of fulfilling this promise, the OMP postponed the release of the report – in order to hand over the report first to the president, though they have no legal obligation to do so. Though this may be a strategic decision by the OMP, it has led to concerns that the OMP is prioritizing presidential appeasement and not giving primacy to the families of the disappeared and missing. The report dated the 30th of August was presented to the president on the 5th of September and released to the public on the 6th.

Despite the history of reports and recommendations by previous Commissions of Inquiry, much of which have been ignored by successive governments, the OMP too has opted to prioritize another report with observations and recommendations. This is despite the OMP being legally empowered to provide welfare services, trace the disappeared and inform the families.

The recommendations in the report include amendments to existing laws to strengthen the legal framework in criminalizing and prosecuting enforced disappearances, that state officials including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or accused in relation to abductions and enforced disappearances should be suspended and not transferred, promoted or offered any other office, publishing a list of detention centers and detainees, designating a national day for the disappeared, preserving sites of mass graves as memorial spaces and restoring a monument for Sinhalese youth that disappeared in late 1980s that was destroyed by the previous government.

Disappointingly, the OMP has not called on the government to release a list of those who surrendered to the Army at the end of the war, many of whom disappeared afterwards. The release of this list has been a central demand made to the president and also to the OMP by Tamil families who have been at continuous roadside protests for more than 550 days. The OMP has also opted to call for reform of some provisions of the draconian PTA instead of total repeal, without questioning the need for counterterrorism legislation, which has a history of abuse in Sri Lanka and across the world. 

The report also has some constructive and practical recommendations on “interim relief,” including a monthly cash payment and other facilities related to debt relief, housing, education, employment and livelihood development.

Observations and recommendations in the interim report are significant and important, but unlikely to impress families of the disappeared. What would have made a difference is if the OMP had done in the first six months or will do in the next few months what many families of disappeared have asked them to do and that they have a legal mandate to do: Establish the fate and whereabouts of a few of the disappeared and inform their families. Or at least start providing information relating to the status of investigations, on individual cases, to respective families. The interim report says the OMP started to carry out inquiries with relevant authorities on specific cases. However, even statistical and general information about progress made is not mentioned in the report.

Would you talk about some of the criticisms surrounding the creation of the Office for Reparations?

As is the usual custom of this government, the draft bill had been drafted in secret, without adequate consultations before it was approved by the cabinet. On the draft bill, there are concerns about unnecessary powers being granted to the cabinet and parliament, making the awarding of reparations a long drawn, politicized process and the office not being an independent one with decision-making powers.

What about President Sirisena’s plan to reinstate the death penalty?

This was a shock, as for more than 40 years, through civil war and insurrections, Sri Lanka was one of 29 countries that had maintained a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 106 countries had abolished it fully by 2017, and only 23 countries were known to have carried out executions in 2017. There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect. In Sri Lanka, there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality legal aid. 

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. It has been pointed out that in countries such as America, Canada and the United Kingdom, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully imprisoned.

If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, cited as a reason to reintroduce the death penalty, security in prisons must be strengthened, including by using new technology, without infringing on the rights of detainees. Prison officials responsible for such crimes from within prisons must be held accountable.

What Sri Lanka must do is ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty and abolish the death penalty from our books, as about 85 countries had done by the end of 2017.

How concerned are you about reports of abduction and torture since Sirisena became president?

Abductions have continued since President Sirisena took office – in the war-affected North, and even in Colombo in 2017, such as the abduction of the trade union leader and attempted abduction of a student activist. However, many abducted appear to have been released, though I’m also aware of those who have disappeared under this government and not been found.

Attacks, threats, intimidation and surveillance of families of the disappeared campaigning for truth and justice have also continued under President Sirisena. Their supporters, including activists and journalists have also been attacked, threatened, obstructed and interrogated. Several such incidents were reported in July this year; I had mentioned two in an article I wrote last month.

The continuation of torture too has been a major concern under the Sirisena presidency.

Will provincial council elections be held this year?

There is no certainty when provincial elections will be held.

What’s your assessment of a possible Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential campaign? Who do you see as viable candidates for the presidency?

Rajapaksa political forces have always been strong, even in 2015, and appear to be gaining ground in the face of failures by the present coalition government. Despite much hype beforehand, the “Jana Balaya” (People’s Power) rally in Colombo on the 5th didn’t indicate mass public support for Rajapaksa-led political forces and there didn’t even appear to be a clear and strong political message from the rally. Though Gotabaya was seen participating in the rally, he didn’t play a leading role and there is also uncertainty about whether he will be a presidential candidate for the Joint Opposition, representing Rajapaksa political forces. There is also no clear indication whether Sirisena – Wickremesinghe and their allies will contest together or separately, and if together, who might be a “common candidate.” But the rather unexpected emergence of Sirisena as a successful presidential candidate, with a broad alliance of political and civil forces’ support, makes me wonder whether there could be another person who could gain widespread support, across political and civil forces – but I only hope it would be one that will not let us down like Sirisena has done.

Sri Lankan Catholics need to follow pope’s call on death penalty

First published at https://www.ucanews.com/news/sri-lankan-catholics-need-to-follow-popes-call-on-death-penalty/83072on 17th August 2018

Pope Francis has taken a consistently principled position that human life is sacred

I was among the Sri Lankans who were shocked to see media reports in July indicating that President Maithripala Sirisena and his cabinet have given the green light to execute drug offenders on death row.

For more than 40 years, through civil wars and insurrections, Sri Lanka was one of 29 countries that had maintained a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 106 countries had abolished it fully by 2017, a year when 23 countries were known to have carried out executions.

If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, cited as a reason to rein in the death penalty, security in prisons must be strengthened. This includes using new technology and holding prison officials accountable.

There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect.

In Sri Lanka, there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality, legal aid.

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction.

It has been pointed out that in countries such as America, Canada and the UK, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully imprisoned.

Meanwhile, the Colombo-based European Ambassadors have written to the Sri Lankan president stressing their unequivocal opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances and all cases.

A European Union (EU) diplomat was also quoted as telling the media “if Sri Lanka resumes capital punishment, Colombo will immediately lose its GSP-Plus status.”

Pope Francis has been forthright and taken a consistently principled position that human life is sacred and the death penalty is “an inhuman measure that humiliates human dignity, in whatever form it is carried out.”

He further described it as being “contrary to the Gospel.”

However, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, clarified in statement issued around July 20 that he supports the president’s move to implement the death penalty in certain cases. He said perpetrators of gruesome crimes could be considered as having forfeited their own right to life, and whatever punishment was given by courts should be implemented.

The president has called to lift the 42-year moratorium on the death penalty for some death row convicts.Less than two weeks after Cardinal Ranjith’s statement, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a letter to bishops on Aug. 1 announcing that a revision of Church teachings had been approved by Pope Francis. The revision stated categorically that the death penalty is inadmissible and unnecessary even when used to protect the life of innocent people.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka followed this up with a statement of their own on Aug. 9 that quoted extensively from the CDF’s letter and made it clear in no uncertain terms that they unequivocally oppose the death penalty.

