Political Prisoners

Draconian law cripples Sri Lanka’s reconciliation hopes

“The country’s leadership needs to act on commitment to repeal Prevention of Terrorism Act”

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/draconian-law-cripples-sri-lankas-reconciliation-hopes/78188 on 3rd Feb. 2017

In March 2014, my colleague, Father Praveen and I were arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the Terrorist Investigation Department, under Sri Lanka’s authoritarian government of former president Mahinda Rajapakse.

Three months ago, under the new government whose slogan has been good governance and rule of law, I was briefly detained and interrogated at the airport while traveling to the United Kingdom for meetings related to human rights. More than two years after the new government came to power, the investigation against me and Father Praveen continues and we are still terrorist suspects.

Court orders restricting our freedom of expression, obtained in March 2014 by the state are still in place. Our electronic equipment, confiscated at that same time, has still not been returned. The investigation led to me being publicly discredited as a terrorist supporter. My parents and I will find it difficult to ever recover.

We were arrested while looking into the arrest of a large number of Tamils in north Sri Lanka, including Balendran Jeyakumary, the mother of a disappeared child, who had been a vocal campaigner against forced disappearances. Although Jeyakumary was conditionally released two months after President Maithripala Sirisena took office in January 2015, she was re-arrested a few months later and detained for about a week.

She was again summoned for intense interrogation in August 2016. She still must report to the police every month and must go to court regularly. She also faces social isolation, struggles to find work and has been compelled to keep her young daughter in a hostel. The arrest ruined her and her daughter’s life.

 

Continuing use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 

The United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the two parties that have ruled Sri Lanka since independence, have used the act to suppress dissent for decades.

In 2008, during the last phase of the war, the act was used to arrest, detain and convict Tamil journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam. In 2009, it was used to detain Christian activist, Santha Fernando. After the war, in 2013, it was again used to arrest and detain opposition Muslim politician, Azath Salley. These are a few better-known examples.

A coalition of the two main parties formed a government in 2015 and continued to use the terrorism act to arrest and detain people, mostly Tamils, albeit on less intense scale.

Some were abducted and later found to be detained. No one has been held accountable for these abductions, bringing into question whether the directives on arrest and detention by President Sirisena in June 2016 have had any impact.

The arrest and detention of Jeyakumary, Tissainayagam, Santha, Salley, as well as Father Praveen and I received national and international media coverage and we had the support of committed lawyers and activists as well as the diplomatic community.

I believe we were released, after periods ranging from few days to two years, due to that support. But people who didn’t get such attention, continue to languish in jail without charge. When they are charged, trials can take years.

In 2015, two Tamil mothers were acquitted after being detained for a total of 22 years. There has been no acknowledgement of their suffering, no apology and no compensation.

I have been told by detainees and lawyers that charges were framed and convictions obtained based on confessions made under duress, as the terrorism act allows such evidence to be admitted for trial. Most detainees I have met have been tortured. They have been scarred for life, mentally and physically.

 

Replacing the act but retaining its draconian features

Recently, I saw a leaked version of a draft policy and legal framework for the Counter Terrorism Act, that will replace the previous act. Like its predecessor, it contains many draconian clauses. It has vague and broad definitions that could infringe on free expression and activism and grants excessive powers to the police to detain people for long periods without judicial supervision.

The spirit and purpose of the old and new acts are similar: giving extreme powers to the executive, military and police in the name of preventing and countering terrorism, and disregarding life, liberty and dignity.

The previous act served as a license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture. It removed lifesaving protections when they were most needed: within the first few hours and days of a person being arrested.

The new Counter Terrorism Act seeks to extend this license with a new label and face. No official information has been made available to Sri Lankan citizens about the replacement act either.

 

Sri Lanka’s international obligations and waning international interest

Numerous U.N. treaty bodies have pointed out the terrorism act’s incompatibility with Sri Lanka’s international obligations, most recently the Committee against Torture in December 2016.

For several years, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights raised similar concerns. But at the same time, some U.N. officials appeared to be willing to ignore these concerns or place excessive confidence and faith in the Sri Lankan government. In a report released earlier this month, the European Commission said that Sri Lanka must ensure its counter-terrorism legislation is in line with international human rights conventions. But it still granted trade privileges to Sri Lanka assuming the “government has started a legislative process to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is making good progress in releasing persons detained under it.”

This appears optimistic at best. While some detainees were released in 2015-2016, there have been many new arrests. Cases continue at a snail’s pace and even those released continue to be harassed.  The terrorism act reform process is shrouded in secrecy, with the government appearing to consult the European Commission, U.N. and a few experts of their choice, instead of being transparent with the victims, their families and the Sri Lankan people.

 

Way forward

Repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and getting justice for detainees is a crucial element in forging reconciliation. How can we victims and our families talk of reconciliation if we are still being detained, investigated and face continuing restrictions?

How can we talk of reconciliation if there is no acknowledgement, no apology and no reparations? How can we believe guarantees of non-reoccurrence when the new government did not repeal the act for two years, when secret processes are underway to bring in similar laws, and persons continue to be abducted?

As a victim of the terrorism laws, what I think needs to be done is to ensure justice to all past and present detainees, repeal the legislation and, instead of focusing on equally draconian new anti-terror laws, focus on strengthening legal and institutional frameworks to combat crime and terrorism, while ensuring due process and protections.

The coming months could be crucial. The Council of Europe and the European Parliament must insist on the repeal of the terrorism act before enhanced trade status is granted. At the March session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, its member states and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights must insist that the government fulfills its October 2015 commitment to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards. Both the U.N. and E.U. must stand for justice for terrorism detainees.

But what’s most needed is for the Sri Lankan people to recognize the injustices that have been done to their fellow citizens, brothers and sisters and express outrage about laws that infringe on their safety, freedom and dignity.

The president and prime minister must be transparent about efforts to bring in similar laws. Catholics and church leaders, the majority of whom have been silent, should be part of this, insisting that unjust laws are against the faith and that to justify them or be silent is a sin.

Sri Lanka’s Transitional Moment and Transitional Justice

First published in the report “Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka: 17Aug 2015 – 17 Aug2016” by INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre on 18th August 2016

Within the first month after winning the parliamentary elections in August 2015, the new Government made a series of commitments related to transitional justice. These were articulated through a speech by the Foreign Minister at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council.[1] These commitments were also reflected in the resolution on Sri Lanka that was adopted by the Human Rights Council on 1 October 2015.[2] The resolution came just after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had published a report which alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws, by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.[3]

Government’s commitments 

The present Government’s commitments included setting up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), a Commission for Truth, Justice, and Guarantees of Non-reoccurrence, a Judicial mechanism with Special Counsel, which will have the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, investigators and defence lawyers, and an Office for Reparations. The Government also committed to reduce the military’s role in civilian affairs, facilitate livelihoods, repeal and reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), criminalise disappearances, ratify the Enforced Disappearance Convention[4] , review the victim and witness protection law, and range of other actions. Consultations to seek people’s views on transitional justice is underway across the country, under the leadership of some civil society activists.

The Enforced Disappearance Convention was ratified in May this year and the draft Bill to create the OMP was passed by Parliament on 11 August. There are positive features as well as weaknesses and ambiguities in the Bill[5]. Due to a history of failed initiatives, the minimal ‘consultations’ that occurred during drafting process and the lack of information on details, there appears to be very little confidence in the OMP amongst families of the disappeared. This is likely to be the case for other mechanisms, unless there’s a drastic change in approach from the government.

Reactions to transitional justice within Sri Lanka

Currently, the transitional justice agenda appears to be polarising Sri Lankan society. Opinion polls, and my own impressions, indicate that the Tamil community, particularly in the North and the East, who bore the brunt of the war, appears to favour strong international involvement. But the majority Sinhalese community appears to reject international involvement. Varying opinions have been expressed about forgetting the past, memorialisation, prosecutions, and amnesty. There are also different or contradictory opinions and expectations within each ethnic community and amongst survivors of violations and families of victims.

The Government’s transitional justice commitments have been criticised by the former President and his supporters. Even the release of a few political prisoners, the release of small amounts of land occupied by the military, and the establishment of the OMP to find truth about missing persons have been framed as an international conspiracy that endangers national security and seeks revenge from “war heroes”.

There does not appear to be an official Government policy document on transitional justice. The Government’s commitments have only been officially articulated in Geneva by the Foreign Minister and not in Sri Lanka . The Foreign Minister has been the regular advocate and defender of these commitments. Some of the meetings with local activists have been convened by him and the Secretariat for Co-ordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) is housed in the Foreign Ministry. All these contribute to the process being seen as emanating and driven by foreign pressure. Outreach on the Government’s transitional justice plans appears to focus on the international community and not towards Sri Lankan people.

The President and Prime Minister have not been championing the Government’s official commitments. For example, the duo have publicly stated that the commitment to have foreign judges in the judicial mechanism will not be fulfilled. Even this has not satisfied the critics alleging foreign conspiracy, and has disappointed some activists, especially Tamils, as well as survivors and victims’ families.

Developments on the ground

Monuments erected to honour the Sinhalese dominated military during the Rajapakse time continue to dominate the Tamil majority Northern landscape. Army camps that were built over some of the cemeteries of former LTTE cadres that were bulldozed by the Army after the war are still there. The loved ones of those whose remains were in these cemeteries have no place to grieve, lay flowers, light a candle, or say a prayer. While the numbers have reduced from those under the Rajapaske regime, intimidation and reprisals on families, attacks, and threats and intimidation of activists and journalists continue to occur. Limited progress on issues, such as the release of political prisoners, land occupied by military, continuing military involvement in civilian affairs in the North and East, reports of continuing abductions, and arrests under the PTA have raised doubts about the Government’s commitments. Although a few military personnel have been convicted and some others arrested on allegations of human rights abuses, the lack of progress in thousands of other cases only reinforces calls for international involvement for justice.

