Paranagama Commission

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.

“We vehemently refuse to be deceived again”: Protests by families of disappeared, continuing abductions and empty promises

First published on 30th August 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/08/30/we-vehemently-refuse-to-be-deceived-again-protests-by-families-of-disappeared-continuing-abductions-and-empty-promises/

Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.

Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.

Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government

Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.

Empty promises of institutions and laws

The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.

These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.

But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.

The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.

On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.

The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.

A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support. 

OMP

The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.

The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.

The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these.  Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.

The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.  The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances,  but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.

Economic justice

Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.

Moving forward

It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.

But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.

This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences  on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.


[i] http://www.un.org/en/events/disappearancesday/

[ii] https://twitter.com/garikaalan/status/900005138412191744

[iii] http://www.hirunews.lk/166456/two-ministers-accuse-police-for-their-attempt-to-abduct-convener-medical-faculty-student-activists

[iv] http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/ITJP_unstopped_report_final.pdf (page 8, section 1 – B)

[v] http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/news-features/human-rights/702-tamil-woman-activist-campaigning-for-disappeared-threatened-with-death

[vi] http://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-journalists-threatened-sri-lankan-soldiers

[vii] https://english.dgi.gov.lk/news/latest-news/1265-president-meets-family-members-of-missing-persons

[viii] https://www.slguardian.org/2017/07/sri-lanka-womens-call/

[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017

[x] http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/6502-cabinet-certificates-of-absence

Disappearances in Sri Lanka & Role of Civil Society

This is an expanded text version of a talk at a forum organized by the Law & Society Trust (LST) on “Recognizing the Struggle: State’s responsibilities towards families of the disappeared”, on Friday 18 March 2016.

It is significant for me to talk about civil society’s role on disappearances at an event organized by Law and Society Trust (LST) because it was at LST that I was thrust into working with families of disappeared persons. Families have always been and will remain central to the struggle against disappearances. They remain my primary inspiration, perhaps the reason I have not been able to give up, even when I often felt like giving up.

Context:

I remember that on this day, exactly two years ago, I was in detention at the Terrorism Investigation Division with another friend, Fr. Praveen. The nearest trigger for our arrest appeared to have been our efforts to look into the arrest of a mother of a disappeared child, Balendran Jeyakumary (who was also a vocal campaigner seeking truth and justice for disappearances) and other Tamils in the North. More than a year after “good governance”, Jeyakumary. Fr. Praveen and me are still being investigated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Ironically, at the same time, I have been invited for various meetings of the government and to be part of an Expert Advisory Committee related to Transitional Justice (which I didn’t accept due to various other reasons), despite still being a “terrorist suspect” and having a court order restricting my freedom of expression.

Although Jeyakumary was conditionally released two months after President Sirisena took office, she was re-arrested last year under “good governance”. She also faces serious social isolation due to this and struggles to find livelihood and has been compelled to keep her young daughter in a hostel. There has been no news about her disappeared son, who she claims has appeared in a photo taken at a government rehabilitation facility.

We are also no closer to the truth or justice in relation to the disappearance of Lalith and Kugan, two campaigners against disappearances, who disappeared in Jaffna in December 2011.

Families of disappeared and activists don’t face the kind of attacks, threats, intimidations, discrediting etc. that we experienced under the Rajapakse regime. But monitoring of families of disappeared persons and activists in the North and East continues. And there is total impunity for the reprisals we faced in the past.

It is in this context that I talk about disappearances, the Government’s promises of Transitional Justice (TJ), and role of civil society.

Transitional Justice promises in the context of disappearances

The Government has promised to deliver Truth, Criminal Justice (prosecutions / convictions), Reparations, and Guarantees of non-recurrence. All these four are rights of families of disappeared persons.

The Government has also committed to set up four specific Transitional Justice (TJ) related institutions and has appointed a Task Force to conduct nationwide consultations regarding the setting up of these institutions. The institution proposed to solely focus on disappearances is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). Given the nature of disappearances in Sri Lanka, the other three proposed mechanisms (the Truth Commission, the Judicial mechanism, and the Office of Reparations) will also likely be relevant. Commitments by the Government to criminalize disappearances, ratify the international convention against disappearances, issue certificates of absence and repeal the PTA are other key TJ promises of the Government in relation to disappearances.

As we focus on TJ promises and a TJ approach, we should also be careful of it’s limits, including addressing old injustices and inequalities pre-dating the war, such as class, caste, gender etc.

