Month: October 2015

The challenge of doing what is right in Sri Lanka

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/the-challenge-of-doing-what-is-right-in-sri-lanka/74446 on 16th October 2015

After four contentious resolutions on Sri Lanka, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Oct. 1 adopted a “consensus resolution” for foreign judges and prosecutors to help Sri Lanka try those accused of serious crimes during the decades-long civil war.

This resolution came as a response to a report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which the previous Sri Lankan government had aggressively opposed — going to the extent of threatening, intimidating and arresting Sri Lankans who supported it, including my own detention.

There were many Sri Lankans — civil war survivors and their families and activists — both inside and outside the country who braved government threats to testify to the U.N. investigation team. Their stories in the U.N. report reveal a long list of unlawful killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forcible recruitment of children, restricting fleeing war-affected areas, attacks on civilians and hospitals, food convoys, churches, etc.

The report says these are systemic crimes that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes if proven in a court of law that both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers are culpable. It emphasized that Sri Lankan laws and judiciary were incapable of dealing with such crimes and that human rights violations still continue in Sri Lanka. It recommended a “hybrid court” with international judges and lawyers working with Sri Lankans.

 

Ground realities

The resolution doesn’t appear to have recognized the serious nature of the violations detailed in the U.N. human rights office’s report. It has “balanced” its findings and recommendations to accommodate political and ideological considerations of the Sri Lankan government that co-sponsored the resolution.

An example of a glaring omission in the resolution is justice for those detained for up to 19 years under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, without having their cases concluded.

A few days before the resolution, a local court declared a Tamil mother “not guilty” after being in detention for more than 15 years. There has been no apology or redress for her. Some detainees of the Prevention of Terrorism Act recently began a hunger strike calling on authorities to expedite their cases. But nothing has happened.

The investigation against me also still continues, restrictions on my freedom of expression are still in place and my confiscated equipment still not returned.

In my travels in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu recently, I saw no signs of a reduction in military involvement in civilian affairs despite a commitment to this in the resolution. The military continues to run farms, shops, restaurants, resorts and preschools. When I was traveling from Jaffna to Allaipiddy to visit a church that was shelled in 2006, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, I was stopped at a checkpoint by a policeman and armed soldier who wanted to know where I was going and for what purpose.

There are no signs that things are changing on the ground, even after the U.N. resolution.

 

Looking forward

In principle, the transitional justice mechanisms proposed by the Sri Lankan government through the resolution are positive. But the devil will be in the details. Who will be appointed to run these proposed mechanisms? How will they be appointed? What will be their mandate and way of operating? Answers to these will be key to its success.

The government has stressed consultations with all parties — but there is nothing to indicate that insights and inputs will be taken into account, especially by victims and their families, the majority of whom are Tamils.

The commitment to pay serious attention to crimes by Tamil Tiger rebels is welcome, although there will be skepticism on this front too, given the obvious reluctance to try self-proclaimed Tamil Tiger leaders now in government ranks.

Hopeful signs include the recent convictions of soldiers for a massacre that happened 15 years ago, as well as a separate conviction for the rape and sexual abuse of two Tamil women five years ago. Military officials have also been arrested for the killing of Tamil parliamentarians and the abduction of a Sinhalese cartoonist. But these should be looked at in the context of thousands of similar cases, some detailed in the U.N. report, often with complicity at the highest level and whose perpetrators enjoy total impunity.

The government’s several consultations with the military are of serious concern, since the military stands accused of some of the most serious crimes. The government’s public statements try to appease the majority Sinhalese community by emphasizing the protection of the military, instead of trying to convince them of the importance of justice for the mostly Tamil survivors and victims. The government simply doesn’t seem to have the political and moral vision and courage to take a principled position and do the right thing.

Media, civil society and religious leaders appear to be more focused on the international dimension of a judicial mechanism and paying less attention to mechanisms for missing persons, reparation, truth and reconciliation and other practical and important commitments that can make a difference to survivors and victims’ families.