Towards Rights & Democratization beyond Transitional Justice framework

Unemployment, debt, and sexual and gender-based violence is widespread in the former war ravaged areas. The new Government’s economic and development policies are focusing on trade, investment, and mega development projects, which privilege the rich and marginalise the poor. Pre-war rights issues, such as landlessness, sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, caste, rights of workers, including those working on tea estates, still need to be addressed.

A consultation process towards a new constitution drew a large number of public representations, dealing with many of the issues mentioned above. But the next steps are not clear, particularly in finding political solutions to the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The political leadership will have to reach out to all Sri Lankans, especially to the Sinhalese majority, about its reform agenda, while taking principled actions to win the confidence of numerical minorities such as Tamils and Muslims. At the national level, the coming together of the two major political parties and support of the two major parties representing Tamils and Muslims, makes this a unique opportunity to push towards radical reforms.

It will also be a challenge to go beyond a conventional transitional justice framework and use the transitional moment to move towards reconciliation, democratisation, and sustainable development, by addressing civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights in a holistic manner, considering the yearnings of war survivors, victims’ families, and the poor, for truth, reparations, criminal accountability, and economic justice.

[1] Speech by Hon Mangala Samaraweera at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 14 September 2015.

[2] Human Rights Council Resolution, Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka, 14 October 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/30/1 (adopted 1 October 2015).

[3] Human Rights Council, Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), thirtieth session, 16 September 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/CRP.2.

[4] International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted 20 December 2006, UN Doc. A/61/488 (entered into force 23 December 2010) (“Enforced Disappearance Convention”).

[5] For more on OMP, see http://thewire.in/42687/sri-lankas-disappeared-will-the-latest-missing-persons-office-bring-answers/

On Rights and Justice: Some Perspective from Colombo

First published at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/taylor-dibbert/on-rights-and-justice-som_b_11250536.html on 28th July 2016

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In this interview, Mr. Fernando shares his thoughts on a range of salient issues.

Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took the country in an ever more authoritarian direction. How much has changed since Maithripala Sirisena became president in January 2015?

Authoritarianism has lessened and there is more space across the country for free expression, free assembly and free association. This was visible when Tamil people in the country’s North and East came out for the first time on May 18, 2015 — to grieve collectively and publicly for their loved ones who had died during the civil war. There was more space and less restrictions and less intimidation for this in 2016 compared to 2015. However, there have been regular incidents of surveillance, intimidation, harassment and threats on journalists and activists — particularly in the North and East, even though the intensity and regularity of these incidents appears to be less than it was during the Rajapaksa era.

I feel more safe and free, and now travel to the interior of the Vanni (in the country’s Northern Province). I also go home late at night on my own, using public transport — something I never did when the Rajapaksas were in power. But even after 18 months of “good governance,” I’m still under investigation by the Terrorist Investigation Department and my freedom of expression is restricted through a court order.

As a human rights activist, what issues are taking up most of your time? What projects are you currently working on?

There are too many things than I could mention! I have been trying to assist a few families of disappeared persons in their continuing struggles. I have been trying to engage critically with the proposed Office of Missing Persons (OMP). I have been monitoring and documenting recent abductions and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). I’m continuing to work with a few communities whose lands have been expropriated by the military. I am trying to critique militarized and large, business-oriented tourism, and to promote a more community-centered, reconciliation-oriented form of tourism. I’m also spending time discussing transitional justice issues with rural Sinhalese communities, and participating in radio and TV discussions in Sinhalese. In addition, I have been trying to support exiled Sri Lankan journalists and activists to return to Sri Lanka, and to support Pakistanis and Bangladeshis fleeing their countries and seeking refuge in Sri Lanka. Lastly, I have been giving talks and interviews, and have been writing about these issues.

In terms of the government’s wide-ranging transitional justice agenda, how much has been accomplished thus far?

Some political prisoners have been released, mostly conditionally. Some lands occupied for decades by the military have been released. Last year, there were significant judgements convicting soldiers for the rape of a Tamil woman in 2010 and a massacre of Tamil civilians in 2000.

There have been arrests of military and senior police personnel in some important and high-profile cases of killings and disappearances. The new leadership of the Human Rights Commission has asserted their independence and challenged the government, though an overhaul of the institution to be fully independent and effective will take much longer.

On the other hand, the military’s involvement in civilian activities in the North — such as hotels, shops, preschools, farms and airlines, among other activities, continues. Buddhist domination with the help of the military, in the predominantly non-Buddhist (mostly Tamil) North also continues. There has been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the PTA in the North and East during the last few months. Impunity reigns and accountability seems far away for tens of thousands of incidents, despite the availability of compelling evidence in some cases.

The positive progress is politically symbolic and matters a lot to ordinary people in their daily lives. But overall, progress has been too little and painfully slow. And there have been too many backward steps for the few forward steps.

How have public consultations (for the country’s transitional justice mechanisms) been going? What, if anything could be done to improve the consultative process?

Six months after the appointment of the Consultation Task Force (CTF), the consultations on transitional justice have commenced. But it seems the government has not thrown its political weight behind it, championing and promoting the process amongst Sri Lankans, using its vast infrastructure and extensive outreach through the mainstream and new media. The government doesn’t appear to be supporting the process financially, and it seems dependent on foreign funding from the United Nations (UN), which has resulted in delays.

In addition, the government had initiated a parallel process of drafting in secret, legislature in relation to transitional justice institutions, even before the consultation process started. There needs to be a convergence of expert drafting processes and popular consultations with ordinary people.

As it is, despite the best efforts of the CTF and subsidiary bodies, politically, the popular consultations appear to be an eyewash, designed to placate foreign governments and UN officials, and tick the box.

Do you believe that it’s important for Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process to include international participation? If so, why?

The reality in Sri Lanka is that most Tamils, who are a numerical minority, who have suffered the most, and who have historical grievances that led to the civil war, don’t trust a purely domestic process. Sinhalese who are the majority community, don’t trust international involvement. So if the transitional justice process is about all communities, we need to negotiate a middle way, acceptable to most communities and people. But there’s also a danger that the aspirations of the majority may prevail. Then there is also the issue of whether competency and experience to the extent needed is fully available in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the accountability mechanism to address alleged wartime abuses, what role (if any) would you like to see international actors play?

Personally, I believe it’s important to have the participation of international judges, prosecutors, investigators and defense lawyers. Their participation should go beyond monitoring, advising and training. But being international alone will not guarantee independence and credibility. It’s crucial to ensure that accountability mechanisms have the acceptance of all communities and thus, the government must play the major role in reaching out to all Sri Lankans — in particular to the Sinhalese-Buddhist community, to stress the importance of doing what’s right and principled, instead of bowing down to populist slogans. Tamil political and civil society leaders too must not get carried away with populist slogans and work towards solutions for affected people, considering the existing domestic and international political realities.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Continuing abuse under PTA: Abductions, Arbitrary Arrests, Unlawful Detentions and Torture

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/06/28/continuing-abuse-under-pta-abductions-arbitrary-arrests-unlawful-detentions-and-torture/ on 28th June 2016

On 30th March, 2016, a suicide jacket, explosives and other ammunition was found in Chavakachcheri, Jaffna. Since then, as at 28th June, the arrest of at least 28 persons have been reported. All of them have been Tamils from the north and east of Sri Lanka. All were men, except one woman whose husband was been arrested. A further 2 persons, (also Tamil men) were given “chits” (pieces of paper) at the international airport summoning them to the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Police for inquiry. They were questioned and released on the same day.

Of the 28 arrested, 24 had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The other 4 appear to have been arrested and detained on matters not related to the incident above, although they are ex-LTTE cadres. One of those arrested under the PTA was arrested inside the Human Right Commission office in Trincomalee, whilst he was lodging a complaint.

The people in Chavakachcheri that we spoke to said that around 10-12 youth, both male and female, have been continuously called for questioning at various places in the Jaffna District between April and June 2016, in addition to those who had been arrested. A sense of fear prevails in this village, and amidst families of those arrested. People who used to move around quite freely now look at each other with suspicion and doubt.

A human rights lawyer claims that many of the arrests are related to 5-6 motorbikes reportedly found around the house where the explosives were found. There also seems to be a trend of the TID tracking phone numbers that have been in contact with those already arrested, and calling them in for further inquiries, whilst also arresting some of them. This had led to people refraining from lending their phones to anyone else.