Now is the time for Sri Lankan Catholics, including the Catholic Bishops Conference, the Conference of (Catholic) Major Religious Superiors, and lay groups to follow the pope’s call for churches to work toward the total abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances.

Together, we must call on the country to ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty. Some 85 countries had ratified it by the end of 2017.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He is still under investigation. He is also a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors and an adviser to the INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre.

MULLIKULAM: A STEP CLOSER TO REGAIN NAVY OCCUPIED LANDS AND HOUSES

First published in the Sunday Observer of 5th August 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/08/05/news-features/mullikulam-step-closer-regain-navy-occupied-lands-and-houses

On 17th July 2018 about 80 families, including children and elderly left behind the brick houses they have been living in, with water, toilets, furniture, kitchen and other household goods, and moved to live in tents in a forest like area. The move was to resettle in their beloved, traditional village, Mullikulam, after nearly 11 years of displacement due to Navy occupation of the village.

Throughout this period, while struggling to survive without the resources Mullikulam provided, the villagers also battled to regain their lands, with many negotiations, meetings, petitions, letters and protests. The responses were mostly betrayals and broken promises, by the present and previous governments.

In 2012, their struggles led to limited access to the school, the church, and some agricultural lands. On April 29, 2017, after a sit-in overnight protest for more than a month outside the entrance to the Navy occupied village, the Navy Commander promised to release 100 acres of land “immediately” and release by end of the year, 27 houses, These were houses in good condition and had been occupied by the Navy. Promises of the Navy were still available on the official website when I was in Mullikulam last week. (http://news.navy.lk/eventnews/2017/04/29/201704291945/)

The 27 houses are yet to be released. This is why people had been compelled to live in tents, in forested and bushy areas of the 77 acres that has been released.

They face dangers from snakes and elephants, as well as dust, sun and rainfall that may come soon. There are electricity lines to the Navy buildings, near to where they live, but they have no electricity and this exacerbates night time dangers. They have to go a couple of kilometres to have a bath and are dependent on minimal toilet facilities at the nearby church and school.

Most painful for some villagers is to see their own houses occupied by the Navy, just a few metres away from their tents. An elderly villager showed me his brick house now occupied by the Navy, just across the gravel road from the tent he is now compelled to live in.

His two sons and a nine month old grandson are among those living in tents. Another grandson born last Sunday and his mother, are unable to come and live in the village in their house, due to Naval occupation of the house.

A rich land broken apart

Mullikulam has been a prosperous and picturesque village in the Mannar District, with a population that’s entirely Roman Catholic and of Tamil origin. It is a traditional fisher and farming village, with forests, tanks, irrigation schemes and open access to the sea enabling food security and steady income. The war resulted in the displacement of villagers in 1990, but many returned after the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement and started to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and restore their destroyed houses and property.

In September 2007, the people of Mullikulam were forcibly removed from their village and the entire village was taken over by the Army. The villagers were assured that they could return within three days. Nearly 11 years after, the people of Mullikulam have yet to be allowed to return home and the status of return remains indefinite and uncertain, due to the Navy having established their Northwestern Command Headquarters and Naval Institute (SLNS Barana) at Mullikulam.

During these 11 years, the approximately 300 families (besides about 100 in South India), have been living on rent, in temporary shelters/camps, or with host families/relatives, in and around Mannar. Some have accepted alternate land and housing. Most want to return to live in Mullikulam.

The future

Despite the nearly 11 year old wait, immense sufferings and broken promises, villagers have still not given up hope of having their village restored to them, which led to the latest move last month.

Civil authorities in the area must step into to provide the most urgent needs for those who moved to Mullikulam, such as electricity, toilets and bathing facilities.

The situation in Mullikulam has also been brought to the attention of the President, who is also the Commander in Chief. He must ensure that the Navy keeps its promise and immediately release the balance 23 acres of land and 27 houses, plus the 300 acres they had “earlier consented to release”.

Although what is needed is nothing less than the release of the Mullikulam village as soon as possible, it would be important to prioritise land that people judge to be most important for traditional livelihoods, public purposes and residencies.

It is also important to establish a regular consultative process about land releases with Mullikulam people, that’s led by civil authorities, respects people’s right to communicate and receive communications in Tamil, maintains transparency with written records of discussions and agreements, provides regular written updates on progress being made and responds to queries.

The Government must also try to provide the displaced people with material and financial assistance to rebuild their lives, including the return of boats, nets and other resources they had left behind when the Army occupied the village, rebuilding or improving village infrastructure including schools, medical centres and other amenities and ensuring equal access to common property and resources.

Note: the writer has been visiting and working with Mullikulam community since their displacement in 2007. Below are two of his previous writings that provides more background information.

Renewed struggle to regain Navy occupied village http://groundviews.org/2017/04/06/mullikulam-renewed-struggle-to-regain-…

The struggle to go home in post war Sri Lanka: The story of Mullikulam

http://groundviews.org/2012/08/01/the-struggle-to-go-home-in-post-war-sr…

DISAPPEARANCES IN SRI LANKA: 500 DAYS OF PROTESTS

First published in the Sunday Observer of 29th July 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/07/29/opinion/disappearances-sri-lanka-500-days-protests

Earlier this month female activists in the North and the East were subject to assault and other intimidation, which allegedly appears to be in relation to their work on disappearances, in courts and at the UN.

The Office of Missing Persons consultation meetings in Jaffna and Kilinochchi also met with fierce resistance by some families of the disappeared. July also saw the first significant solidarity protest in Colombo to mark 500 days of roadside protests by families of the disappeared in the North and the East.

Two weeks ago, I went to Jaffna Hospital to visit an activist I have known for many years. Her head was bandaged, left eye and cheek swollen and bruised. She had been attacked with an iron rod close to the Vaddukottai Police Station in the Jaffna district. The activist had been assisting families of the disappeared and lawyers in habeas corpus cases in Jaffna courts. According to documents filed in court and based on the magisterial inquiry, the military is allegedly implicated in the disappearances.

These disappearances had happened in 1996, when Jaffna was under Army control, under the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is now Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The activist was attacked three days after the last hearing of the case.

She had been warned by an unidentified person not to get involved in the case. Others involved in the case have also been subject to intimidation in the past few months.

Two days before, I had met a Tamil activist from the East, whose husband had been a victim of an enforced disappearance. Having had no response from Sri Lankan authorities, she had for the first time, gone to Geneva to seek help from the UN Human Rights Council.

There, an event she was speaking at was disrupted by group of persons she suspects to be linked to the military. After the disruption, she fainted while at the head-table, had to receive immediate medical treatment and was later hospitalised.

Her trauma continued when she returned. She told me that as she was looking for her baggage in the airport, she was questioned by some officials at the airport. After reaching home, she alleged that she was interrogated by people suspected to be from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) about meetings she had at the UN in Geneva.

A few days later, an iron rod was thrown at her, when she was on a bicycle with her son in her hometown.