Church and religious leaders should help their communities face up to the stories of their brothers and sisters crying out through the report, and reflect about what we have done to each other. They should move away from silence and inaction, especially from defending war criminals as “war heroes” or “martyrs.” They must insist that truth, justice and accountability are a must to guarantee reconciliation and non-recurrence of what Sri Lankans have suffered.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

(Sinhalese translation at http://www.vikalpa.org/?p=25134 and Tamil translation at http://www.jvpnews.com/srilanka/130018.html)

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Rise of Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and prospects for the future

Article for “Sudasien” magazine in German. Nr. 3-4/2015, German version at Rise of Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and prospects for the future-Ruki-Sept2015(German+English)

One year ago, in August 2014, when I was at a discussion with about 25 Tamil families of disappeared persons in a church centre, a Buddhist Monk led group invaded the place and disrupted our meeting. We called the Police, but they appeared to be reluctant to disperse the trespassers into a private property. After we insisted, the Police did disperse the trespassers, but still refused to provide us security and compelled us to cancel the meeting. Before and after the meeting, Police and intelligence agencies have intimidated and subjected families of disappeared persons to surveillance. The next day, Buddhist Monks and the group made false allegations against me, families of disappeared persons and other human rights defenders who have been campaigning for truth and justice on disappearances.[1]

 

In 2013, when I was at a silent and peaceful vigil outside the headquarters of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS; loosely translated to Buddhist Power Force / Buddhist Power Army), the Monks and their affiliates tried to disperse us and threaten us together with the Police.[2] Instead of dispersing the Monk led group that was disturbing our peaceful and legitimate vigil that was not causing any obstruction, the Police joined the Monks and their affiliates and dispersed us.

 

Since August 2013, Watarekke Vijitha Thero, a senior Buddhist Monk known for decades for his work to promote harmony amongst different religious groups and rights of religious minorities, has been subjected to serious physical attacks, threats, discrediting and intimidation. He was forced into hiding and hospitalized several times.[3] A press conference, he organized in April 2014, was disrupted by the leader of the BBS in full presence of the Police. These are amongst many such incidents of Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka taking the law unto their own hands and allowed to unleash violence and hate with total impunity. Other manifestations of religious intolerance in 2013 and 2014 showed a British tourist who was deported and another one stopped from entering Sri Lanka for showing “disrespect” to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on arms.

 

In the first four months of 2015, under the newly elected President Sirisena and his Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, 37 incidents of hate speech and actions against Muslims were reported,[4] and 26 cases of violence against Christians between January and July 2015.[5] In 2014, many more incidents were reported while there is a decline in such incidents under the new government but the figures are still alarming.[6]

 

Riots, perpetrators, impunity

 

In June 2014, widespread mob violence swept through Southern towns of Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Welipanna, and Ambepitiya in Beruwela targeting the Muslim community. Though several homes and shops of local Sinhalese were affected too, a large number of Muslim businesses and homes were targeted. Three Muslims and a Tamil were killed. The violence resulted in loss of life, injuries, destruction and damage to property – including places of worship – to the value of millions of rupees. The state tried to address the physical destruction through reconstruction led by military and there were concerns that the way it was done was aimed at erasing evidence. Scars remain, and the issues of justice, compensation and coexistence persist as on-going challenges. The nearest cause for the riots is believed to be a provocative speech by the leader of the BBS.

 

BBS and other such groups have been directly involved in many such incidents. In most of the incidents, Police were on the spot, being eye witnesses but reduced to mere spectators or become even complicit. Police, government officials and politicians have been directly involved in some incidents. Despite plenty of evidence, including videos, photos, Police has refused to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. Whereas on 26 May 2015, the leader of the BBS was arrested, and although he was released on bail, this was an indicator that the group and others alike may not further enjoy the immunity they enjoyed under the Rajapakses.

 

Why such involvement by Buddhists into public and political affairs? Without going into historical details, it may be worth to mention that since the end of the 19th century, Buddhism started as a movement to counter all kind of foreign impositions. The so called ‘Panadura-debate’ between the Monk Migettuwatte Guananda Thera and a Catholic priest met the nerve of the Sinhala majority. Buddhism became a platform for ‘national ownership’. Secondly, religious affiliation is to a large extent coincident with the ethnic background; with exceptions, of course. In our context, Sinhalese nationalist interests identify Buddhism as their basic ethic source, and given a conducive societal and political environment, they do not hesitate to turn Buddhism into a spearhead meeting Buddhist monks’ interest to maintain the religious dominance.