As of 23rd June, 2016,

  • At least 23 of the 28 persons who have been arrested have not been charged with any crime.
  • No arrest receipts were issued at the time of arrest in at least 10 cases.
  • In most of the cases, the arresting officers claimed to be TID officers and were dressed in civilian clothes. They hadn’t provided any form of identification, but had given a land phone number and told families to call it and clarify if they wanted to.
  • Suspects were not produced before a Magistrate (as specified in the PTA) within 72 hours in at least 23 cases. In most cases, Detention Orders are issued directly to the detainee whilst in detention, so families and lawyers are not always aware of its issuance.
  • Families were not notified of place of detention for more than 48 hours in at least 5 cases.
  • At least 15 of those arrested are former LTTE cadres, with at least 7 having gone through rehabilitation and been released.
  • Detainees were not offered opportunity to contact lawyers for more than 48 hours in at least 23 cases, with lawyers having restricted access even thereafter. It’s mostly families that are in contact with the lawyers.
  • Of the 28 arrested, we have come to know that 4 have been released unconditionally, 2 have been released on surety bail and 1 has been sent for 1 year in rehabilitation.
  • After visiting their detained family members, several have reported that detainees appear to have been tortured.
  • Private property of detainees and family members were confiscated and held without receipts being issued in at least 5 cases. Property includes, mobile phones, vehicles and at least Rs. 100,000 in cash.
  • Although, in accordance with Section 28 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Act[1], most arrests and detentions are being communicated by the TID to the HRCSL now, the HRCSL is still not being kept notified of detainee transfers and changes in detention facilities.[2]
  • Family members and lawyers reported that they had restricted access to the detainees.
  • Family members have also been reported as being detained, subjected to intensive interrogation, harassment and/or intimidation.

Below are the names and brief details of the 28 reported as arrested and 2 reported as having been summoned to TID, questioned and released. Information is valid as of 23rd June, unless otherwise stated.

  1. Kebriel Edward Julian (alias Ramesh) – According to Julian’s lawyers, at about 7.30pm, on 29th March, approximately 20 Police, Special Task Force, army and TID personnel, had arrived in 4 army vehicles, and surrounded Julian’s house in Chavakachcheri. As Julian had not been at home, the personnel had eventually left at about 9pm after having arrested Julian’s wife, Kebriel Thusyanthi, accompanied by her 6 year old step-daughter. The cache of explosives and suicide vest were discovered at Julian’s house the following morning (30).[3]Julian was arrested on the 30th of March, 2016. According to his lawyers, on the 31st of April, police, army and TID personnel had brought Julian back to his house in a van, but his family had not been allowed to meet him. They had notified his family that Julian had been arrested on the 30th. Julian was a former LTTE cadre.As far as his lawyers are aware, no Detention Order has been served, and Julian was not produced before the Magistrate or JMO as at 23rd of June. Mobile phones belonging to Julian, his father and wife, Julian’s motorcycle and TATA Batta van, their vehicle documents, and account books were all confiscated by the TID. No receipt was issued following the confiscation of these possessions and none of them have been returned as yet.[4]
  1. Rasathurai Jeyanthan, a former LTTE cadre, was abducted from his home in Nunavil, Chavakachcheri on the 10th of April, 2016, by men in civilian clothing, who claimed they were from the Police.[5][6]They interrogated and handcuffed him, refused to identify themselves, refused to tell his family members the cause of arrest and where they were taking him to, took him away in an unmarked white van, detained him for two days at locations unknown to the family, and confiscated two motorcycles registered under Jeyanthan’s brother’s name and 3 mobile phones belonging to him, his wife and mother. More than 2 months since his arrest, none of their personal property has been returned to the family. Neither have they received a receipt for the confiscated property. The notice of arrest was sent to his family only about a week following his actual arrest. The HRCSL, however, had received a routine fax notifying the Commission of his arrest, as mandated in Section 28(1) of the Human Rights Commission Act of 1996. Having been detained at the TID office in Colombo for 2 days, he was transferred to Boossa on the 12th of April, 2016 and is still detained there as of 23rd.
  2. Ganeshapillai Arivalahan (alias Kalaiarasan), a former LTTE Intelligence chief, was arrested on the 26th of April, 2016, whilst lodging a complaint at the HRCSL, Trincomalee.[7] On the 25th of April, 3 men dressed in civil had visited Arivalahan’s home whilst he was at work, and asked his wife where he was, where he worked, which route he took back home etc., As there had been a spate of arrests of former LTTE cadres at the time, they had gone the very next morning (26th) to a legal aid organization in Trincomalee. They were then advised to lodge a complaint at the HRCSL in Trincomalee.When getting into the three-wheeler from the legal aid office, Arivalahan’s wife had noticed 3 policemen in uniform standing on the opposite side of the office (sea-side), but hadn’t taken too much notice of them. However, as soon as they left the office, they saw a white and grey van with tinted windows following them. At one point, it had even tried to overtake their three-wheeler. The van too arrived at the same time as the three-wheeler at the HRCSL office, so Arivalahan had run into the HRCSL out of fear. One man in civil had gotten out of the van and followed Arivalahan inside and apprehended him. At which point a lady working at the HRCSL had asked the man from the van, who he was. He had responded that he was from the TID in Colombo. Meanwhile, 4 other men in civil too had gotten out of the van and walked into the HRCSL. Also, a police jeep with 3 police officers in uniform had arrived at the Commission and walked inside. When asked by the lady who they were, they had said they were from the Trincomalee Police.The lady at the HRCSL had got the first TID officer who had apprehended Arivalahan, to record his (the officer’s) details in a book at the Commission. By this point, the police had issued a receipt of arrest to Arivalahan’s wife, citing that he’s being arrested under the suspicion of reviving terrorist activity. As at 23rd June, he was being detained at the TID office in Colombo. His wife visits him weekly, but says that they are not able to speak freely as TID officers are always in the vicinity. They had even told the wife during one of her visits, that her husband would be released in two months.
  1. Muththulingam Vijeyakumar Ketheeswaran, was arrested in Kilinochchi town in the Kilinochchi district on 10th He had previously been detained in May 2014, while sitting for his A/L examinations as an 18 year old and released in November 2015 on bail. As he could not go back to school, he had requested his father to try and raise funds to buy him a three wheeler. His father had reportedly sold his cattle and transferred funds to his son’s bank account. Ketheeswaran has now been detained on the suspicion that he had received funds in relation to the explosives found in Chavakachcheri.When the father had visited his son in Boossa, it had appeared that the son had been severely beaten whilst in detention in Vavuniya and Boossa. The family has lodged a complaint (HRC/KI/056/2016) at the HRCSL in Kilinochchi, on the 11th April.Ketheeswaran’s sister, a student at the Eastern University, had received numerous abusive calls from persons claiming to be from the TID, from this phone number 021-2283707, following her brother’s arrest. The University has arranged some security measures for her, and she has lodged a complaint (HRC/BCO/99/2016) at the HRCSL in Batticaloa.
    Ketheeswaran’s father and another brother, a school boy, have also been repeatedly summoned to an unmarked TID office in Kilinochchi after his detention.[8] He was being detained as at 23rd June.[9]
  1. Muthulingam Jeyakanthan, a former LTTE cadre, from Mullaithivu, who had sought employment overseas after the war, was detained and interrogated for almost 7 hours by the TID, at the Katunayake international airport on his return to Sri Lanka on the 12th of April, 2016. He was then released and asked to report to the 2nd floor of the TID office in Colombo, on the 19th of April, for further interrogation.[10] According to his sister[11], they had taken Jeyakanthan into the office at about 11.15am, and at around 2.15pm, informed her that he had been arrested, but his family had not been given any document with regard to his arrest. The TID had refused to let his sister see Jeyakanthan that day, and had told her to come and visit him on Sunday (24th) April instead. Jeyakanthan is a father of two and had gone overseas to help support his family. He was last detained at the New Magazine Prison, and was ordered 1 year rehabilitation at the Poonthotam Rehabilitation Centre, Vavuniya, on the 22nd of June, 2016.
  2. Former LTTE commander Ithimalasangam Arichandran (alias Ram), was reported as abducted from his home in Thambuluvil, Ampara, on the 23rd of April, 2016. Two days later, on the 25th, the Police Spokesperson was quoted by media as having acknowledged[12] that Ram was in the custody of the TID, and was being detained at the TID office in Colombo for further questioning. Ram too had been rehabilitated after the war in 2009 and released in 2013, and has since then been reported as having been involved in agricultural activity.
  3. Another former LTTE colonel, Krishnapillai Kalainesan (alias Lt. Col. Prabha) was reported as arrested from his home in Batticaloa, on the 2nd of May, 2016, and taken to the TID office in Kalmunai for further questioning. A father of two, he was working with his wife at a canteen at the time of his arrest.[13][14] Initially registered to have been disappeared after the war, he was found to be in custody of the military and then underwent rehabilitation from 2009, till his release in 2013. He was being detained at the TID office in Colombo as at 23rd
  4. Kanapathipillai Sivamoorthy (alias Nakulan), a former LTTE commander, was abducted[15] in Jaffna on the 26th of April, and subsequently found to be in the custody of the TID in Colomb. Co-Cabinet Spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne was reported in the media as having acknowledged[16] that Sivamoorthy, was one of many rehabilitated former LTTE cadres who had been arrested in April, in relation to a cache of weapons found in the North. He was reported as being detained by the TID as at 28th
  5. Thamotharampillai Jeyakanth, was reported as arrested under the PTA on the 20th April, 2016, from Murukandi, Kilinochchi, and being detained at the TID HQ in Colombo, as at 23rd[17]
  6. Mahadevan Prasanna and Jesuratnam Jegasamson, were arrested under the PTA on the 06th of April, 2016, from Puvarasamkulam (Vavuniya district), and are being detained at the New Magazine Remand Prison in Colombo, as at 23rd[18] A Mr. Nagulan too has been arrested in connection with this same case, and a human rights lawyer told us that his last known place of detention was at the Narahenpita Police station. However, his current whereabouts are unknown. All 3 of these suspects have been arrested and detained in relation to allegedly being in the possession of a military hat belonging to former intelligence head of the LTTE, Pottu Amman.[19]
  7. Sathyaseelan Jeyanthan Fernando, was reported arrested under the PTA on the 1st of April, 2016, from Kilinochchi, and is being detained at Boossa, as at 23rd[20]
  8. Seethagopal Arumugam, was arrested on the 29th of April, from Nedunkerny (Vavuniya district). A tractor and motorbike belonging to him, and Rs. 100,000 in cash, was confiscated by the TID, without a receipt, upon his arrest, and none of it has been returned to the family. He is being detained at the TID office in Colombo, as at 23rd[21]
  9. Sankaralingam Sasikaran, a father of two and local NGO worker, was reported as arrested[22][23] on the 30th of May, 2016, from Bharathipuram, Kilinochchi district. His current whereabouts are not known.
  1. Magalingam Vasantharasa, was arrested on the 31st of May, 2016, at the Katunayaka International Airport, and is being detained at the TID office in Colombo, as at 23rd[24]
  2. Kanagalingam Kamalakannan, who runs a money exchange centre in Jaffna, was reported as arrested from Jaffna, between April-May, in connection to the weapons discovery in Chavakachcheri. He is being detained at Boossa as at 23rd[25] 
  1. Suppramaniam Janakaraj and Suppramaniam Chandrakumar were two brothers who were arrested from their home in Akkaraipattu, Ampara district on the 6th of April, 2016. They were both released on bail on the 8th, and released unconditionally on the 12th of April, 2016. Their lawyers believe that the two brothers were arrested in order to get to their eldest brother, Suppramaniam Devathas, who was arrested on the 7th of April, and being detained at Boossa as at 23rd[26]
  1. Subramaniyam Sivakaran, Secretary of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) Northern Province Youth Organisation, was arrested under the PTA, by the TID, in Mannar on the 27th of April, 2016. He was released,[27] on bail, with two personal sureties of Rs. 100,000, on the following day (28th). He was also barred from leaving the country for one year from the date of his release.[28]
  1. Pathmanathan Rameshkanthan and Subramaniam Kokilan, were arrested under the PTA, and having spent almost 2 months in detention without being charged, were released unconditionally on the 2nd of June.[29]
  1. Kireniyar Sebathasan, was returning to Sri Lanka from Qatar where he went on work, was given a chit at the Katunayaka International Airport summoning him to be present at the 2nd floor of the TID office in Colombo-01, on the 18th of April, 2016 at 10am. The chit was signed by the OIC of Unit III. He was questioned and released on the 18th[30]
  2. Gunasekaram Vijaykumar, was summoned for an inquiry by the TID, from Kilinochchi (where he resided,) on the 27th of April, to the TID HQ in Colombo. He was questioned and released later that day.[31]

