human rights defenders

Freedom of Expression on the decline in Sri Lanka

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

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

Free Expression in 2017 – 2018 in the North

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression outside the North

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

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

Free Expression online

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

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

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

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

Impunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Advertisements

Crippling civic organising, mobilising and resistance through Draft Amendment to the Act on NGOs

First published on 22nd March 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/22/crippling-civic-organising-mobilising-and-resistance-through-draft-ngo-act-amendment/

The author gratefully acknowledges insights and input from Attorney-at-law Ermiza Tegal.

On February 20, 2018, the Cabinet decided to publish the repressive Draft Act to Amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act no. 31 of 1980 (LDO 32/2011) to a gazette and present it to Parliament for approval. As usual, the drafting has been done in secret with no consultations. To the best of my knowledge, the draft Act has not been made publicly available by the Government.[1]

In the face of mounting pressure and questions, today, more than a month after he had presented this draft Act to the Cabinet, Minister Mano Ganesan had belatedly committed to have a consultation with civil society on April 10, 2018 and assured that it won’t be gazettedpending observations at this consultation.[2] This is the same Minister who stated last year that he doesn’t “see any serious reason to regulate NGOs in this country” and that he doesn’t want to use the word, ‘Regulation’.[3]

The draft’s foremost stated purpose is “regulate, supervise & inspect” NGOs through a legalised “National Secretariat for NGOs (Hereafter referred to as the Secretariat)” under an unspecified Ministry. The Secretariat has investigative powers and assumes and duplicates functions of the Police. The extraordinary and excessive powers given to the Secretariat directly infringe on Freedom of Association, Freedom of expression, Freedom of Thought, Conscience & Belief and Right to Privacy. The draft gives the Director General of the Secretariat, the Minister in charge and the Ministry’s Secretary unprecedented control over any grouping defined as a NGO. It comes in the context of reporting and approval requirement currently in place for NGOs, having created a culture and expectations in the districts that NGOs have to be subservient to the local government officials.

Making collectives illegal and crippling independent civic organising and mobilising

The draft tries to capture a broad range of collectives or groups in it’s definition of an NGO[4]and compels them to register and obtain approval from the Secretariat for it’s existence, or become illegal. There are only very few exceptions.[5] This definition and compulsory registration and approval may bring under the Secretariat’s control or render illegal, groups promoting and protecting rights and interests of their members, formal and informal grouping of individuals, groups receiving funding or working voluntarily, movements that may be temporary or permanent and groups involved in initiatives of social entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships etc. It strikes at independent organising and mobilising initiatives and makes very vulnerable those campaigning on repealing or changing unjust laws, such as ones related to gender and sexuality and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Practically, if this draft is enacted, it may bring under its control or render illegal existing civic groups such as Purawesi Balaya (Citizens Power), National Movement for Just Society (NMJS), Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), Student Unions, Peoples Alliance for Right to Land (PARL), Peoples Movement against Port City, Women’s Action Network (WAN), movements of Relatives of Disappeared etc. One wonders whether groups such as the “Civil Monitoring Commission” initiated and led by Minister Mano Ganesan and others during the Rajapakse regime and “Mothers Front” led by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others during Premadasa regime, as well as movements of the past such as Movement to Protect Eppawala Phospate Deposits, Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) would have been willing to subject themselves to such controls.

Arbitrary registration, suspensions, cancellations and limited possibilities of Appeal

Under this draft Act, registration (and thereby legality) is dependent on whims and fancies of the Director General of the Secretariat and Ministries or Authorities which are “responsible for activities planned to be undertaken by the organization”. If registration is rejected, the appeals have to be made to the Secretary to the Ministry, under which the Secretariat functions, within 30 days.

The registration can be suspended or canceled (and thereby make the organisation illegal) for range of reasons. These includes if the Director General feels the organization is a threat or prejudicial to national security or public interest. An organisation can also be de-registered if the Secretary to the Ministry feels the organisation is operating contrary to the national interests. None of these terms are clearly defined and only possible appeals are to Provincial High Courts, within the very short span of 30 days.

Attack on ideological and physical autonomy of civic groupings

The proposed Act implies civic groups must agree to “common development needs” of the country as defined by or agreeable to the government. This is likely to marginalise groups that are challenging the government’s model of development, which is often pro rich, pro-market and non-participatory. It also infringes on autonomy and internal policies and practices of civic groups, by interfering and retaining the final say in matters such as a change of objectives, a change in the geographical area of work, the establishment of branches, a change of the group constitution, cooperation with other groupings and the government, networking and forming federations, standards of service, financial and policy management, making donations to other groups, fund raising from the public, change of name, change of address, flag, symbol, logo etc. Information on staff and volunteers can be obtained by the Secretariat up to 6 years after they have left the organisation.