 

This complex mixture of interests is reflected in constitutional law. The Sri Lankan constitution guarantees every person the freedom to thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of the person’s choice.[7] The constitution provides freedom for every person to manifest his (or her) religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching, alone or with others.[8] However, the same constitution explicitly says that the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the ”foremost place” and that it will be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.[9] Although the constitution says this has to be done while assuring to all religions the rights granted in Articles 10 and 14 (1-e) mentioned above, Buddhism has been given priority and privileges within the state. So far, no government or politician has dared to challenge this provision or suggested to reform this.

 

Buddhists in politics

 

Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is predominantly Hindu (more than 74%), with a significant amount of Christians (19%), according to official statistics in 2012.[10] The number of Muslims would have gone down, after the eviction of all Muslims in the North by the LTTE in 1990. But even according to the 1981 statistics, Muslims were less than 5% of the Northern population. The number of Buddhists in the North was less than 3% in 1981 and also 2012. There has been few Buddhist temples and places of worship, including some significant ones such as the ”Nagadeepa”. But the end of the war had seen a resurgence of Buddhist domination in the North, with new temples, statues and other erections and structures. Most of this has been done hand in hand with large scale militarization, with the military being directly involved and supporting the erection and maintenance of such structures, and Buddhist Monks who had come to stay in the North. Even under the new government, there were reports of attempts to establish Buddhist structures with help of the military.[11]

 

Buddhist Monks serving as elected political representatives has been a phenomenon that has caused controversy in Sri Lanka for the last couple of decades. The first Buddhist Monk in parliament, Ven. Baddegama Samitha Thero, came from a leftist tradition, and is known to be a strong advocate of religious harmony and rights of religious minorities.[12] Buddhist politics came to be identified with racism and extremism with the rise of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU; National Heritage Party), which 2004 won 9 seats in the parliament with 5.97% of votes[13], a significant number for a new party. What may have been its predecessor, the Sihala Urumaya (Sinhala Nationalists), had won just one seat for 1.47% of votes in 2000.[14] After 2004, JHU representation in parliament gradually declined, with some defections and splits. In the recent election on 17th August, the different factions of the JHU contested as part of alliances of the two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

 

The BBS and its leader also contested the August 17th parliamentary elections under the banner of Bodu Jana Peramuna (Buddhist People’s Front) but was routed, winning only 0.18% of the votes and not being able to win a single seat[15]. This was considered a decisive defeat and rejection of the BBS as well as Buddhist extremism. In the January 2015 presidential elections, President Sirisena won large majority of the non Buddhist votes, receiving massive percentages of 87% and 89.8% in Muslim dominated areas in Mutur and Kalmunai in the Eastern Province.

 

Challenge to Buddhists in Sri Lanka and abroad

 

Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka may not agree with the violence and dominance espoused by some Monks, Buddhist groups, or political parties. Nevertheless, there has been a resounding silence in the context of such violence and domination. The few exceptions, such as my friend Vijitha Thero mentioned above, had to face serious physical attacks, threats, intimidation and discrediting, with very little support from within the Buddhist community. Last year, I was invited by a British friend, a Buddhist, to give two talks to British Buddhists. Both groups were quite shocked to know about this dimension of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Buddhists outside Sri Lanka, some of whom come to Sri Lanka to learn and experience Buddhism, do not appear to be keen to address the violent and dominant aspects of the Sri Lankan Buddhism.

 

If Buddhism is to return to its values of ”Metha, Karuna, Muditha” [loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy], its genuine adherents will have to stand up and counter the aggressive and dominant aspects of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, even if it is practiced by few. The routing of the BBS in the August elections and defeat of Rajapakse in the January elections was a beginning, but much needs to be done to consolidate that and prevent the ugly rearing of Buddhist extremism again.