Civil society’s role in relation to disappearances

The Government has primary responsibility to prevent disappearances and address disappearances that have happened. But I will not dwell on this and will go on to focus on the role of civil society. I will take a broader definition of civil society to include lawyers, artists, academics, religious clergy, NGOs, trade unions etc. I will share some personal experiences and what I see as twelve challenges.

Personal experiences and reflections

I have given many talks in relation to disappearances in different places in Sri Lanka and overseas. I have written several articles[1] and given interviews. I have shared individual stories[2], statistics, general trends, threats, intimidations etc. But last night, I struggled to think of what I will say today.  As I was asked to talk about the role of civil society, and I consider myself to part of civil society, I felt it had to involve some personal introspection, which is often difficult.

None of my family members have disappeared. But I have worked very closely with a few families of disappeared persons and had chances to interact and join many more. They have included Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims.

Since 2015, some new possibilities have opened up to address disappearances of the past. I will deal with some when I talk of challenges.

As a civil society activist, we had to sometimes deal with blurred lines of who is a victim and who is a perpetrator. In August 2012, when we were organizing a protest against disappearances in Vavuniya, I had to argue with Tamil activists why we should join forces with families of missing soldiers, when the Army itself stands accused of being responsible for many disappearances plus many other crimes and rights violations. Around 2010, I had to struggle within LST and argue with close colleagues why I was supporting the wife of a prominent LTTE leader who disappeared after surrendering to the Army, as this person has been accused of child recruitment and other crimes.

In some ways, looking back, our work on disappearances during the Rajapakse regime was simple, despite being dangerous and controversial. During the height of the war, my colleagues and I spent a considerable amount of time accompanying families of disappeared to hospitals, camps, and police stations in their searches. We spent time talking to them in their homes, offices, churches etc. We joined them in protests in the streets, in Colombo, Jaffna, Geneva. We joined them in religious services. We went with them to meet government officials and politicians. We went with them to Courts, the Human Rights Commission, and various other Commissions of Inquiries. We helped them write letters, speeches, and sometimes helped translate them and became their interpreters. We introduced them to others we thought who could help them – lawyers, journalists, clergy, writers, film makers, student activists, diplomats, UN officials, international and regional NGOs. We helped them organize events and we tried help link families with each other. We also tried to tell their stories to as many people as possible.

But in the recent past, I have found it difficult to do even the simple things we used to do with families of disappeared, which I believe is central to dealing with disappearances.

Sandya Eknaligoda, who is well known now, was one of my strongest inspirations[3]. She was a regular visitor to LST when I was working there, and I spent a lot of time with her. But lately, I have not been able to spend as much time with her as before. About two weeks ago, I was sad I couldn’t go to join Sandya at a religious service she organized. A few days later, I was very sad to read that Sandya had to go to courts alone – on International Women’s Day. And both days, I was also sad at my inability to convince any friends or colleagues to join her in solidarity.

A few months ago, a lady whose husband had disappeared called me and asked for help to buy milk food for her two young children. She was keen to pursue legal action, but I was unable to find a lawyer who was willing to appear pro bono. There are other families of disappeared who I have met in the last two months, whose cases I have not been able to follow up properly. In recent times, it has been difficult to find someone to help a family draft a complaint or letter to the UN, Human Rights Commission etc. or to do a translation.

Unlike in the past, in more recent months, my colleagues and I have been unable to have sustained long term relationships with families of disappeared persons we met. We have failed to communicate regularly and to go beyond one-off or occasional meetings and events. We have failed to respond to the specific needs of families and we have been unable to take forward the pursuit of truth and justice, even when opportunities and possibilities existed.

These have been real challenges, real frustrations.

Estela Carlotta from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina described how they used to “cry at home and fight in the streets”. This is probably true for some of the most courageous and determined families of disappeared I have worked closely with. It’s also true for me. Working against disappearances has been traumatic and sometimes a lonely journey. Powerlessness and helplessness have been pre-dominant feelings. I have spent a lot of time, a lot of energy, took lot of risks, lost a lot, and achieved very little. Despite often feeling like giving up, I don’t regret what I have done.

Twelve challenges

Primarily based on my personal experiences and considering the present context, I would like to share twelve challenges facing civil society in terms of addressing disappearances.