The brutal attack on the Jaffna disappearance activist happened while the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was holding consultations in the town. The next day, OMP held a similar meeting in Kilinochchi. From the Jaffna hospital, I went to the OMP meeting in Kilinochchi, arriving earlier than the scheduled 9.30 a.m. I found the small access road crowded with protesters, mostly Tamil mothers and wives of those disappeared. Some of them had been protesting for more than 500 days continually, had met the Sri Lankan President several times, and complained to various state institutions and Commissions of Inquiries.

Frustrated and fed up, they had no faith in new institutions. They politely and patiently explained this to the equally polite and patient Chairman of the OMP, who had come out to the street to talk to them. The protest leaders agreed with OMP Chair’s appeal not to obstruct families who wanted to attend the OMP meeting, but insisted on their right to communicate their message to families going for the meeting. I observed that some such attempts bordered on physical obstruction, though the road and gate was cleared for anyone to go to the OMP building.

Some families who were keen to go to the OMP meeting, argued with protesters, with one elderly lady telling a protest leader “you deal with your son’s disappearance the way you want, I will deal with disappearance of my son the way I want”.

While I share the frustrations of protesting families, I hope their leaders will find more respectful ways of engaging with families of disappeared who want to engage with the OMP.

In the end, only about 10 families attended the meeting with OMP. During the meeting, one family of the disappeared asked the OMP to deliver justice instead of having meeting-after-meeting. Another shared the belief that a 15 year old child taken away by the LTTE was still alive and another stressed the importance of livelihood assistance. The question of those who had disappeared after surrendering to the Army was also raised.

500 days of day and night protests

From the Kilinochchi OMP meeting, I went to Vavuniya, to spend some time with families of the disappeared who have been protesting day and night at a roadside tent for more than 500 days. They shared difficulties of sustaining such a long protest. Anger and disappointment with the Government, Tamil politicians, media, activists and society in general was visible. I again felt weakening health conditions and resolve of some protesters and a few days after my visit, I heard about the death of the eighth protestor who had died during the 500 days. It was also sad to see escalating tensions between protesting families with activists, politicians and even non-protesting families of the disappeared, inevitable given their hostile, inhospitable, frustrating and traumatic experiences.

Although the families must finally decide about how to protest, it would be insensitive to encourage continued protests in the context of authorities, media and society at large that are not sympathetic to their plight. Elderly and physically and emotionally frail mothers and fathers who are protesting are vulnerable to harsh conditions. I had always hoped protesters will consider forms of continuing protests less harmful to themselves, so, I was relieved to hear last week that some of the protesters had decided to change strategy.

Challenges facing families and the OMP

In my conversations with families of disappeared, food, education, healthcare, housing and livelihoods have emerged as major challenges to families of the disappeared – and especially to those protesting for 500 days. Once, when I arrived at a protest site late morning, the protesters had not had any breakfast. Families at one protest site told me that they get five lunch packets from a local trader and share them.

The latest attacks on Tamil women disappearance activists in North and East comes after the vicious hate campaign including death threats against the brave and determined Sandya Ekneligoda, a Sinhalese from a Colombo suburb and wife of a disappeared journalist. Such attacks may deter activism and increase anger, frustration and suspicion against the judiciary or institutions such as the OMP, and radicalise families and others.

Families of the disappeared confront the OMP with the legacy of broken promises by successive Governments and the failures of past Commissions to provide redress. To their mind, there is no compelling reason to trust that the OMP will deliver. Families who have been deceived and dismissed repeatedly even by the current ruling administration will not be convinced by technical answers about how the OMP is different to other mechanisms.

Discussions between protestors and the OMP Chair and Members in Kilinochchi and their memo to the Office indicate they were open to engage conditionally with the mechanism and should be taken seriously. After five months of operation, the OMP does not appear to have started tracing the disappeared and missing. The challenge for the OMP is to deliver on actions and in months, rather than years.

Solidarity

This note would not be complete without mention of the 30-hour overnight protest vigil in Colombo to show support and solidarity towards the 500 days continuing protests by Tamil families of the disappeared in the North and the East. It was a first such solidarity action in Colombo and a personal initiative of a small group of committed young activists. It was heartening to have few Sinhalese and Muslim families of the disappeared from around Colombo such as Sandya Ekneligoda, Mauri Jayasena and Sithi join us. Some people walking by and the occasional trishaw and motorcycle stopped and asked for details. Both drivers of the two trishaws I got in chatted with me about it. Others in vehicles, including Army officers, opened their windows and accepted our information leaflet.

As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. And they need continued solidarity from Sri Lankan society and internationally. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans.

(The writer is a human rights activist)

AMPARA: 100 DAYS AFTER THE VIOLENCE AGAINST MUSLIMS

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/06/10/opinion/ampara-100-days-after-violence-against-muslims on 17th June 2018

On the night of February 26 and early hours of February 27, the Jumma Masjid Mosque in Ampara and a few nearby eateries run by Muslims were attacked by Sinhalese mobs. The mobs started by attacking the eatery ‘New Cassim Hotel’ based on a wild allegation that the Muslim owner was putting wanda pethi or sterilisation pills into the food served to customers, in order to wipe out the Sinhalese population in the area. The local mosque was accused of playing the lead role in distributing the pills. However, it appears the violence was premeditated and systematically planned, and the wanda Pethi story was just used as an emotive trigger.

100 days after

One hundred days after the violence, the fear and disappointment felt by the Muslim community in the area is palpable in their voices and in their body language. Fear that sparks off hatred smouldering beneath ashes may be ignited into fires again. Fear when some of those who attacked the Mosque still walk right in front of it, and others who hooted while going past it, despite the presence of policemen and a member of the Civil Defence Force providing 24 hour security at the mosque. Fear of reprisals, if they identify local youth they know were part of the attacks. Fear that prosecution of perpetrators may lead to further reprisals against them. Disappointment that the violence was not prevented despite ample opportunities and early warnings and disappointment that no compensation has been paid yet and no information about how much and when it would be given. And disappointment that the Government is not countering the continuing ideological warfare against Muslims, that violence against Muslims have continued for many years and they are compelled to live as second class citizens, in fear.

The physical damage caused by the attackers is still visible, especially, in the Mosque. The windows remain broken, the ashes from the burnt vehicles and motorcycles are still lying there. The remains of a brand new generator that was burnt is also still there, along with burnt and half burnt documents and furniture. Engineers have warned that the floor of the Mosque, which is an elevated structure, is not safe for worshippers to gather in numbers, due to damage caused by the fire. The broken boundary wall of the premises and gate remain the same, as they were after the night of violence and rioting in February.

New Cassim Hotel is still under construction following the damage. We had breakfast and lunch at the other two eateries which had resumed business, after some repairs and the purchasing of new furniture and fittings. But, both owners said, business was not what it used to be. The events that took place seemed to weigh heavily on their hearts and minds, even as they were trying to work hard and focus on rebuilding.