 

Ruki Fernando

rukiii@gmail.com

@rukitweets

www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com

(Article for “Sudasien” magazine in German. Nr. 3-4/2015)

[1]              http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/

[2]              http://groundviews.org/2013/04/14/protecting-violent-protesters-and-dispersing-peaceful-protesters-new-role-for-police-and-some-buddhists-in-sri-lanka/

[3]              http://groundviews.org/2014/06/20/did-the-bbs-attack-vijitha-thero-again/

[4]              http://nceasl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Incidents_Jan-April_Final.pdf

[5]              http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[6]              For example, 214 incidents against Muslims were reported in 2014 (Source: Secretariat for Muslims)

[7]              Article 10 of the constitution (Chapter iii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_03_Amd.htm

[8]              Article 14 (1-e) of the constitution (Chapter iii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_03_Amd.htm

[9]              Article 9 of the constitution (Chapter ii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_02_Amd.html

[10]           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Province,_Sri_Lanka#Religion

[11]           http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14956

[12]           See for example http://www.newmuthur.com/2013/11/a-rally-for-unity-led-by-ven-baddegama.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPbQpUDmUN0&feature=youtube_gdata_player (in Sinhalese)

[13]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/island2004.html and http://www.slelections.gov.lk/composition2004.html

[14]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/island2000.html and http://www.slelections.gov.lk/composition2000.html

[15]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/2015GE/AIVOT.html

Court acquits Tamil mother after 15 years of detention under PTA

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/10/05/court-acquits-tamil-mother-after-15-years-of-detention-under-pta/ on 5th October 2015

Last week, Tamil children in the North of Sri Lanka reportedly took to the streets to demand the release of their parents detained for years[1] under anti-terror laws[2]. This was hardly reported in mainstream Sri Lankan media. But many Sri Lankan media reported that two suspects in the Town Hall bomb case of 1999 (injuring former President Kumaratunga and countless others and killing 26[3]) were sentenced to 290 and 300 years respectively.

15-16 years for a conviction / release of a suspect

The two suspects were remanded on 18th September 2000 (possibly arrested even before that) under the PTA[4]. One of them had told a lawyer of torture[5]. Earlier this year, an Army officer was sentenced to death, 15 years after a massacre of Tamil civilians in 2000[6]. It took 16 and 15 years respectively for convictions to happen in these two cases. If appeals are made, it could take another several years for cases to conclude.

15 years to be determined not guilty – the PTA and the innocent detainees

Mrs. Vasanthi Ragupathy Sharma, a Tamil mother of three, was remanded on 27th July 2000[7] (date of arrest likely to be earlier, exact date not known) also as a suspect for the Town Hall bomb case and indicted in 2002[8]. After 15 years the High Court has determined she is not guilty. She is not alone. In May 2015, Courts determined that Mrs. Anthony Chandra, also a Tamil mother of three, was not guilty of any crime, after being detained since August 2008[9].

Problems faced by those detained under the PTA

A recent report that I was involved in[10] indicated that as of early 2015, there were persons in detention for as long as 18-19 years under the PTA without having their cases concluded and that, in some cases, it has taken up to 15 years to even file charges.

In that report, we identified that the PTA and ER have resulted in arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charges, long drawn out court cases, multiple cases against one suspect, inhumane detention conditions, torture, forced confessions and that the mental and physical well-being of detainees has been severely affected due to long term detention, and in the case of many, also as a result of rigorous interrogation and torture. There have been many cases of forced/coerced confessions where the detainee had not even known he was signing a confession as he/she could not understand the language it was written in. Many detainees have spent most of their youth behind bars.

Post release harassment & problems

The stigma attached to having been a “terrorist suspect” lingers. Even after they are released by Courts, society still considers them guilty. After her release, Mrs. Sharma has been facing problems finding a place to stay. Mrs. Chandra was unable to get back her job. Both have had no compensation and struggle to survive, with no income. Mrs. Sharma’s jewelry, handed over to Prison authorities on her remand, has not been returned. Prison authorities claim the jewelry has been lost[11].

Balendran Jeyakumary, who was released in March 2015 after 362 days in detention under the PTA without any charges,[12] was re-arrested and detained for almost a week in September 2015, despite having being released on bail after 362 days in detention. She is yet to be charged. For the supposed “crime” of looking into the circumstances of her and others’ arrests, I was detained under the PTA, along with a catholic Priest, in March 2014. While I was subsequently released without charge, 18 months later I am still not free. An overseas travel restriction was in place for 15 months affecting my frequent travels for human rights work. The investigation against me continues, the restriction on my freedom of expression still remains, and confiscated electronic equipment has still not been returned to me.

The need for transparency about PTA detainees

Despite some statements[13], there is still no clear official information about those detained under the PTA. The list we examined for our report excluded those detained in places such as Boossa and TID headquarters in Colombo.