Other arrests of dubious nature

Three men, Ramachandran Kanesh, Navarathnarajah Ranjith and Mutthulingam Yogarasa,have been brought back to Sri Lanka from the Maldives after having finished serving a jail sentence, and are currently in detention in Welikada prison. Neither them, nor the prison officials one of the authors spoke to, had any idea of the reason for their continued detention, and under what laws they were being detained.

In May 2007, they were found by Maldivian Authorities in the territorial seas of Maldives and were arrested for possessing firearms. The detainees stated that they were kept in custody and were interrogated by Maldivian Authorities, Sri Lankan Authorities and Indian Authorities. The trial and sentence had been concluded in one day. The detainees stated that they did not know their charge or their sentence until after the Court proceedings had concluded as they had been provided with only one interpreter who was fluent in Malayalam and did not speak Tamil, which was the only language the detainees understood. When they were taken away from Courts an Officer had told them, that they were charged and convicted for possessing firearms. The appeal process for their release was on-going when the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Maldives visited them in prison and asked them if they were willing to be transferred to Sri Lanka. He also promised them that once in Sri Lanka they would be released in April 2016 with the Sri Lankan New Year. As the appeal process would have dragged up to September 2016, the three prisoners decided to abide by the Ambassador’s advice.

The prisoners were brought to Sri Lanka in April in a Navy ship. They said they travelled for two days. Once they landed in the Colombo port, they were sent directly to Welikada prison. Few days later they were transferred to the Magazine prison where they are now. No one apart from a few lawyers and their family has met them.

All three admitted to being part of the LTTE. However only one admitted to have joined them voluntarily. One of the detainees were recruited by the LTTE when he was 16. According to them they were sent on a mission to transport weaponry from a ship to Sri Lanka in 2007.This is when they were caught by the Maldivian Authorities. According to them they did not possess any weapons when they were caught. However they also said that three of them together with another boatman were on the boat when the Maldivian Authorities open fired. The boatman had died at sea.[32]

Velauthapillai Renukaruban’s family claims that on the 2nd of June, 2 men had arrived on motorbikes, at their home in Jaffna, assaulted Renukaruban in the presence of his mother and older sister, and then forcibly taken him away in a van. The family claims that they had only discovered his whereabouts several days following his arrest[33], when they found out that he was being held at the Jaffna Remand Prison. Following a motion for bail being filed on the 15thof June, he was produced at the Chavakachcheri Magistrates Court on the 16th of June, and released on surety bail. The courts issued a travel ban on him till the conclusion of his case, and he also had to surrender his passport to the Courts.

According to his lawyer, on the 22nd of June, Renukaruban was charged with trespassing and assault, he pleaded not guilty, and the Trial date was set for the 1st of July. In a previous trip to Sri Lanka in January 2016, Renukaruban, his uncle and 3 others had allegedly trespassed the premises of, and assaulted the complainant. Renukaruban had apparently not known of the case filed against him, and so had left the country. However, as there was a warrant out for his arrest, the Police had arrested him as soon as he returned to Jaffna. He is a British national.

Whilst being held at the Jaffna Remand Prison, there had been a clash between some of the prisoners, and Renukaruban had run outside his cell wearing only his sarong. Having seen the tiger tattooed on his chest, he claims that the Sinhala prison officials had then assaulted him, explained Mr. Punethanayagam. As there are CCTV cameras fixed inside the prison now, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out what took place, the lawyer added. As Renukaruban had been injured due to the assault, he had been hospitalized for a few days.

His lawyer had lodged a complaint with the Jaffna Police regarding Renukaruban’s alleged assault by prison officials.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations (ER)

The PTA and ER gives wide authority to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), the Police and the Minister of Defense on arrest, detention, interrogation and extraction of confessions. A mere suspicion on the part of the Minister can warrant an arrest. Anything from taking a person from place to place for interrogation, seizing property can be done without the judicial oversight. The Minister can extend a detention order up to eighteen months. In practice, persons detained under the PTA have been kept in detention almost indefinitely till the case is concluded. Last year, two Tamil women were acquitted as not guilty, after being detained for more than 15 and 7 years respectively. Torture in custody is common practice and it’s rarely questioned in Courts. Even if it’s is brought to the notice of the Magistrate, the Magistrates have rarely taken proactive steps to safeguard the rights and welfare of the detainee. Under the PTA the Magistrate has no powers to intervene and hence. The PTA makes the judiciary is subordinate to the Minister of Defense under the Act. [34]

In May this year the Human Rights Commission has issued directives[35] to be followed by authorities when making arrests under the PTA. These include issuing the detention order in the language of the detainee upon arrest, identifying the person making the arrest to the arrestee and providing receipts for property seized. However it is yet to be seen whether these recommendations will be implemented. The President too has issued Directions to the Police and security forces, reiterating many of the directives issued by the HRCSL.

On the 13th of June, 2016, media reported that the government will introduce a new Act – the National Security Act – that will soon replace the PTA.[36] In addition, the government also hopes to enact two other counter-terror Acts – namely – the Prevention of Organized Crimes Act and the Intelligence Act.

On the other hand, there has been no mention of the review of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) which the government committed to as part of the UN resolution it co-sponsored on 1st October 2015. It’s under the PSO that Emergency Regulations with provisions equally draconian as the PTA was in force for around 30 years.

It is the authors’ position that all crimes must be dealt with under ordinary law, with due checks and balances and judicial discretion and appeals. We strongly feel that the PTA should be repealed and fresh anti-terror laws should not be brought in, given that they tend to take away checks and balances, undermines judicial discretion and protection, severely undermines rights and liberties of persons and can be used to suppress peaceful and legitimate dissent. We also feel that the PSO should be reviewed and amended, to ensure that deceleration of emergency regulations are only in exceptional situations, are for specified short terms, subjected to strict parliamentary and judicial supervision with due checks and balances including eight of appeal, to ensure rights of persons are not infringed on.

Prospects for reconciliation and development in Sri Lanka

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/prospects-for-reconciliation-and-development-in-sri-lanka/76069 on 18th May 2016

How far has the island nation come since the civil war ended seven years ago?

The seventh anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war falls on May 18, a date that is likely to once again polarize the island’s society along ethnic lines.

Most Sinhalese are expected to see May 18 as a day for celebration. Many Tamils, especially in the North and East, are instead likely to see it as a day of mourning for their loved ones killed or disappeared and to recall the suffering they underwent during the decades-long war. Tamil politicians and Catholic priests in the North and East are planning commemorations despite the likelihood of government crackdowns, as we saw last year and before.

Last week, I visited a cemetery for former Tamil militants that was bulldozed by the government after the end of the war. An army camp has now been built over it. The loved ones of those whose remains were there have no place to grieve, lay flowers, light a candle or say a prayer.