  1. Recognizing and addressing a deeply personal tragedy which has become immensely political and has legal dimensions. This will involve a holistic approach, including emotional, financial and legal support, advocacy etc.
  1. Sustained accompaniment and support to families of disappeared (not one off events and long gaps with no communication).
  1. Balancing intensive support for a few families in their struggles and the broader struggles against disappearances.
  1. Getting the support of fellow activists, lawyers, journalists, academics, clergy, politicians, etc.
  1. Recognizing the activism and agency of families and being careful not to undermine them.
    • Ensuring that families make informed decisions when we ask them to join activities we initiate and organize – like protests, seminars etc. Families need to be provided clear information about why their engagement is sought, including who is organizing an event, the nature of an event, the objectives of an event, the issues being protested at a protest, the demands being sought etc.
    • Looking critically and speaking out when we feel families are used as pawns of politicians, NGOs etc.
    • Being careful not to undermine families of disappeared as mere pawns without having minds and agency of their own.
  1. Civil society involvement in movements of families – how much leadership, influence do we take up and how much do families have? How much support is there from civil society when a family of a disappeared person or group of families initiate some actions, such as what Sandya has been doing?
  1. Finding ways to advocate for truth, criminal justice, reparations in a way that will not undermine families’ rights to all three, and will minimize the need for a tradeoff. This will also have to take into consideration different priorities of different families in terms of the above rights. Making available the full report of ICRC’s needs assessment survey to all families of disappeared who participated in it could be helpful tool in assessing this. Supporting and advocating for interim reliefs (not compensation for crime), such as scholarships for children and special assistance for the elderly and disabled in families, housing, employment etc. of disappeared should be taken seriously, in a manner that will not undermine but enhance capacity for families’ rights for truth and justice.
  1. Exploring multiple approaches to truth seeking.
    • Criminal investigations. The few cases I know where we are closer to the truth are based on this – such as the discovery of the body of my friend Pattani Razeek[4] and arrests and information related to Prageeth Ekneligoda.
    • When there is strong evidence indicating who the perpetrators are and when arrests, prosecutions and harsh penalties on conviction are imminent, alleged perpetrators could be encouraged to provide further and detailed information by providing incentives (such as reduced penalties) taking into consideration also wishes of families of disappeared.
    • Encouraging information to surface from alleged perpetrators and institutions implicated by providing them incentives like those used in ordinary criminal cases (such as confidentiality, anonymity and, on a case by case basis, possibly even assurances of immunity), taking into consideration also wishes of families of disappeared.
    • Soliciting information from independent eyewitnesses who are not part of primary perpetrator institutions.
    • Use of DNA and forensics – in relation to mass graves and discovery of human remains in various parts of the country
  1. Engaging and contributing to the proposed Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), considering the past failures and the lack of transparency of the process so far. Some considerations could be:
    • Maximum involvement of the families of disappeared in setting up of the OMP and its operations, including in oversight structures. Their exclusion from the discussions so far is ominous and should be rectified urgently.
    • Ensuring that criminalization of disappearances in Sri Lanka and ratification of the convention against disappearances happens before the enactment of legislature that will establish the OMP.
    • Discussion of how its work could facilitate the pursuance of criminal justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-reoccurrence while focusing primarily on truth seeking (clarification of the fate and whereabouts).
    • Ensuring that the domestic and international agencies involved in the OMP will advance and not block in anyway the pursuit of truth and justice.
    • Defining the scope of crimes that could be covered (based on clear definitions, such as enforced disappearances, missing etc.).
    • Not restricting the consideration of incidents based on date of disappearance (looking at all disappearances, irrespective of the date it occurred)
    • The structure and different units that will form the OMP (such as Forensics, DNA bank, investigations, psychosocial support, victim and witness protection etc.).
    • Who will be in it – overall leadership, leadership of specific units, oversight, staff etc. And who will make appointments.
    • Given the clear expression of the lack of confidence in domestic mechanisms by many families of disappeared, the importance of ensuring maximum international involvement.
    • Possible ways to transfer pending cases from previous Commissions of Inquiries (E.g. Paranagama Commission, Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission, LLRC etc.).
    • Dealing with findings and progress on complaints that have been lodged to the Human Rights Commission, Police and cases pending before Magistrate Courts, High Courts, and Supreme Courts, especially in relation to Habeas Corpus cases.
    • Complementarity and harmonizing of the existing database of the Human Rights Commission.
    • Security of the database.
    • What should be the powers – such as to request and seize any documents and materials, summoning of any persons, visit private or public spaces without prior announcement, conduct exhumations, dealing with institutions and persons not cooperating with its work etc.
  1. Advocating for quick realization of other key commitments of the Government. Criminalization of disappearances, ratification of the UN convention against disappearances, and issuance of certificates of absences and benefits based on that.
  1. Raising awareness amongst the general population and gaining more support from the public – especially the Sinhalese (the mainstream media will have to play a major role in this).
  1. Money.Can we sustain activism beyond donor funding? How do we use funding? E.g. is it ok to spend for one day for one person for a hotel room (to attend a meeting on disappearances), when the amount could be more than what most families of disappeared earns for a month? Gaining donor’s attention to support economic justice by stimulating local economies, generating sustainable employment, alongside their existing support to protests, seminars and such efforts. The private sector could also contribute, but their involvement should be looked at cautiously, to ensure that it will not exacerbate existing economic inequalities or damage to local economies.