The lead up to the February violence

Trouble had been brewing for Muslims in the Ampara town long before the attacks. According to a Mosque leader, after the 2004 tsunami that badly affected many coastal towns close to Ampara, many Sinhalese construction workers had arrived in the area and some had remained in Ampara. These men had been hostile towards the Muslims. Muslim clerics who had come to teach religion in Ampara had faced harassment on the main roads. They had been hooted at and in one instance, the traditional cap worn by the moulavi was grabbed. Muslim leaders in the area said they had decided not to complain to the police about these incidents, to prevent the tensions from escalating. Instead, they had advised their clerics to reduce the amount of time spent walking on the roads and to take off their caps to prevent hostile persons from identifying them in public. When police complained that their traditional call to prayers were too loud, the Mosque responded by reducing the volume without arguing their case. Though native Tamil speakers, the Muslim community in the area have made an effort to learn Sinhalese and sent their children to study in the Sinhalese medium, the community leaders say.

In a separate incident, in Manikkamadu, in Irrakkamam, about 8 km south of Ampara town, a Buddhist statue had been placed on lands that the Muslims claim have been their lands, leading to protests and a court case. The statue is still there, but a policeman on duty prevented us from going up to the statue, citing a Prohibition Order from court.

The attack and damages

According to the several eyewitnesses and Mosque leaders we spoke to, the mobs which came to the Mosque had numbered several hundreds, with some estimates as high as 500-800. Two private buses had been used. Most were youth, and a few had been drunk. One eyewitness said he knew several local youth who were part of the mob. The mob had beaten and chased away the persons who were renting residential quarters owned by the Mosque, situated just behind the main Mosque building. A 65-year old Muslim cleric and a staffer in the mosque were also beaten and injured. Money, mobile phones and other valuables had been looted. The fire brigade had come to the Mosque while the fires were raging, but the mob had not allowed the them to douse the flames.

The community believes, only 11 persons had been arrested since the violence. At a subsequent meeting held in the nearby town of Oluvil with the Prime Minister and other high ranking politicians and government officials, the police had asked local Muslims to identify the persons responsible, but a senior Muslim leader had insisted that it was the duty of the police to investigate and identify the suspects. An eyewitness expressed concern about the effect it would have on the families of the mob, if the rioters were to be detained, several of whom they knew personally, who were part of the local Sinhalese community.

The damage to the Mosque is estimated by the Mosque leaders to be around Rs. 45 million. However, the District Secretariat assessment of the damage is around Rs. 24 million. Damage to the shops is estimated to be around Rs. 3.5 million while damage to a vehicle and motorcycles burnt is estimated to be around Rs. 3 million. Compensation is yet to be granted, while people are yet to learn the amounts which they would be entitled to.

Police and STF

One of the eateries attacked is opposite the District Secretariat and a few metres from several police offices in the vicinity, including those of senior officials. The other two eateries that were attacked and the Mosque were also within a five minutes drive from the police. But, it had taken the police a long time to get to the troubled spots and call in adequate reinforcements to deal with the mobs. Several residents said, that when the police had reached the Mosque, they had addressed the mob as “little brother” (Malli) and asked them to stop the destruction. But since no decisive action was taken, the mob had carried on.

Far worse was the fact that the police had not responded in advance, despite the calls to the emergency hotline (119) about 45 minutes before the mob’s arrival at the Mosque. One eyewitness used a landline to call 119 even as the mob was on the rampage, even then, there had been no clear response. Police had been present as tensions were brewing at New Cassim Hotel, well before the attack on the Mosque.

When an eyewitness at the Mosque – who was also beaten – was taken to a jeep parked just outside the boundary wall of the mosque, he had recognised the armed and uniformed men in the jeep as being from the Special Task Force (STF). He claims the STF had abused him in derogatory and obscene language. The STF appeared to have been observing the mobs and not intervened even with ‘minimum force’, the man claimed. There was proof that the STF stood by while the mob rioted, in the fact that the section of the Mosque wall where their jeep was parked had remained intact, while the rest of the wall was destroyed, the residents and religious leaders claimed.

An officer who was part of a team with weapons, that was deployed to an eatery which was being attacked, expressed frustration that he could not deploy minimum force, or even fire into the air to disperse the mobs, as there were as no orders from senior officers.

What’s next?

About a week after the violence in Ampara, more intensive violence was unleashed against Muslims in Digana and around Kandy, leading to the death of at least two people and massive destruction to Mosques, Muslim businesses, houses and properties. Since then, attention on the violence in Ampara appears to have faded away. But Muslims in Ampara await justice – which in the long term means opportunity to live without fear as equal citizens, co-existing with other communities. For this to happen, the Government will have to ensure those responsible are held accountable, without delay and start addressing deep-rooted and widespread anti-Muslim sentiments and canards about the Muslims.

[The writer is a Human Rights activist]

Access to land is a must for reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 22nd May 2018 at https://www.ucanews.com/news/access-to-land-is-a-must-for-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka/82349

For rural communities, land is much more than a piece of property with a financial value

On April 23, I was with about 300 people from the Iranaitheevu twin islands off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in the Kilinochchi district as they courageously reclaimed their Navy-occupied lands.

The islanders are all minority ethnic Tamils and Catholics.

In 1992, the islanders were compelled to leave due to the nation’s long-running civil war and the Navy subsequently occupied the islands. Some access was provided to the villagers until about 2007, but after the end of the war in 2009 they were totally barred.

Surrounding waters had provided fish and they had coconut trees, cattle and other sources of livelihood there. An historic church played a central role in village life, along with a school, cooperative, weaving center, hospital and village council.

Their hopes of returning rose after the election of a new national government in 2015. But, despite a series of meetings with officials in 2016 and 2017, and 359 days of continuous protest, they were not allowed to resettle.

Hence, on April 23 they sailed to their islands in about 40 boats accompanied by priests, nuns, activists and journalists. They stated firmly that they had come to stay, despite most of the infrastructure having been destroyed, and that the Navy could remain so long as their daily life was not obstructed.

Land releases and trail of destruction

Ten days earlier, the Army released 683 acres of land in northern Jaffna district to 964 legal owners after 28 years of occupation. But local activists, politicians and journalists reported that some access roads and a school were still held by the army. Buildings that were in good when they left were destroyed when they were allowed to resettle.

The people who were displaced were further insulted by the garlanding at a hand-back ceremony of those who took away their land. Ironically, the return of the land was referred to as “gift” by the military. There were no apologies and no compensation for displacement, losses and suffering the occupation caused.

While the government announced more than a billion rupees (approximately $US 6.4 million) to the army for them to release land, there has been minimal assistance offered to the people who were resettling. This arrogant approach inhibits scope for reconciliation through land releases.

Land issues faced by Muslims and Sinhalese

While Tamils in the north have suffered most due to military land occupation, Muslims and Sinhalese in this region have also suffered, with official complaints, negotiations, protests and court cases failing to resolve most land  grievances.  Also in the north, Muslims who were evicted by the Tamil Tigers in 1990 complain of insufficient government resettlement assistance and feel that most Tamils are not supportive of them returning.

Land issues beyond military occupation

In addition to the military, other government agencies such as those responsible for forests and wildlife have been accused of restricting people’s access to land. Tourism and other development projects are also affecting people’s access to land. And across the country, land entitlements are denied on the basis of caste and gender. Tamils who worked on British-initiated tea plantations in slave like conditions have remained landless for more than 150 years.