The Tamil majority north is now dotted with monuments to the Sinhalese dominated military. The ability to remember loved ones without intimidation and reprisals, and remembering without glorifying abuses of human rights violations, is a major challenge, especially for Christians, who are both Sinhalese and Tamils.

Even after the President Maithripala Sirisena government came to power in early 2015, there have been restrictions, attacks and intimidation of activists and journalists. However, there has been more space for free expression and assembly now than under the previous government led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Divisions in society and civil society are also prevalent in the Catholic Church, along ethnic and ideological lines. A few church leaders, both Tamil and Sinhalese, have given leadership, support and protective presence to survivors, victim’s families and activists. Their leadership and presence has been visible most recently in protests against the Port City project (a planned city located offshore in Colombo) and initiatives by families of disappeared persons and against militarization.

They have also been involved in remembrance services for those killed and engaging with the government, foreign governments and the UN on human rights issues. These efforts must continue, especially struggles that bring together Sinhalese and Tamil Christians.

But even the most activist clergy and lay Christians must be careful about compartmentalizing struggles for truth and justice.

Land and housing

After years of campaigning and legal action, some of the land illegally occupied by the military has been released. But the military continues to occupy many villages and large swathes of land in the North and East.

The government has made a commendable commitment to build 65,000 houses for the war affected. But it’s planning to pay an unprecedented 2.1 million rupees ($US 14,500) per house to a foreign steel manufacturer with no housing experience. Most post war houses in the North and East of Sri Lanka have been built for less than one third of that price.

Housing experts, engineers, architects and activists have pointed out that steel houses will not last as long as traditional brick ones. Such structures are not well ventilated, nor are they easy to repair or to expand. They likewise lack facilities to engage in traditional cooking which uses low cost and easily available firewood. Steel housing will not help stimulate the local economy because there is no use of local resources or labor.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

The discovery of explosives and suicide jackets near Jaffna in March has led to intensified surveillance and questioning of Tamils in that region.

At least 30 people have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some have been detained without being told why they are being held.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act is a draconian law that enables the minister of defense or the police to detain people without checks and balances. It has allowed widespread torture and disappearances to occur. Persons detained under this law are languishing in prisons without being judged either guilty or innocent.

An investigation against myself under this law by the Terrorism Investigation Division has continued for more than two years despite appeals by my lawyers. Others, who were detained under the law and subsequently released, are still being subjected to investigation and harassment such as being re-arrested, forced to regularly report to police stations and not being allowed to travel overseas.

A dreaded “white van” — a symbol of abductions of the previous regime — was used to abduct a Tamil man from Jaffna last month, and he was later found in police custody.

Several other disappearances were reported from the North and East last month, while the government was going about creating an Office of Missing Persons. Despite promises of consultations before it is set up, how this office will operate had been shrouded in secrecy for eight months. Its first outline was presented last week and it has been found lacking in many ways, especially in regards to provision of information to families of victims, reparations and issuance of certificates of absence. The right of families to pursue criminal accountability has been compromised because the office’s tracing investigations have been isolated from prosecutorial investigations.

The government has also not shared it’s ideas in relation to three other transitional justice mechanisms that it committed itself to establishing as a part of a UN Human Rights Council resolution that it co-sponsored last October.

Unfortunately President Maithripala Sirisena has publicly backtracked from a commitment to have foreign judges, prosecutors and lawyers in a special judicial mechanism for wartime abuses. Meanwhile some survivors, victims’ families and human rights activists including Catholic clergy insist in foreign participation, citing a lack of confidence in the Sri Lankan justice system.

Although several military personnel have been convicted and some others arrested for human rights abuses, the lack of progress in thousands of other cases only reinforces calls for international involvement for justice.

Which way for Sri Lankan society?

A consultation process towards a new constitution drew a large number of public representations, but the next steps are not clear, particularly in finding political solutions to the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The new government’s economic and development policies are focusing on trade, investment and mega development projects, which privilege the rich and marginalize the poor. A high profile example is the controversial Port City project, which targets the super-rich.

Despite a public pre-election commitment to scrap the project by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe the project is ongoing, as are protests and pending court cases that highlight disastrous consequences for the livelihood of fisherfolk and for the environment.

Serious concerns have likewise been expressed about the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement with India and the Megapolis development plan for the capital and surrounding areas.

Activists have also pointed out that very little attention is being given to economic justice during discourse about transitional justice. Attempts by the military and corporates to dominate the economy in the war-ravaged North have led to traditional livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing being sidelined and the non-stimulation of the local economy. There has been an increase in widespread debt, unemployment and poor working conditions, especially in the informal sectors.

The new government’s more open approach to civil society has led to many international transitional justice experts coming to Sri Lanka and local activists becoming part of government initiatives. These have led to many workshops in expensive hotels during a time of serious economic crisis.

Some activists and intellectuals appear to be disconnected to ground realities and oblivious to, or seek to override people’s voices. Some ignore day-to-day problems of the people; such as dealing with loved ones who disappeared, are detained, sexual abuse, military occupied land and economic hardships. They instead prioritize prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which doesn’t seem to be a priority for most survivors and families of victims.

Other activists seem to focus almost exclusively on economic and social issues and appear reluctant to recognize and even undermine the courageous and determined struggles of survivors and victim’s families for truth and justice.

Pre-war rights issues such as landlessness, sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, caste, rights of workers, including those working on tea estates, still need to be addressed.

Overall, the key challenges for the country’s reconciliation and sustainable development are how we address civil and political rights and economic, social cultural rights in a holistic manner. And do so in a way that does not ignore war survivors, victims’ families and the poor, who yearn for truth, reparations, criminal accountability and economic justice.

There should be no sweeping under the carpet the violence and abuses committed by state and non-state armed groups and within society.

PTA detainees in Sri Lanka: Prospects for justice

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/11/06/pta-detainees-in-sri-lanka-prospects-for-justice/ on 6th November 2015

The fast by prisoners last month has given rise to fresh debate about justice for them. It is a sad reflection on Sri Lankan people and the new Government that the prisoners had to resort to such drastic action in order to even gain momentum for justice; for what is a categorical breach of these individuals’ fair trial rights and a failure of the criminal justice system. It has been reported that the fast was called off based on assurances by the President to offer a solution by 7 November 2015. However, what the President will offer as a solution is not clear.

Having been detained under the PTA[1] last year and still remaining under investigation and facing restrictions on freedom of expression after 10 months of “good governance”, justice for PTA detainees is something very personal for me. I consider myself to be the luckiest of those who have come into contact with the PTA; my detention was relatively short, I was not harmed physically, and today I am relatively free physically. Ironically, despite being a “terrorist suspect”, this year I have been invited to meetings on various human rights issues, including reconciliation, accountability, and transitional justice, with the Prime Minister, other Government Ministers, and the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva. I attended a few of those meetings in good faith, but I still ask myself whether I should participate in such discussions when I am, by their own designation, still a terrorist suspect.

In my view, there are six distinct categories of PTA detainees, and a key issue is how these six different categories will be addressed. The six categories are:(1) those who have been arrested but are detained without charge, (2) those who have been charged but their cases have not been concluded, (3) those who have been convicted, (4) those whose convictions are being challenged in courts, (5) those who are in “rehabilitation”, and (6) those who are still under investigation without being in detention.

How long will it take to implement the President’s November 7th solution?  Weeks, months, years? Which cases will be prioritised?Those awaiting justice have been waiting from a few months to upto two decades.

The lack of official information has also led to speculation about the actual numbers in each category, as well as preventing proper checks and balances about each category. In January 2015, a list of 182 persons in 11[2] remand prisons under the PTA was released (“the January List”). The January List excluded those who have been convicted under the PTA. The January List also excluded those detained in places such as the headquarters of the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Colombo and Boossa. Further, during this year, I am aware of two persons in the January List who were acquitted, at least one person who was released on bail, and two persons that have been convicted. Between January and August 2015, there have also been at least 21 reported arrests under the PTA. Thus, the actual numbers of PTA detainees/suspects/those under investigation is likely to be higher than 182.

This article below is largely based on information contained in the January List of 182 names, complimented by personal interviews with detainees, those released, their families, lawyers, and activists assisting them.

Categories

Convicted

According to the Minister of Justice, 99 persons have been convicted under the PTA and out of this, 45 have been sent for rehabilitation and 54 were serving their sentences[3]. The Minister’s statement raises more questions than provides answers. Is this figure the total number persons convictedsince the inception of the PTA? How many of the 54 serving their sentences are under appeal? To the best of my knowledge, convicted persons are not sent for rehabilitation, rather it relates to suspects (whether they are charged on not) who have agreed to subject themselves to rehabilitation and thus, who the 45 persons are not clear. Basically, to date, there is no official information relating to the numbers of convictions since the inception of the PTA, the nature of the convictions, the duration of sentences handed down, and how many are still serving sentences. Another key piece of information lacking is how many convictions are based solely (or primarily) on confessions.

Convicted, but on appeal

The number of those who have been convicted under the PTA but whose convictions (or sentences) are being challenged on appeal has also not been revealed. Some of the 54 quoted by the Minister could be on appeal, with their convictions or sentences or both being challenged.

Charged, but cases not concluded

This is a critical category. According to theMinister’s statement above, 134 have been charged and their cases are ongoing. We do not know how long these 134 individuals have been in detention for, awaiting trial.The January List indicated that there are people who are detained upto 18-19 years whose cases have still not been concluded.

Arrested, but not charged 

This is also a critical category. The Ministers statement referred to above indicates 85 persons had not been charged. We do not know how long these 85 individuals have been in detention for, awaiting charges.