We highlighted new evidence reported to Courts by an investigating officer[14] and interviews to media by several Naval officers who had spoken to and served food to detainees held at a secret camp[15]. It is not clear what investigations have happened in relation to these and action taken against those alleged to be responsible.

In August 2015, the Attorney General’s Department is reported to have told Courts that “nothing had come to light with regard to former LTTE leader KP[16], who had been arrested 6 years ago. KP’s own public pronouncements, about his involvement with the LTTE are in the public domain[17]. After his arrest, the official Government news claimed that he was on the list of wanted persons by Sri Lanka, India and Interpol for a range of terrorism related and other criminal activities and that he has been accused of arms smuggling, conspiring the assassinations of VVIPs including former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi in 1990, and in control of billions in US dollars of LTTE funds to the LTTE’s terrorist activities, some of which was extorted from Tamils living abroad[18]. But there seems to be a reluctance to proceed on this case.

Continuing use of the PTA and continuing reports of torture

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council was discussing a long list of systemic crimes committed in Sri Lanka, such as unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence, attacks on civilians in places such as hospitals and churches, forcible recruitment etc., and widespread impunity, detailed in the reports of the UN OHCHR[19]. The resolution on Sri Lanka adopted by the UN Human Rights Council to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations has a commitment to reform/repeal the PTA – but it is silent about ensuring justice to those detained under the PTA for long years – including those released without being charged and those not found to be guilty after lengthy trials, such as Mrs. Sharma and Mrs. Anthony.

A report released by the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP) cited 11 cases of white van abduction, unlawful detention, torture and sexual abuse in 2015[20]. We learnt of one case this year, where a man was abducted from off the roadside in the North, detained in a secret detention facility, interrogated and brutally tortured. The TID officer has informed a lawyer that 20 persons have been arrested under the PTA this year. In reality, this number is likely to be higher.

PTA detainees and reconciliation

How the Sri Lankan Government and people will ensure justice for Mrs. Sharma and Mrs. Anthony will be key factors to be addressed if we are to move towards reconciliation. And there are many other PTA detainees like them – who might end up being released as not guilty or released without even being charged after years of detention, those who are still in detention without being charged for upto 9 years, those still detained without the conclusion of their cases for upto 19 years and those being harassed after release.

Sinhalese translation at UN report on Sri Lanka and Freedom of Expression-Ruki-30Sep2015(Sinhala)

Tamil translation at UN report and Freedom of Expression in Sri Lanka-30Oct2015 (Tamil translation)

[1] http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=16065 andhttp://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=16081

[2] Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations

[3] http://www.news.lk/news/business/item/10046-two-suspects-in-town-hall-bomb-blast-sentenced-to-290-and-300-yrs

[4] Based on information in a list of detainees in remand prisons examined by the writer in early 2015

[5] Interview with a lawyer in 2015, prior to conviction

[6] “The Mirusuvil case” http://groundviews.org/2015/07/02/the-mirusuvil-case-why-searching-reform-is-urgent-and-necessary/ &https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirusuvil_massacre#Case_follow_up

[7] The date of arrest is unknown, but likely to have been earlier.

[8] Based on information in a list of detainees in remand prisons examined by the writer in early 2015

[9] Interview with HRDs and lawyers who have been assisting and representing her

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

[11] http://www.radiogagana.com/archives/5524

[12] https://freejeyakumary.wordpress.com/?ref=spelling

[13] http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=126154

[14] The investigating officer was from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) – a special unit of the Police

[15] http://www.dailymirror.lk/82249/have-they-been-killed-or-hidden

[16] Popularly known as KP, full name reported to be Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam

[17] http://www.channel4.com/news/exclusive-interview-tamil-leaders-concede-defeat, http://www.channel4.com/news/exclusive-interview-new-leader-of-the-tamil-tigers, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1607,http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1631 and an formal announcement athttps://www.tamilnet.com/img/publish/2009/07/21_July_LTTE_English.pdf

[18]http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca200908/20090807kp_arrested.htm

[19] News release with summary athttp://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16432&LangID=E (The report is divided into two parts which are interlinked: The overarching Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights (A/HRC/30/61), available at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_61_ENG.docxand the accompanying report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (A/HRC/30/CRP.2) which can be found at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_CRP_2.docx

[20] http://www.itjpsl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Torture-in-2015.pdf