Land and reconciliation

In the North, new land grabbing continues. In Mullaitheevu district last year the government claimed 671 acres of land to build a Navy camp, citing this as a “public purpose.”

For rural communities, land is much more than a piece of property with a financial value. On it hinges livelihoods; especially through fishing and farming. Their ancestor’s remains are in these lands and there are historic places of worship such as Hindu temples and Christian churches. Community life has been tied to the land and merely relocating people or providing financial compensation will not help.

Court cases, petitions, discussions with authorities and protests will continue. In the absence of favorable responses from the government, it’s possible that more displaced people will attempt to re-occupy their lands as happened in Iranaitheevu. There cannot be reconciliation without access to land.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is still under investigation with restrictions on free expression. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors and a member of the Watchdog Collective and an Advisor to INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center.

The May 18 Disconnect

First published on 20th May 2018 at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/05/20/opinion/may-18-disconnect

Travelling back to the final theatre of battle nine years later, where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the fighting, an activist reflects on the horrors of the final days of the war in 2009 and the inability of Sri Lankans in the north and south to connect to each other’s suffering on the anniversary of the guns falling silent.

May 18, 2009 is the day Sri Lanka’s three decades long war came to an end.

Mullivaikkal, a narrow strip of beach in the Mullaitivu District is where the war ended, when the Sri Lanka Army militarily defeated the LTTE and its 26 year struggle for a separate Tamil state. Before 2009, Mullivaikkal was a beautiful, but practically unheard of village, between the now infamous Nandikadal Lagoon and the ocean on the island’s North Eastern coast.

The days, weeks and months preceding May 18, 2009, Mullivaikkal and nearby areas had been the epicenter of the final battles of the civil war, with a UN estimate of tens of thousands killed – combatants and civilians and hundreds disappeared – many of them after surrendering themselves to the authorities.

Yesterday’s emotional and moving journey to Mullivaikkal felt like a pilgrimage. It started when a good friend unexpectedly invited me to join him.

It became a journey that retraced his footsteps in 2008-2009, for twelve months, under very different circumstances. He had journeyed from Vellankulam on the North Western coast to Mullivaikkal with thousands of others, and was held for 100 days in the Vavuniya Menik Farm, the Government internment camp for civilians who had been trapped in the final battle zones.

As we travelled, he showed me the places he had camped out for several months and others in which he had only tarried a few days, in and out of bunkers, amid heavy shelling. He pointed to a playground on the roadside which he said had been inside the first No Fire Zone declared by the military. Here, he recalled people being killed and injured when shells rained down while a UN convoy was distributing food. At a nearby church, a mutual friend had lost his leg.

Retracing

In that year long journey to Mullivaikkal in 2009, he had seen people fall dead all around him and many injured. We heard stories about how he had picked up an injured and dying man on the roadside, and carried him to a makeshift hospital in Puthumathalan on his motorbike while shells fell all around him. When he reached the hospital, his clothes were soaked with blood, leading medical staff there to think my friend had been fatally injured.

He pointed out a place and an incident where he had narrowly escaped being hit by shelling, but 13 other people had been killed.

My friend is a Catholic Priest. In 2009, his Bishop, the Vatican, even the Sri Lankan President had requested him and other Priests to leave the war zone, even agreeing to facilitate their exit. My friend was among the small stubborn and exceptionally courageous group of clergymen and women who refused to leave the war-zone until the last person had left.

Between April-May 2009, around the Mullivaikkal region, one of these priests died, another disappeared, one lost his leg and yet another suffered injuries. But my friend and others survived. He showed me the last place where he sought shelter until May 18 and the place the military interrogated him before his 100 days at Menik Farm.

As we walked around Mullivaikkal, he introduced me to other survivors.

One was an elderly gentleman whose wife and other relations including young children died on May 14, 2009. Keen to keep using Tamil civilians as human shields, the LTTE was preventing people from leaving the war zone, so this family had tried to secretly cross over through bushes and water. They had all drowned in the Nandikadal lagoon.

Another friend who had also stayed till the end, showed me a school in Mullivaikkal where bodies of the dead had been piled up. Another told a story of parents who survived, whose children had been killed. The children’s remains had been found when they returned to resettle after the war.

There were too many such stories to narrate, and there aren’t enough words to describe the pain.

Commemorations in the North

My friend also showed me where another Priest who had stayed with the people right till the end had died on the last day of the war, on May 18, 2009. That was Fr. Sarathjeevan, or “Fr. Sara”.

I had not known Fr. Sara, but out of respect for him, I had been attending a commemorative event for Fr. Sara and others killed, for several years, in a small village near Kilinochchi. Some friends of Fr. Sara had decided to erect a small and simple monument for him at the last church he served. From this church, right up to Mullivaikkal, Fr. Sara accompanied civilians who were being pushed back as the military advanced against the LTTE frontlines, pushing the Tigers’ frontlines, fell further and further to the edge of Mullaitivu. A second monument was also erected to commemorate all those who had died in the war.

The two monuments, standing side by side, are the first ever monuments built by civilians for civilians in the Wanni. During this year’s commemoration there, prayers had been offered for all those killed, including civilians, LTTE cadres and members of the armed forces.

Yesterday, I saw elaborate arrangements being made in the Mullivaikkal chapel for a commemorative service. Symbolic sand tombs had been made for those without graves, and they were sprinkled with flowers. There was also a bigger event with thousands of affected families participating, along with clergy, university students, the Northern Chief Minister and Tamil politicians.

North and South; Sinhalese and Tamils

Since 2009, May 18 is the day I feel the strongest disconnect between the North and East and rest of the country, along ethnic lines. Since 2009, the mood of May 18 in the North has been one of mourning. These events have been misunderstood by sections of the South, to be similar to the November LTTE Martyrs’ Day commemorations. But the May 18 memorials have not been about the LTTE.

Most Tamils in the North, which bore the brunt of the war, mourn and grieve for the family members killed. It is similar in the East, which also was badly affected by the war. For years since 2009, the rest of the country was a contrast. From 2009-2015, the Rajapaksa Government celebrated May 19 as Victory Day. The current Government decided that it will be renamed as Remembrance Day, a quieter memorial day for fallen members of the armed forces. There has been little attempt to transform May 19 into a day of remembrance of all those who fell in Sri Lanka’s long drawn war – civilians and combatants alike.

Over the years, in the North, those organizing and participating in remembering the war dead have faced restrictions, harassments, intimidations from police and military. At the end of the war, the Government at the time decided to raze cemeteries where LTTE combatants were buried. Some have had camps built over them, and military personnel play cricket on the same ground. For families of those buried on these grounds – because LTTE cadres were also someone’s family – this is agonizing.

Clearly, remembering those who were killed during the war – whether civilians, journalist, priest, politicians, soldier or LTTE – is something that divides us ethnically and geographically, even as we close upon a decade since the end of the war. There have also been voices and acts of extraordinary courage.

Returning after an emotional day in Mullivaikkal, nine years after the end of the war, I struggle to keep faith that the few exceptional voices and initiatives will prevail and Sri Lanka will overcome the May 18 disconnect. Reconciliation will remain elusive till then.