Suspects, but not in detention

Out of the six categories, this is the least urgent category, as these persons’ liberty has not been deprived or is no longer deprived. Nevertheless, it is still a category on which no information is available and should be dealt with within a specific time frame. This category includes Ms Balendran Jeyakumary, Father Praveen, me and several others. The number of persons in this category is unknown. It has been nearly 20 months since Father Praveen and I were arrested and released, and despite two written submissions by my lawyers to the Attorney-General in 2014 and 2015, there is still a refusal to close the case. I have also been subjected to restrictions on my freedom of expression and my confiscated equipment has not been returned. The overseas travel restrictions on me was removed only after 15 months.Others are still subjected to overseas travel restrictions. Ms Jeyakumary has to present herself to a Police station every month after being released on bail. In September 2015, she was re-arrested and detained for six days, even though she was only released on bail after 362 days in detention (without charge). She is assumed to be amongst the eight persons the Justice Minister has said is on bail.

Detained in “rehabilitation centres”

Some of those who are detained had “bargained” with authorities to “accept guilt” and serve time in a “rehabilitation centre”, instead of waiting unknown periods of time for a trial and risking long sentences if they were convicted. These can hardly be called “voluntarily” requesting for rehabilitation.

Double standards

Most of the top leaders of the LTTE were killed or have disappeared after surrendering to the Army. Other top leaders are within the Government, including Karuna and KP, which is a blatant double standard. In particular, as Karuna and KP are accused of complicity in very serious crimes. KP has publicly admitted to being the leader of the LTTE. But the reasons for detention of some presently detained under the PTA have been given as “encouraging LTTE” or “supporting LTTE”. Some of those kept in detention have been declared not guilty by Courts and released after long years in detention – few months ago, a Tamil mother was acquitted as not guilty after 15 years in detention. How fair is it to refuse to detain and prosecute top leaders of the LTTE like Karuna and KP, who are “most responsible” and yet detain, prosecute, convict for decades those “less responsible”?

Use of confessions 

Another key issue, which has not come to the limelight, is the use of confessions under the PTA. There is no official information relating to those who have been charged or convicted based on confessions. This is critical information in a context where confessions made to police or other public officers, which ordinarily are not admissible unless made in the presence of a Magistrate,[4] are considered admissible evidence under the PTA.[5]Confessions, in the PTA context, are routinely obtained under duress, including torture, in circumstances where individuals have very little or limited access to lawyers, families, and medical assistance.

Justice for those acquitted after numerous years in detention

In the last few months, two Tamil mothers were acquitted by Courts after more than 15 years and 6 years of detention. There maybe other such individuals who have been acquitted or released after numerous years in detention. As the Government attempts to conclude other PTA cases, more of those who have been detained, anywhere upto two decades, could be acquitted or released. The Government will have to think of ways of providing justice for such persons.At the very minimum, a public apology at a personal meeting with the President/Prime Minister, reimbursement of all costs in relation to the detention for the detainee and family, loss of income, compensation and other facilities and opportunities to recover from the mental and physical harm suffered could be considered. The Government ought to also launch investigations to determine why PTA cases have been so long and drawn out, including disciplinary action and criminal prosecutionsagainst those responsible.

Concluding reflections

For 10 months, why has the “good governance” Government failed to address the issue of PTA detainees?

Why has the Government failed to provide the country with comprehensive, clear, specific and official statistics relating to the PTA detainees?  Will this information ever be provided and, if so, when?

Promptly dealing with PTA detainees who are in detention in limbo without charge, or are charged but are awaiting a trial, is a minimum first step to giving effect to fair trial rights and providing justice to these prisoners. Further, there must be the provision of comprehensive and clear information about numbers and timelines for dealing with such persons Without immediate and significant movement in ensuring justice for these prisoners, reconciliation and transitional justice will ring hollow.

###

[1]Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979 (“PTA”).

[2]Anuradhapura, Kandy, Badulla, Moneragela, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Negombo and three in Colombo, namely the New Magazine Prison, Colombo Remand Prison, and Welikada.

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

[4]Evidence Ordinance 1896, ss 25-26.

[5]PTA, ss 16-17.

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)

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

Human Rights and 50 days of Sri Lanka’s new Presidency

Article first published at http://groundviews.org/2015/03/02/human-rights-and-50-days-of-sri-lankas-new-presidency/ on 2nd March 2015

It’s now 50 days since Sri Lanka’s new President took oaths on 9th January 2015. This is an attempt to reflect on the first 50 days of the new Presidency. It’s not meant to be comprehensive assessment of the 50 days, but a reflection based on my personal experiences, what I’ve seen and heard in my travels around the country interacting with various people and also what I’ve read.

There were three striking things for me in terms of the oath taking ceremony itself. First, unlike previous regime’s ceremonies, it was a simple ceremony. Second, the new President had opted to be sworn in by the senior most serving Supreme Court Judge, and ignored the unconstitutionally appointed de-facto Chief Justice of the time. Third, it was a Sinhalese ceremony, with the President’s speech and the National Anthem also being Sinhalese – despite the overwhelming Tamil votes that President had received to ensure his victory.

A few weeks after the elections, the de-facto Chief Justice was removed from office, on a day there was massive protests by civil groups, led by lawyers. Civilian Governors were quickly appointed to the North and East, replacing those who were former senior military officers. A new law on Protection and Assistance to Victims and Witness was passed. Drafts of the proposed Right to Information (RTI) Act were circulated in English, Sinhalese and Tamil and series of consultations were held with several groups. In the one I attended, led by Minister Karu Jayasooriya, the Minister stayed from beginning to end, spoke very little and mostly listened. He emphasized that the government’s priority was not to have the best RTI in the world, but to pass it within 100 days. A few days later, a citizens group known as Friday Forum, called for more time for consultation on other impending bills, even if it means to go beyond 100 days.

While it’s understandable that not too much can be achieved in 50 days, there were also some alarming and negative developments in the 50 days, many of which appeared to be uncalled. Instead of moving to remove the death penalty from our books as part of “Maithree (compassionate) rule”, the Minister of Justice threatened to break the moratorium on the death penalty and execute those given the death penalty. He also signed a gazette notification to continue the extension of detention without warrants to 48 hours, instead of the long held time of 24 hours. The new President signed a gazette notification calling out the military to maintain public order all over the country. Given the proliferation of Rajapakse family members to important positions in the past, eyebrows were raised when a brother of the new President was reported to have been appointed as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, despite not showing any strong experience or academic qualifications related to telecommunication sector.

There was a marked difference in the media sphere. Websites that had been blocked were unblocked. A film that had been banned was released. State TV stations have started to invite those who they branded as “traitors” to talk shows. State newspapers even asked some of us who have been named as traitors for comments. Public announcements were made by Ministers for exiled journalists to come back. But several in exile have expressed concern than mere calls for return are not enough, and that conditions favorable for return have to be created, including assurances of safety from political persecution. Some have cited potential arrests warrants and court cases against them that may still be pending. Couple of journalists who have to pay “overstay fines” to the country they are presently in, before they are allowed to return back to Sri Lanka (despite them being recognized as refugees by UNHCR), have made appeals to the Sri Lankan government to intervene diplomatically to waive these off. But there has been no clear response. The government has announced that investigations will commence into killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and other journalists, media personnel and media institutions who have been killed, disappeared, assaulted and subjected to arson attacks. Several foreign journalists who I met during these 50 days have told me it was easier to get visa and they felt freer to come, visit and report independently. Restrictions on travel of foreign nationals to the North were lifted.

Unlike before, I didn’t hear many stories of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, priests, student activists being attacked, threatened, and intimidated, particularly from Sinhalese areas. However, there have been some incidents. The Frontline Socialist Party complained that it’s leader who was an Australian national, was being harassed and intimidated to stop his political involvement. There were several reports by election monitoring bodies and media, on attacks on supporters of the losing President, in the days after the elections. A UNP MP was accused of attacking opposition activists, and Police didn’t arrest the offender immediately, despite availability of audio-visual evidence. He was later remanded, after lot of pressure. Those trying to distribute leaflets on the morning of 18th February in Nugegoda, before a massive rally in favor of previous President, were reported to have been attacked by supporters of the organizers.

However, intimidation and surveillance of Tamil human rights defenders in the North and East appear to be much more intense, though again, less intense than during the Rajapakse’s. In February, when I was in Batticaloa with a group of religious clergy, the local person who organized a visit to an interior village to meet a community there was questioned by intelligence officials. Another activist in Batticaloa was questioned about a visit he made to check into the wellbeing of ex-detainees. Families and friends of two Tamil activists who are now hiding due to death threats last year were questioned and intimidated. A Tamil youth who had been detained and released as innocent after years and months of detention and torture, continued to be harassed by the Police.

Torture and deaths in suspicious circumstances when in Police custody continued to be reported in these 50 days. At least two persons were reported to have died in Police custody, in Suriyawewa in the South and Thalawakele in the Central Province.