Policing powers beyond ordinary Police powers

In ordinary law, the police requires a warrant to enter a premises and search, examine books, registers or records, make copies and extracts. But the draft Act allows the Secretariat a free hand to do this, without even a clearly defined criteria for reasonable suspicion of any illegal activities. The power to “request and obtain information” implies a group from which the Secretariat “requests” information cannot refuse, as the Secretariat has powers to “obtain”, not just to “request”. The Secretariat also has powers to investigate money laundering and terrorist financing, which ought to be by the Police.

Breaching Banking Confidentiality

Under ordinary law, when the Police requires information from banks in the course of investigations of alleged crimes, they have to provide explicit justifications and orders for banks to release information are only made by a judicial authority. But the draft law confers powers to the Secretariat to breach confidentiality of banking information, without reference to any criminal conduct, rendering individuals and entities engaged in non-governmental activity second class citizens. The draft Act compels banks to inform the Secretariat of deposits over Rs. 1 million and electronic funds transfers and all transactions over an amount prescribed by the Minister. Such control over groups defined as NGOs is in contrast to the government’s policy to liberalise capital flow, under which the new foreign exchange law[6] permits undeclared money held abroad up to the value of a million dollars to be brought into the country with no penalty, while amounts in excess could be brought with the payment of a one percent fee. This puts in an additional layer of surveillance over and above what the Central Bank would be doing with regard to fund flows into the country, again singling out those defined as NGOs.

Broad and Vaguely defined “NGO crimes”

The draft Act creates range of “offences under the Act”, some of which are broadly and vaguely defined and leave room for abuse. Offences includes non-registration, which violates Freedom of Association and the principle of “Voluntary Notification”. Even a simple request for information if deemed inadequately responded to may attract a Rs. 250,000 fine or one year imprisonment and thus, is likely to create a fear psychosis. The lack of certainty runs contrary to the basic tenet of rule of law. Yet, again the hypocracy of criminalising acts that may be administratively corrected, is patently obvious when compared to the Foreign Exchange Act (FEA), which replaces the Exchange Control Act (note the change in nomenclature away from the notion of ‘control’), which was described as a new law that “decriminalised exchange control violations and freed citizens from its draconian provisions. The responsibility to implement the new management system has been vested on the authorised dealers who are subject to neither criminal nor civil proceedings under FEA. Instead, they are disciplined through an administrative process”[7].

Blurring the lines between “government” and “non-governmental”

This draft in letter and spirit, appears to convert NGOs into GONGOs – Government controlled Non-Government Organisations. It attempts to make a non-governmental group primarily accountable to the government – instead of primary accountability being to it’s members and to values they espouse, intended beneficiaries and donors – ignoring that the government is often the very body such groups seek a distinction from and often aim to monitor, critique and challenge.

Civic collectives and individuals involved in such groups must not be above the law – given that problems such as financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, gender based discrimination and abuse of worker’s rights, also occur in these entities, just las they do in government agencies and the private sector. But this must be done through ordinary law, which is applicable to all, without resorting to ultra-intrusive laws, discriminatory laws, which has the high potential to facilitate witch-hunts, to blur the line between what is “government” and what is “non-governmental / civic” and cripple independent organising and mobilising that a government may feel challenged by. Legal frameworks to address money laundering and other criminal activity must be uniformly applied instead of targeting NGOs in this disproportionate and unjustified way.

There is no point in trying to reform or engage with this draft law. It must be opposed in its entirety. If at all we need an additional law, it must be a “Freedom of Association Act” that promotes Freedom of Association, with registration based on principle of “Voluntary Notification” and not a restrictive law to make “non-governmental / civic” groupings pawns of the government.