Freedom of Expression on the decline in Sri Lanka

First published on 3rd May 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/05/03/freedom-of-expression-on-the-decline-in-sri-lanka/

The last twelve months, since World Press Freedom day 2017, has not been a good year for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. The war ravaged North bore the brunt of repression, while there were also several incidents in other parts of the country. Victims included journalists, lawyers, activists, artists and in particular those speaking out and advocating on issues such as of women’s rights, gender and sexuality. A website that had published content critical of the President was blocked, following an intervention from the Presidential Secretariat. With very few exceptions, impunity reigned for past violations of free expression, including most serious ones such as killings and disappearances of journalists and media workers and arson attacks on media institutions. At an event organized by the Free Media Movement (FMM) on the eve of World Press Freedom day, all the speakers and several participants acknowledged the lack of movement in structural reforms to the media in Sri Lanka in the last year.

Free Expression in 2017 – 2018 in the North

In March this year, the Army was reported to have detained and questioned Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a Tamil journalist reporting about Army’s alleged attempts to seize the land of a destroyed LTTE cemetery. When the journalist had refused to hand over his camera to be searched, he was interrogated by the Army who implied that his days were numbered and also subjected him to verbal abuse. The Army appeared to have acknowledged this during an inquiry by the Human Rights Commission, but there were no reports of even disciplinary action against the responsible officers. In December last year, a group of Tamil journalists doing research on Sinhalisation in the Tamil majority Mullaitivu area were reported to have been detained and questioned by Army and Police, their cameras and equipment seized and photos and videos deleted. The identity details and vehicle registration numbers were also recorded and were photographed by the soldiers.

Also in December, in two separate incidents, two Tamil journalists, Subramaniam Baskaran and Shanmuganathan Manoharan were reported to have been beaten. In July, another Tamil journalist, Uthayarasa Shalin was reported to have been stopped by two soldiers when he was travelling to Maruthankerny, to report on a protest by Tamil families of disappeared, and accused of writing lies. Also in July, Northern Tamil print and broadcast journalist T. Pratheepanwas reported to have received multiple summons by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to appear in Colombo to testify about broadcasting a press conference, and after informing his inability to travel to Colombo, he was interrogated for three hours about the press conference and was asked to produce footage. His statements, given in Tamil, were transcribed in Sinhala – a language he does not understand and he was pressured to sign this Sinhala document despite being unable to verify its contents. Tamil journalists in the North reported continued surveillance and intimidations.

In a bizarre incident, V. S. Sivakaran, the head of the Federation of Community Organisations in Mannar was reported to have been summoned to appear before the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Colombo, in relation to a letter he had written to President Sirisena, ahead of the latter’s plans to visit the opening of an allegedly illegally constructed Buddhist temple in the vicinity of the historic Thiruketheeswaram Hindu Temple in an area with no Buddhist residents. In his letter, Sivakaran is reported to have criticised the President for his planned participation in the event and that the President’s attendance at the opening ceremony would be marked with protests from aggrieved locals. Sivakaran had not issued any threat to the President’s person.

 Mariyasuresh Easwary, a Tamil woman whose husband had disappeared and has been vocal leader of a prolonged protest demanding truth and justice was assaulted in Mullaitivu. A rights activist was interrogated and beaten on his way home after speaking at an event. A memorial event to remember and grieve for Tamils killed in the war was stopped and organisers harassed and subjected to investigations. In November, two Tamil youths from the Vavuniya district in the Northern Province posted a photo on Facebook showing the Vavuniya District Secretariat office, the purpose of which appeared to be to draw attention to a poster of a tree planting campaign and a large tree behind the poster that looked as if it had been cut. They were questioned by the Vavuniya police, and made to sign an affidavit written in Sinhala, a language they don’t understand, and were told that they could lose their jobs and that they could not photograph Government offices nor critique their actions.

These incidents indicate a trend where the Army and Police seems determined to restrict reporting on matters considered to be sensitive such as disappearances, remembering war-dead, Sinhalisation, land, militarisation and anything critical of the government.

Freedom of Expression outside the North

While freedom of expression was under the greatest strain in the North, there were also several alarming incidents across the rest of the country from 2017 to 2018. Lakshan Dias, a human rights lawyer speaking about the rights violations of religious minorities on TV was threatened by the then Minister of Justice and was compelled to flee the country temporarily, and was subjected to lengthy interrogation on return. Sudesh Nandimal De Silva, an eyewitness and vocal campaigner seeking justice for prison massacre had his house shot at, and received death threats by phone. Human rights lawyer Senaka Perera who had filed a petition on behalf of Nandimal, also received death threats by phone. There were vicious threats online against them and others campaigning for justice. On October 6, Police Assistant Superintendent Roshan Daluwatte was recorded assaulting journalist Susantha Bandara Karunaratne while the latter was being taken into custody. The video of Karunaratne being held by two police officers while Daluwatte slapped him went viral online and was widely broadcast on television. The Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into the incident shortly after.

In general, foreign journalists found access and the working environment  in Sri Lanka favourable, but in March 2018, a week after the attacks on Muslims by mobs identifying as Buddhists, heavily armed Army and Navy personnel tried to stop an Al Jazeera crew with government accreditation, from filming by the roadside. One soldier warned that they don’t like the situation ongoing in the area being known overseas and another stated that they had been ordered not to allow filming in the area, though this was later denied by the Director General of the Government Information Department.

Free Expression online

In March this year, the government restricted access to several social media platforms for several days in the aftermath of attacks against Muslims by mobs identifying themselves as Buddhists in the Kandy district. Right To Information (RTI) requests by the editor of the citizen journalism website Groundviews revealed that the website Lanka E News was blocked, after a letter from the Presidential Secretariat to the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission noting that the website has been publishing false articles about the President and family members and asking the TRC’s Director General to “take suitable action”. Earlier on, Groundviews had managed to obtain a list of 13 websites that had been blocked from 2015onwards by the TRC, with at least in four instances, the order coming directly from the Presidential Secretariat, who via the Media Ministry had made applications to block specific websites, often on the grounds of providing incorrect or false information about the President.

 Reprisals for expressing opinions and advocating on women’s rights, gender and sexuality

In April this year, a performance in Colombo titled “Cardinal Sin”, by Grassrooted Trust, looking at proposed reforms to abortion law was barred by the government’s censorship arm, the Public Performance Board. The performance was part of an annual event called “V day”, the 2018 version of which was called “PatriANarchy” focusing on how patriarchal values continue to inflict violence in Sri Lanka.

The Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group (MPLRAG) , which have expressed strong positions against discriminatory and oppressive elements of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) have often come under attack in social media, with accusations ranging from them being a group operating in secret, being Israeli agents, not looking like Muslim women etc. Those expressing opinions and advocating in favor of equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons also faced vicious attacks on social media. Women’s dresses, ranging from abaya to bikini also drew criticism on social media. In April this year, the English language “Daily Mirror” newspaper used words such as “nag”, “nitpick”, bemoan”, “lamenting” to describe women who went to courts against discriminatory laws.