Most of the land occupied in Eastern village of Panama was returned to the villages. Announcements were made about returning 1000 acres of land held by the military in Jaffna to Tamils. But the announcement of “model village”, has created tensions and doubts, whether communities will be able to go back to their original lands or whether they will be compelled to live in other areas which may not be suitable for their historic way of life, in terms of culture, livelihood etc. “Model village” has been a term used in the past for cleared jungle areas where persons whose villages are occupied by the military and have been compelled to live, such as in Kepapulau in Mullaitivu district. Broad pronouncements have been made, but there are very little concrete commitments with time lines about retuning Tamil lands with whole villages now occupied by the military in rest of the Jaffna peninsula, and also outside Jaffna such as in Mullikulam in the Mannar district, Kepapulau in the Mullaitivu district and Sampoor in the Trincomalee district. There are also no clear commitments in returning lands of Muslims held by the military, such as in Ashraf Nagar in the Ampara district, Karumalaiootru in the Trincomalee district, Silavathurai and Marichikattu in the Mannar district

Pilgrims who received permission to enter the High Security Zone at Myliddy in Jaffna district to perform pooja at a temple were reported to have been shocked to find the Kovil gone and a hotel coming up in its place. Two weeks ago, when I tried to visit the historical Catholic Church in Mullikulam with some Catholic Priests and Sisters, we were not allowed entry. Another Catholic priest had been prevented from entering in January too. The church and the village had been occupied by the Navy, but previously, access had been given to the Church.

We have not seen widespread attacks on places of worship, homes and businesses of Muslims and Christians, on an intensity and regularity we had seen under the Rajapakse’s. But according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, even after elections, Christian pastors received death threats, houses were stoned, a fence burnt. In another incident after the elections, a group of Christian pastors were summoned for an inquiry about unauthorized constructions, even when there is no legal prohibition on constructing places of worship. A Buddhist Monk had threatened and assaulted a lawyer representing the Pastors, in front of Police Officers and the Divisional Secretary, who had summoned the meeting and had also falsely accused the Pastors of unethical conversions.

One of the Buddhist groups that had been primarily responsible for such attacks and threats under Rajapakse’s, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) also seemed very much alive and kicking. According to a Muslim activist, they had been threatening the Muslim community almost on a daily basis through their press conferences and other media tamasha’s. In particular, Muslims have been alarmed at the BBS threat to march and destroy Dafar Jailani, a place of religious significance sacred to Muslims, a location where a greatly revered Islamic saint, Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir had meditated and lived in the rock caves, over a thousand years ago, in Kuragala in the Rathnapura district. The BBS is reported to have threatened to destroy its artifacts, monuments and wipe out all historical evidence, claiming that the site has archeological value to them and the rock cave is an ancient Buddhist monastic site, and thus, demanding the removal of all Islamic inscriptions that dates back to over a thousand years. This has led to the escalation of tensions between the Muslims and Buddhists in the region.

There have been mixed messages on reducing the extent of militarization in the country, especially in the North. The State Minister for Defense went to the Jaffna and insisted that there would be no removal of any Army formations there and that there would be no scaling down of security arrangements. After the elections, the Army Commander went to Jaffna and opened a swimming pool in a resort run by the Army. Shops, restaurants, resorts and hotels, boat and airline services and farms that were run by the military continue to operate and there have been no specific commitments with timelines to shut them down.

The Northern Provincial Council passed a “genocide resolution” and government criticized this without addressing the core contents and trying to engage with the Council or the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights asked the investigative report on Sri Lanka to be deferred to September, from the scheduled March. This was agreed to by the UN Human Rights Council member states. The original request came from the Sri Lankan government and this has been widely criticized by the Tamil community, ranging from the TNA, Tamil Civil Society Forum, Tamil families of disappeared persons and Diaspora. There was a massive protest in Jaffna. Announcements by the government to initiate new domestic processes for prosecutions for allegations of war crimes and a truth and reconciliation commission has also led to condemnation from some Tamil groups, who claim to have no confidence in domestic processes. The government had pledged to cooperate with the UN, but had not indicated that it will cooperate with the ongoing investigation, had not extended an invitation to the investigation team to visit Sri Lanka and neither had it assured that any Sri Lankan is free to cooperate with the investigation body without facing the type of reprisals there were before.

There is a mass protest planned by environmentalists, fisherfolk and civil society groups against the Port City project, which is expected to cause widespread environmental damage and harm to the fishing industry, not just in Colombo where it’s located, but all over the country. Protesters have cited promises made by the new Prime Minister to scrap the project during the election campaign and that no proper Environment Impact Assessment has been done. In the hill country, there have been mass public protests against the Uma Oya project, again citing environmental destruction and negative impact on communities living near and afar. Water pollution in Chunnakam in Jaffna also lead to widespread protests.

Families of disappeared persons staged a series of protests in North and East, including Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Ampara, and Colombo, calling for truth and justice for their loved ones. Frustrated over the number of Commissions of Inquiry without any results, there was a call to boycott the latest hearings of the Commission looking into missing persons in Trincomalee this weekend. There have been no concrete commitments made in relation to truth, justice and reparation for those disappeared. There was also a protest calling for investigations and justice on the killing of prisoners inside prisons.

An issue that is very urgent in my view is the issue of large numbers of political prisoners, languishing in detention for long years, some as long as 19 years. To my knowledge, not even one political prisoner has been released in these 50 days. Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who is also the Cabinet Spokesperson, had said that “There are 275 names of political prisoners, all are [ethnic minority] Tamils and have been detained since the war,” The Prime Minister has said he doesn’t know the number of political prisoners and that a list has been compiled, which he still needs to check. But a list of 182 persons detained in remand custody has been compiled, which does not include those in Boosa, TID headquarters in Colombo and other Police stations. This list does not include anyone convicted for terrorism related charges. It’s a list those held without charges since at least 2006 and those who are detained since at least 1996 while cases against them still go on. The dates of detention indicated is not the date of arrest, just the date they were handed over to remand custody. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs told all political prisoners without charges will be released in March. Earlier, the President was reported to have told the Catholic Bishop of Mannar that the question of political prisoners will be addressed within a year. At the Colombo Magistrate courts, I saw many cases related to terrorism charges being called up, and postponed. It may be worthwhile also to mention that a Policeman told me to stop taking notes inside the court room, saying “sensitive TID cases are being heard and no one is allowed to write” – this despite hearings being in open courts.

Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari, who is probably the best known political prisoner now, has now been in detention for more than 11 months without any charges. Jeyakumari’s teenage daughter had written a passionate appeal to the President, asking the President to consider her as his own daughter and release her mother soon or that she will commit suicide. Her father is not alive, two of her brothers have been killed during the war and the other brother had disappeared after surrendering to the Army. It is widely believed that her mother’s arrest is due to her aggressive campaigning to find this boy and other disappeared persons. To my knowledge, there has not been a response to her from the President, although colleagues have been assured by a Minister that he himself, as well as the President and Prime Minister had both read the letter.

Finally, on a personal note, I have felt less fear, some hope, which has been tempered, when I realize that there maybe much more of what I’ve said above. At the sametime, the investigation against me by the TID on allegations of supporting terrorism continues and the Attorney General’s department appears unwilling to close the case, despite appeals made by my lawyer months ago. Restrictions on my freedom of expression and overseas travel remain, electronic equipment confiscated more than 11 months ago still has not been returned. While this can be called a relatively minor irritant in view of those in detention for long, families of disappeared and many other things I have mentioned above, in an era of “Maithree (compassion)” and Rule of Law, I also look forward to the day I can be freed from accusations of supporting terrorism, to get back my confiscated equipment and to enjoy my rights to travel and speak freely. Hopefully within 100 days or not too long afterwards.

Pope Francis and struggle for human rights in Sri Lanka

Article first published at http://groundviews.org/2015/01/13/pope-francis-and-struggle-for-human-rights-in-sri-lanka/ on 13th January 2015

Pope Francis is set to arrive in Sri Lanka, on 13th January, despite several appeals by Catholics including me, to postpone the visit. He will arrive few days days after we Sri Lankans used our ballot to put a stop to growing dictatorship, despite a dirty election campaign that saw deliberate attacks on opposition, massive abuse of state media and other state resources and variety of harassment sand threats. Top aides of the new President has claimed that former President Rajapakse had even attempted to hold on to power through a military coup when he had seen that he was losing.

It would be important for the Pope not to be carried away too much with election celebrations, which is predominantly Sinhalese feeling. I hope the Pope will be able to address key issues related Tamils and Muslims, which have not been addressed by the President Sirisena’s manifesto. This will include processes towards power sharing and addressing serious violations of human rights and humanitarian laws. President Sirisena’s past conduct and that of some of his allies, which have been very nationalist and pro-war, anti-minority, doesn’t give Tamils and Muslims much confidence and hope even in the new government. Clearly, it was their desperate need to get rid of Rajapakse family rule that led them to vote for Sirisena.

But despite these, it is a moment of Hope in Sri Lanka. It is to this moment of Hope that Pope Francis will come in. All these dark years, it was difficult to find hope in Sri Lanka, but it’s also one thing many of us didn’t let go of.

Hopes of mothers and families of disappeared persons that their loved ones will return home. Hopes of political prisoners and their families, that they will be freed soon. Hopes of communities whose lands have been taken away, that they would be restored. Hopes of independent minded human rights activists, journalists, artists, lawyers, students, academics, that they can express themselves freely without reprisals. Hopes of those who had fled into exile, that they could come back and live and work in safety and reunite with children, wives and parents. Hopes of those tortured, sexually abused for healing and justice. Hopes of asylum seekers who have sort temporary refuge in Sri Lanka, that they will not be deported and arrested and that they will find love and support. Hopes that truth will be acknowledged for the massive human rights violations and that justice and reparation will be ensured.

Hopes for end of family rule, and instead, democratic and participatory governance with independent institutions, rule of law, independence of judiciary, media freedom, academic freedom, artistic freedom. Hopes for Right to Information and end to an abusive laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Hope of ending impunity, corruption. Hopes for an end to militarization. Hopes for more just and non exploitative economic policies. Hopes for more equitable, just, compassionate (maithree) future.