[1] For example, see http://groundviews.org/2015/11/11/disappearances-in-sri-lanka-and-the-visit-of-the-un-working-group-on-disappearances/,http://groundviews.org/2014/08/30/disappearances-and-the-struggle-for-truth-and-justice/, http://groundviews.org/2013/08/30/sri-lankas-disappeared-visit-navi-pillay-and-another-commission-of-inquiry/,http://groundviews.org/2011/11/07/destroying-monuments-for-those-killed-disappeared-the-catholic-church-and-the-sri-lankan-government/and http://www.una.org.uk/magazine/autumn-2012-and-winter-2012-special/one-every-five-days-ruki-fernando-disappearances-sri-la

[2] For example, see http://groundviews.org/2016/02/15/where-is-journalist-subramanium-ramachandran-9-years-after-he-disappeared/,http://groundviews.org/2015/08/20/9-years-after-disappearance-of-fr-jim-brown-mr-vimalathas/, http://groundviews.org/2015/02/11/pattani-razeek-no-justice-5-years-after-abduction-and-killing/ andhttp://groundviews.org/2013/01/23/11073/

[3] http://groundviews.org/2013/01/23/11073/

[4] http://groundviews.org/2015/02/11/pattani-razeek-no-justice-5-years-after-abduction-and-killing/

Where is journalist Subramanium Ramachandran 9 years after he disappeared?

First published on 15th February 2016 at http://groundviews.org/2016/02/15/where-is-journalist-subramanium-ramachandran-9-years-after-he-disappeared/

Subramanium Ramachandran, a Jaffna based Tamil journalist disappeared on 15th of February 2007 in Jaffna. Despite eyewitness accounts of being detained at an Army checkpoint and camps, till today his whereabouts are unknown and his elderly parents and family await his arrival every day. His colleagues and family remember him as a courageous journalist who would write without fear on any issue. During the war, he was one of the few journalists based in Jaffna who would continue to report on abuse and violations by the Military and other para militant groups. Nine years after his disappearance Ramachandran’s case like other journalists, activists, civilians who disappeared or were killed remains uninvestigated and under reported.

The Incident

Few weeks before his disappearance, Ramachandran had written an article on illegal sand mining and transportation which was taking place with the involvement of businessmen and military officers. Following this article, a Judge was reported to have made an order to confiscate a vehicle used for this purpose. At the same time the LTTE was reported to have torched another vehicle belonging to the businessmen. His colleagues believe that his abductors were persons angered by this article.

According to an eye witness, on the day of the incident, Ramachandran was coming home after work. It was a routine at that time to have a curfew imposed in Jaffna after 6.00pm. On his way he was stopped at the Army camp at Kalikai junction, not far from his home in Jaffna. The eyewitness had seen some soldiers having surrounded him for questioning. At around 7.00pm when the power was out, neighbors have reported on hearing an Army vehicle (Buffel) coming to the area and that they believe that Ramachandran may have been taken away at this point.

His sister Jeyaratnam Kamalishini who used to live close to him, was becoming anxious when Ramachandran had not returned by 8.00pm in the night. She had called him twice that night. On both occasions he has told her not to worry and that he’s been questioned at a camp and that he would return soon. When the brother did not turn up by 4.00am, the next day morning, the sister has called him again. This time he had asked her not to call him again as this was putting him in trouble. Thereafter Kamalashini together with her father, had rushed to the nearest camp to her house to inquire about her brother. When they inquired about Ramachandran the Army officers there denied knowledge that they had seen him or taken him. When the family insisted on wanting information the Army officers had threatened them with arrest and chased them away.

That night, another sister residing in Norway, had called Ramachandran. This was the last time he had spoken to the family, and had told her not to worry and that he will come home soon. Thereafter, his family rang him regularly till 2012. The phone would ring but no one would answer it. In 2012 the phone company had changed the user for the number. Hence even that contact ceased thereafter.