Impunity

In August 2017, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, who was abducted in 2009, tortured and subsequently dumped on the roadside while he was editing the Colombo based “Sudar Oli” paper during the war had asked a senior Sri Lankan journalist Sunanda Deshapriya, ‘Why is this Government not investigating my abduction? Is it because I am not a Wickrematunge or Ekneligoda?’ The then Secretary to Defense had told an Australian TV, “Vithyatharan is a terrorist, so we arrested him”, and Vithyatharan identified two policemen who came to abduct him by name as Ranganathan and Wijerathana. But still, there is no arrests and none of these three have been even questioned to the best of our knowledge.

Tamil journalist Subramaniam Ramachandran disappeared in February 2007 after being seen at an Army checkpoint.

Another Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was killed in January 2006 after he had published photos indicating 5 youth killed in Trincomalee in 2006 were by shooting and not due to grenade injuries as narrated by the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. The Uthayan newspaper office have been subjected to arson attacks and it’s journalists and media workers killed, disappeared, assaulted and threatened numerous times during and after the war, but no one has been arrested, prosecuted or convicted.

In contrast, there has been some progress on three few high profile journalists cases in Colombo. In relation to the killing of Sunday Leader newspaper’s editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and the abduction and torture of Deputy Editor of the Nation newspaper Keith Noyahr, a senior Police Officer an Army Officers were arrested this year.

But after some arrests and revealing of significant information to courts, the case of Prageeth Ekneligoda disappearance seems to be stagnating since about 2016 when all the suspects were released on bail, the last of which was just after a public statement of the President criticising the detention of Army intelligence personnel. Both the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Significantly, more than three years after the new government came into power, there have been no prosecutions even in these cases, in May 2008, January 2009 and January 2010 respectively.

Conclusion

In the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reports without Borders (RSF), Sri Lanka still languishes in the “bad” or “red” category (Above very bad, but below Good, Fairly Good, Problematic), placed 131 out of 180. The RSF index indicates that Sri Lanka’s situation on press freedom has improved in relation to other countries by ten notches in the last year, but it should not be misunderstood or misinterpreted as indicating an improvement of the situation of press freedom in Sri Lanka since 2017.

Although there has been no killings or disappearances of journalists, media workers or arson attacks on media institutions during this period, the many threats to Freedom of Expression in last 12 months such as those mentioned above, and impunity for past violations, makes it clear that Freedom of Expression was on the decline in Sri Lanka in 2017-2018.

Iranaitheevu: a community reclaims their island home from the Navy

First published on 25th April 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/25/iranaitheevu-a-community-reclaims-their-island-home-from-the-navy/

On the morning of April 23, 2018, about 300 people from the Iranaitheevu twin islands decided to sail there in about 40 boats. They have been displaced since 1992, and the Navy has occupied the island, barring the local people from staying or even visiting their traditional land, on which had hinged their livelihood. The islands also had important institutions like a school, churches, cooperative, weaving centre, hospital and village council.

These people hoped that they could return to their island after the end of the war in 2009, and the election of a new government in 2015. Yet, they were still not allowed to return, despite a series of meetings and correspondence with Ministers, politicians and government officials from 2016 to 2017. In desperation, they resorted to a continuous protest for almost a year (359 days as of April 23). Even that didn’t bring them home.

On the morning of April 23, they planned something different. Something daring that most Sri Lankans wouldn’t try. I was scared of this too.

In the preceding days and weeks, I received many calls to join them on April 23 and bring supporters as well. They especially wanted journalists, lawyers and priests to join them on April 23. I asked many friends and colleagues, it was not easy to convince people to join, but a few did. I joined their protests several times, but had almost given up, frustrated by the lack of government response and my own inability to do anything meaningful to support the people’s struggle. But the phone calls and a chance meeting with a youth from Iranaitheevu the previous week re-energised me.

So I went to join them on April 23. After a religious service at the Iranaimathaanagar church, next to their 359 day protest site, they held banners and placards and marched to the beach. Then they got into boats and started to sail towards Iranaitheevu. They wanted me and others who had come to support them from Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo etc. including the journalists and priests to join them. Most of us got into the boats.

I was apprehensive. Not of rough seas but of the Navy. I knew the Navy had only allowed people to land and stay in the island for prayers in the church, and that too after prior permission was obtained. With me on the boat was a long time friend and Catholic Priest from Pesalei, and we recalled the fire power of the Navy, and how they had even attacked and killed and injured people inside the Pesalei church. People raised white flags on their boats, but both of us remembered how people who surrendered with white flags were reported as killed.

But yesterday, there was no obstruction from the Navy. People landed and proceeded to the church where they prayed. A few Navy officials came and had a brief discussion. The People were firm and polite.

“We have come to our lands, our church. We have had enough of displacement, and we plan to stay here. We have legal documents. You (Navy) can also stay in the islands, but not on our lands, and should not disturb or obstruct our lives.”

The offers of the Navy to rebuild the church was dismissed by the people and priests, saying their priority was to resettle in their land, and renew their livelihoods and their traditional way of life. The Navy officers retreated, saying they would convey the news to higher officers.

A community discussion reaffirmed their resolve to stay overnight. Within an hour or so, some people had started to change clothes to stay on. Others braved the scorching sun and walked a distance into the interior of the island to see their land, or what was left.

The richness of the island soon became clear to first time visitors like me. We saw people enjoy coconuts, one lady caught mussels and another man a sea cucumber. There was also a new fruit, I tasted which I had never had before.

A retired principal of the school took us to his old office, showed us the school building, the teacher’s residences and also a unique underground rainwater collection system for drinking water. The main church was still standing, though damaged, but a smaller church was in ruins. The priest’s residence and the convent of Holy Family Sisters was damaged but still standing. A weaving centre, local cooperative and the village council buildings had all been totally destroyed. A community well was standing and had water, but will need a cleanup.

From what we could see, the Navy had only occupied a small part of the island. Yet according to an elder, that area included five houses, the hospital including the doctors and nurses residences, a playground and the cemetery.

There were no roads and no motor vehicles on the islands – only bullock carts and cycles. We saw plenty of cows, but people complained that they had left behind many more, which the Navy may have slaughtered.

Most of us who had joined in solidarity left the island in the afternoon. But 105 islanders stayed the night. Even as we were leaving, they were cleaning up and getting ready to stay on.

Landing in the island and staying on, to reclaim their occupied lands, without waiting for permission or approval seemed a non-violent act of community defiance and resistence rarely seen in Sri Lanka in the recent past. To me it was an act of exceptional courage and determination. But for one community leader, it was much simpler – “Why do we need approval to go to our land, our church?”

They have only been on the island for just over 24 hours. Despite the richness of the land and the sea, and despite the resilience and creativity of the people, challenges remain and they will need support.

There is no formal recognition by the government of their resettlement on their own lands, and no assistance has been offered in terms of essential and immediate needs like water and food. Houses and community structures like the school, hospital, village council, cooperative etc. will have to be reconstructed. There will have to be regular transport between mainland and the island.