The Pope could renew and strengthen these hopes by his deeds and his words. In Christian terms, he could bring good news to the poor and renew hopes that all could have life in all it’s fullness. He could be a strength and source of inspiration for those struggling for human rights and keeping alive flames of hope against heavy odds.

The Pope is also an international figure with high moral and political influence. He will come on the heels of the new President promising more cordial relationships with international community. It would be an golden opportunity for the Pope to encourage the Sri Lankan government and the Colombo Church leaders to welcome and cooperate with the UN’s ongoing inquiry towards accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Tamil clergy in North and East of Sri Lanka have actively supported this process, despite threats and intimidations. The government’s lack of cooperation and hostile attitude has had hindered the effectiveness of the inquiry. The Pope could encourage the Sri Lankan government to work with the UN Human Rights Council members to extend the mandate of the inquiry, invite the team to come to Sri Lanka and ensure a conducive atmosphere for all Sri Lankans who wish to cooperate with it, to do so without fear of reprisals.

For the Colombo Catholics, the highlight of the visit appears to be the Holy Mass at Galle Face Green, where the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz is to take place. It is my hope that this will not be reduced to a ritual and historic event for Catholics, but an occasion to reflect on social-political-economic realities all Sri Lankans are confronted with and related struggles. Reports that Pope Francis has “unblocked” the process towards canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for his outspoken criticism of human rights violations by the then dictatorship in El Salvadore, sends us a positive signal and hope that canonization could be linked to struggles for human rights. This is particularly relevant, given the number of Sri Lankan Catholic Priests and lay Catholics who had been killed or disappeared, detained, threatened, harassed, discredited, as they struggled for human rights and social justice in Sri Lanka in recent years. Canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz will be a good occasion for Sri Lankan Catholics to reflect on their efforts and it would be important for the Pope to pay attention to this prophetic dimension of Catholic faith in Sri Lanka.

For Tamils in the North and East, the highlight is likely to be the Pope’s one hour visit to Madhu. A shrine that has for decades given Tamils shelter and refuge from shelling and bombing, from recruitment of children and as a base to receive humanitarian assistance. The shrine itself was shelled and bombed several times and in the final military offensive of the Army, the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Madhu herself was displaced, joining those displaced she had sheltered. Thousands of people affected by war are expected to join the service in Madhu and I was happy to hear that time has been allocated for the Pope to mingle with these people. There is also possibilities for extension of his stay in Madhu, as his program there is scheduled to finish at 4.30pm and there are no other appointments for the day as per the official schedule.

Except for this one hour stop in Madhu, the Pope is scheduled to spend all of his 48 hour trip in the Archdiocese of Colombo. Other events as per official schedule are welcoming ceremony at the airport, meeting with Catholic Bishops, meeting with the President, an inter-religious meeting and a visit to a new a theological college. There appears to be time in between for few other things.

Pope Francis has been a Pope of positive surprises for the poor and oppressed, whom he had spoken to, embraced, and invited to be with him. He undoubtedly has a heavy pre-arranged schedule in Sri Lanka. But if he will be able to free himself for some time from the ceremonial, diplomatic and ritualistic niceties, below are some possible places he could consider visiting, and people he can consider meeting, calling, remembering and asking about. And offering special Papal prayers and blessings. The list is non exhaustive, and randomly chosen, to give an indicator of people who are looking for hope and some of them have been signs of hope themselves.

Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari – a Tamil woman who has been detained without charges for 10 months, separated from her teenaged daughter. Her son had also disappeared after surrendering to the Army and she had been a prominent campaigner amongst families of disappeared for truth and justice.

Ms. Sandya Ekneligoda – Sinhalese wife of a disappeared cartoonist and journalist from Colombo. She had been campaigning for nearly 5 years with her two teenaged sons, seeking truth and justice. She has also been discredited and intimidated.

Ms. Mauri Inoka – Sinhalese wife of a disappeared person from Anuradhapura, who has been campaigning for truth and justice. Her 14 month old twin children were born after the abduction of their father. She herself has been facing number of threats and has been compelled to be in hiding.

Ms. Rajeswari – Tamil mother of Ganesan Nimalaruban, who was tortured and murdered in custody. She waged a brave legal battle to bring home the body of her son to her simple cadjan and tin sheet house, and also campaigned in courts for truth and justice for her son’s murder.

Dr. Manoharan – a Tamil doctor from Eastern Sri Lanka, who despite threats and financial and material benefits offered, has not given up the quest for truth and justice for his son, who was one of the 5 young students killed on the beach in January 2006.

Ven. Watarekke Vijitha Thero – a Buddhist Monk who has been detained, physically attacked, threatened and discredited and forced into hiding, for defending rights of religious minorities and promoting inter-religious harmony.

Mr. Sunil Jayasekera – Convener of the Free Media Movement, who has been campaigning for media freedoms for decades, and has been threatened number of times. Last year, he took lead role in organizing a press conference to condemn obstruction of a journalists training, braving death threats that he received.

Mr. Rizkan Mohamed – son of Mr. Pattani Razeek, a leader of a NGO based in Puttalam, who was abducted 5 years ago, and body found subsequently. Together with the local Mosque Committee, he had been campaigning for justice for the killing of his father.

Mr. Jayathilaka Bandara – a Sinhalese anti-war singer for several decades, who was beaten up twice as he was engaged in a pro-democracy street campaigns in the lead up to the elections in January 2015.

The “Uthayan” – a Tamil newspaper based on Jaffna, which has been attacked number of times, had employees killed and injured, but which has consistently dared to publish news and opinions critical of the military and the government.

The traditional and resource rich village of Mullikulam, in the diocese of Mannar, which has been occupied by the Navy.

Evangelical Christian churches and Mosques attacked in last couple of years.

Pakistani and other asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, who had faced arrest and deportation and have been denied due process to have their asylum applications processed.

Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph – the Tamil Priest from the diocese of Jaffna, who disappeared after writing a letter to Pope Benedict in May 2009, pleading for help on behalf of civilians being massacred. He expressed fear he would be killed by the Sri Lankan government for writing such a letter. On 18th May 2009, at the end of the war, hundreds of eye witnesses saw him surrender to the Sri Lankan Army. He disappeared afterwards. Along with him, several LTTE leaders also surrendered and disappeared.

Fr. Jim Brown and Mr. Vimalathas – a Tamil Priest and a lay Tamil Catholic from the diocese of Jaffna. Fr. Jim Brown had tried his best to protect civilians from fighting in August 2006, by providing them shelter inside the church. But the church was attacked with many civilians being killed and injured. Fr. Jim Brown had pleaded with the Navy to take the injured to hospital. He was threatened by a Navy officer and disappeared on 20th August 2006, having entered a Navy controlled area with Vimalathas.

Fr. Paikiaranjith – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Mannar. He had been working to assist and protect internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Mannar, as the District Coordinator of the well known international church agency Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). He was killed in a claymore blast in the Mallavi area on 26 September 2007 when he was carrying humanitarian aid for displaced persons.

Fr. Karunaratnam – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the diocese of Jaffna who had been serving as the Chairman of the North East Secretariat for Human Rights (NESOHR), based in the formerly LTTE controlled area of Killinochchi. He was killed in a claymore attack.

Fr. Sarathjeevan – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Jaffna. From 2008 he was continuously displaced with his people. According to eyewitnesses, when he approached soldiers for help at the end of the war, he was verbally abused, threatened, pushed and fell. Eventually he managed to get help to transport his orphaned children and other people to safety, but on his way he suffered a heart failure that ended his life.

Fr. Vasanthaseelan – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the diocese of Jaffna. He was the Director of Caritas in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Vanni region in 2009. He injured both of his legs after shells hit the Church in Valaignarmadam in April 2009. One of his legs was amputated. Even in hospital and afterwards, he and those who visited him were subjected to surveillance.

Priests and Sisters who had taken a conscious decision to stay with the people during the bloodiest phase of the war, at grave risk to themselves and were subsequently detained illegally.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph – the Bishop of Mannar, who had played a leading role in highlighting human rights abuses of Tamil people, often becoming a public voice, intervening with government and international community. There have been several calls for his arrest by Government Ministers, he was interrogated twice, often threatened and discredited by Government politicians and state media and stopped from visiting political prisoners.

Fr. Yogeswaran – a Tamil Jesuit Priest heading a human rights centre in Eastern Sri Lanka, who was questioned and intimidated for speaking to the visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Fr. C. G Jeyakumar – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Jaffna Diocese who was subjected to a chili powder attack after he spoke about grievances of Tamils to a visiting inter-religious delegation that included Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo.

Fr. Nehru & Fr. Sebamalei – two young Tamil Catholic Priests from the diocese of Mannar who were summoned for questioning by the Northern Army Commander, due to their work organizing and supporting families of disappeared persons.

Fr. Praveen Mahesan, OMI – a Tamil Catholic Priest, who had been threatened number of times, detained and still subjected to an ongoing investigation, and slapped with indefinite speaking and travel restrictions, due to which he is unable to take up a position as missionary in Kenya.

Fr. Stephen – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Jaffna, who was interrogated and intimidated by the military, for writing a poetry book about his experiences while living amidst and serving the people caught up in the last stage of the war.

Tamil Priests threatened, intimidated and questioned for trying to organize Holy Mass, and other Catholic and inter-religious services for those killed during the war.