The long search and authorities admitting Ramachandran was taken by them

Soon after the incident, like many families of disappeared persons, Kamalashini and her father would wait for hours in the Civil Affairs Office of the Military hoping some information of her brother can be obtained. Her frequent visits finally paid off, and a sympathetic intelligence officer of that area had informed her that the military had taken Ramachandran due to orders from higher ranks. He had also instructed her to seek an appointment with Mr. Douglas Devananda who was then a Minister and also the leader of the Ealam’s People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Following this the family had the Minister together with his Secretary, Ms Maheshwari Velautham who was also a lawyer and an advisor to the EPDP. Mr Devananda had told the family that Ramachandran was taken away because he has done “unnecessary” things. Later on, Ramachandran’s sister met Ms Maheshwari at her house. She agreed to facilitate a visit of the family to visit Ramachandran once at his place of detention. She has also mentioned the possibility of filing a Court case. Ms. Maheshwary was shot dead by the LTTE soon after. The family had met the Minister again and an argument broke out between him and Ramachandran’s father. The father had implied that the EPDP was working together with the Military and has been abducting persons. The Minister had warned the father not to say anything against the Military or else he also might be shot.

Few months after the civil war ended, Kamalashini was visited by six persons from the police and the Military. They requested her for all Ramachandran’s personal documents including his educational certificate. When his father handed over the documents at the Point Pedro police station, he was told that these documents were requested to give Ramachandran a job.

More eye witnesses

Kamalashini also stated that two different witnesses had claimed to have seen Ramachandran as late as 2013, once in the Kangesanthurai High Security Zone, and once in the Pallappai Army camp belonging to the 524 Brigade. On the first occasion which had taken place between 2009 – 2010, the witnesses have reported to have spoken to Ramachandran, and later confirmed it was Ramachandran after the family had shown his photos. Ramachandran had told the witnesses that the Military has been promising to release him, but has kept him there without doing so. On the second occasion a Government Officer has gone for a routine meeting with the Military to the Pallappai Army camp. The witness had stated that an Intelligence Officer had pointed out Ramachandran to him and said ‘we have a journalist from your village’. The name of the intelligence officer had been the same as the one who had admitted to Kamalishini that it was Military who had taken Ramachandran.

The inaction by the Police and submissions made to the Paranagama Commission  

Few days after the incident, Ramachandran’s father had made a complaint to the Point Pedro Police station, but there had been no responses from the Police to date. According to a journalist in Jaffna, the Magistrate in Point Pedro had asked the Police to inquire into the incident after he had seen news about it. The Police had subsequently visited the sister’s house, taken her to the Police station and interrogated her from about 11am to 7pm. Most of the questions had been centered on how the sister had known Ramachandran was taken away by soldiers at the Kalikai camp. The sister had felt that the Police was more interested in identifying the eyewitness and source than actually trying to find Ramachandran.

 

On the 13th of December 2015, Kamalashini made a detailed oral submission to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry looking into Missing Persons (The Paranagama Commission).  She had sited the eye witness’s accounts she had heard. On the 26th of January 2016, the Commission sent a letter to her. The letter stated that the case has been referred for investigation. It further instructed her to contact the Government Office to obtain economic assistances which she is entitled to.

When will impunity for disappearances and attacks on media end?

Arrests made and progress in courts in the case of Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekenligoda who disappeared in January 2010 has received much publicity. The progress is largely due to determined and courageous campaign by his wife and family. There has also been some public commitments by the government to investigate the killing of leading English newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramathunga, although actual progress is not known. But there is a deafening silence on progress made on other attacks on journalists, media workers and media institutions.

There have been numerous killings, disappearances, assaults, threats, restrictions on Tamil journalists, Media workers and Media institutions in North and East, including serious arson attacks. The most popular Tamil daily newspaper in the North, the “Uthayan” has suffered a series of such attacks. According to the owner and Editor, there has been no progress in relation to even one incident.

Ramachandran’s case is one of the few cases where there is compelling evidence and eyewitness accounts to unravel what happened to him after his disappearance. This includes reports of him being seen at a specific Army camp in 2013, 6 years after he had disappeared. However, the family has not been informed of any attempts to obtain information from the authorities. Ramachandran’s family has been waiting for nine years in the hope that he would return one day. Will Ramachandran ever return home? Will his family and colleagues ever receive answers from the Government on what happened to him after his disappearance?

Ruki Fernando & Swasthika Arulingam