But for now, the joy of having reclaimed their own land, in their own way, by themselves, will prevail.

Iranaitheevu; a year of continuous protests to regain Navy-occupied land

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/20/iranaitheevu-a-year-of-continuous-protests-to-regain-navy-occupied-land/ on 20th April 2018

After the election of the new government in 2015, the people of Iranaitheevu, forcibly displaced since 1992, finally thought they would be able to return home. Yet a flurry of letters and high-level meetings with government officials and politicians in 2016 and 2017 didn’t bring any results. In desperation, the community took the difficult decision to begin a continuous roadside protest on 1st May 2017. Almost a year later, they are still fighting.

History

Iranaitheevu is a pair of twin islands situated in the Palk Strait, belonging to the Poonekary Division of the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. A channel of sea water runs between the Big Island (Perum Theevu) and Small Island (Sirum Theevu).

According to an official survey map of 1982, 143 plots of land were demarcated in the larger island of Perum Theevu and 35 plots in the smaller island of Sirum Theevu. Villagers trace the island’s history to about 200 years, pointing out an old watch tower from 1886. At the time of first displacement, around 125 stone houses, 6 wells for drinking water, a health center, a school and 2 churches were reported to have been on the island.

Fishing was traditionally the main source of income, with men going to sea and women engaging in shore-based fishing practices, such as harvesting sea cucumbers and crabs, with both men and women contributing to the family income. Families also reared livestock, including cows and goats, engaged in cash crop cultivation of onions, chilies and manioc, and cultivated coconut trees. The island waters are rich in limestone, providing a rich breeding ground for a wide variety of fish species and base material to build houses on the islands as well as on the mainland. Islanders had trading and socio-cultural relationships with people in areas in Southern Sri Lanka like Negombo, from where a Catholic Priest had reportedly visited the island for church services.

War and Displacement

The first major displacement occurred in 1992, when there were about 200 families displaced to mainland due to the war. Since then, the Navy had occupied the island, providing sporadic and limited access to the villagers until 2007. Islanders were again displaced multiple times from 2007 throughout the last phase of the war. Those who survived were detained in Menik farm, in Vavuniya district. They were eventually released and allowed to return to where they had lived in displacement in Iranaimathaanagar, near Mulankavil, one of the closest mainland points to their island. But since this last round of displacement in 2007, the Navy has prohibited them from returning or even freely accessing their traditional islands.

Following negotiations with the Navy, the people are now allowed to travel to a restricted coastline of the island for fishing, but they are not allowed to stay overnight. Traveling daily between the island and the mainland has dramatically increased the cost of fishing. Furthermore women from Iranaitheevu who used to engage in coastal fishing are unable to do so now and are without work. Family incomes have suffered, particularly those of women-headed households. The rising cost of fuel and decreasing marine resources caused by illegal fishing from Indian trawlers in Northern waters has also drastically affected incomes of fishing families.

The only time of the year residents have been allowed visit the island since 2007 is for a pilgrimage to the Church during Lent season, usually a day in February or March. One woman narrated a story in which on one such occasion, there was a storm on the sea and the people asked the Navy to allow them to camp on the islands overnight to wait for the storm to pass. But the Navy had refused, and compelled the islanders and their children to take the treacherous journey back home across the rough seas. During this year’s pilgrimage, people’s freedom of movement was restricted and severe inconveniences caused to the people by the Navy, despite the Parish Priest having obtained prior permission for people to stay in the island for three days for the traditional Lenten church services.

The Fisheries Cooperative

The Iranaitheevu Fisher Cooperative had been a thriving institution, functioning on membership contributions when the fish harvest was plentiful. It played a huge role in the well-being of the community and most of the stone houses on the island were built with subsidies from the Cooperative, but today it finds itself struggling to meet its daily expenses.

The Cooperative structure, with its democratically elected leadership, also ensured the island’s resources were sustained and developed for the use of future generations. But recently, individual fishermen from outside the area have been given access by the Navy to fish and profit off of the island’s resources. This has led to a breakdown of community checks against profit driven exploitation of natural resources and has further fostered a strong sense of injustice among the islanders as they’re being deprived of their islands’ resources. The Navy has also been making allegations of drug possession against the original inhabitants of Iranaitheevu. But according to villagers, no one has been arrested nor has any boat been withheld by Courts for possessing illegal substances.

Struggles to return home: the paper trail

Since their return to Iranaimathaanagar in late 2009, the people have made several attempts to reclaim their lands. These intensified after the election of the new government in 2015. But despite continued communication and protests, leading to some vague assurances at different points from high levels of the government that they would be able to return home, they have still not had definitive answers.

Efforts included appeals to the Northern Province Chief Minister, who had appealed on their behalf to the Resettlement Minister; an appeal to a local MP Vijayakala Maheswaran, who had appealed on their behalf to the Prime Minister; and an appeal to the European Union Delegation in Sri Lanka that had also appealed to the Resettlement Minister on their behalf. Finally, they appealed twice in 2017 directly to the President.

Continuous protests from 1st May 2017 and promises broken

On 1st May 2017, in the absence of any clear information about when they could resettle, the people commenced a continuous protest in Iranaimathaanagar. They also took the protests to Poonakari, Kilinochchi and even Colombo. A community leader also attended 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to highlight their ongoing struggle to resettle in Iranaitheevu and seek international support.

These efforts, especially the protests, led to series of meetings and discussions between the Iranaitheevu community leaders with staff at the Presidential Secretariat, the State Minister of Defense, local MP Vijakala Maheswaran, the District Secretary of Kilinochchi, the Divisional Secretary of Poonakari, Navy officials and also with a Parliamentarian and members of the small Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

An outcome of these efforts was officials of the Survey Department visiting the island in Sept. – Oct. 2017. But no information has been provided to the people about results or follow up actions. No information has also been provided to the people about response of the Kilinochchi District Secretary to a request by the Resettlement Ministry in March 2016 to “submit detailed report regarding the resettlement of Iranaitheevu Island, including the tentative cost estimate, as early as possible” or a letter from an Additional Secretary to the President to the Defense Ministry in August 2017, asking “to take appropriate action”. Nor has any update been provided about the promise made by the State Minister of Defense to discuss resettlement in Iranaitheevu ith the President and find answers.

Waiting to go home

Currently there are approximately 400 families living on the mainland nearest the islands in Iranaimathanagar. Around 95 are women-headed households.

Despite their displacement for almost 25 years, the people remain deeply attached to their island. The literal translation of ‘Iranaimathanagar’, to which most families were displaced in 2007, means ‘the mother city of Iranai’. The official Grama Niladari Division number is still retained and the Sub Post Office, the government school and the Fisheries Cooperative all carry the name of Iranaitheevu despite their physical structures currently standing in Iranaimathanagar.

The people’s demands are simple. They want unrestricted access to Iranaitheevu, to settle there permanently to engage in fishing, cultivation and maintaining livestock as they did before their forced displacement. They have not asked for the total removal of the Navy, but are seeking the release of people’s lands which have been occupied by the Navy and for action to be taken to prevent island resources from being misused and exploited by people accessing them illegally.