[1] But drafts in three languages has been uploaded by concerned activists, and are available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HQJTYaXMBzrMFVkABruRnW53WdrwU8ES/view?usp=sharing(English), https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jlZw5mhi5hnHtDZfv-C6nGeeouU7834s/view?usp=sharing (Sinhala) and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ngRI7i-R-RlglZxsFlykZZRM09lGQp1r/view?usp=sharing (Tamil)

[2] https://twitter.com/ManoGanesan/status/976728773386158080

[3] Statement by Minister Mano Ganesan on 1st July 2017

[4] Includes any association, council, society, trust, foundation, federation, movement, center, consortium, company, guarantee limited companies, private companies receiving foreign funds for non-profit oriented activities, any organization under any written law or incorporated under Standing Orders of the Parliament or any other association of persons, branches of overseas registered organizations,

[5] Examples of exceptions mentioned are places of religious worship, banks, public quoted companies, school development societies, alumni associations, trade unions, political parties and any such organizations

[6] Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017

[7] Statement by Former Central Bank Deputy Governor W A Wijewardene as quoted in article titled ‘Exchange control will become obsolete – Economist’, Sunday Observer found at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2017/12/03/exchange-control-will-become-obsolete-economist

STF brutality against Muslims in Digana: March 5

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/13/stf-brutality-against-muslims-in-digana-march-5/ on 13th March 2018

This story is based on visits to both sites and testimonies of at least 10 survivors and about 5 eyewitnesses present

As Sinhalese – Buddhist mobs were escalating violence against Muslims around Digana on March 5, the Hijrapura mosque in Digana had just finished afternoon prayers around 4 pm that day.

As usual, devotees were talking to each other outside the mosque, after the prayers. A few had continued to pray inside the mosque. Suddenly, a jeep full of uniformed, heavily armed men had arrived in a jeep and a couple of motorbikes and surrounded the mosque. Thanks to the camouflage uniform, the devotees had identified them as being from the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. The STF had brutally beaten up the devotees and chased them as they started to run away. Numerous eyewitnesses and survivors described the brutalities unleashed by the STF in vivid detail.

When I met them on March 9, one man couldn’t walk at all, and several others were limping. At least one was reported to have been in hospital. Many showed me scars and wounds, on their back, arms and legs. Some had been injured through falls, as they were running to escape the assault and were also being chased by STF men.

The devout Muslims were horrified that the STF had rampaged through the mosque with their weapons and boots. “We can’t describe the filthy and abusive language the STF used,” said one eyewitness.

Two Moulavis were beaten up, even as they shouted identifying themselves as Moulavis. They were forced to hold a knife and iron pole (They later said they believed it was to implicate them in false charges). They were beaten when they refused. The Buddhist Monk in the nearby Temple had seen the incident on the roadside and had intervened to save the two Moulavis from the STF’s grip.

In a separate incident around 5pm also on March 5 in nearby Ambagahalanda, A. F. M. Fazil, a member of the Meda Dumbara Pradeshiya Sabawa (Local Council) was at a friend’s house. Suddenly the STF had entered the house and beaten up Fazil and his friend, and also an 18 year old boy who was there. Children, including two who were 2 and 9 years old, had witnessed the assault and had been terrified. Neighbors who had gathered and saw the incident, heard STF men saying “let’s say he tried throw a petrol bomb at us”. The politician’s friend’s hands had been tied behind his back. His feet and that of the 18-year-old boy had been tied together. They were then taken to a Police station, and the 18 year old boy was released, but the politician and his friend were detained overnight. A Deputy Inspector General (DIG) who had been at the Police station had suggested them to be taken to the hospital, but despite  head wounds, the Sinhalese doctor on duty at the Teldeniya hospital that night had refused treatment, saying those who are responsible for killing “our people” should be in prison and not hospital[1]. Both men had been produced before a Magistrate on the morning of March 6 and released on bail. Four days after the assault, on March 9, scars on their body were clearly visible. Fazil’s head was till in bandages as of March 11 and he complained of headaches and body pains. He said he had 5 cuts on his head and had suffered injuries to one leg, an arm and his back.

Since the death of a Sinhalese person on March 3, after being severely beaten by some Muslim men on  February 22, Fazil was part of a team of Muslim leaders who had been discussing with senior police officers and Buddhist monks about ensuring justice for the Sinhalese man and his family, and defusing potential tensions. Government Ministers also had been updated. According to Fazil, such discussions were held from  February 24, long before the death of the Sinhalese man, and had continued until March 3, the day he had died. Discussions had been held in Digana as well as in the deceased man’s village. Fazil suspects STF may have targeted him for his role in trying (and failing) to prevent violence against Muslims by the Sinhalese – Buddhist mobs.

In both incidents, based on actions and words of the STF, the survivors believe the STF was attempting to frame them on false charges about possession of weapons, and by extension, shift the blame towards Muslims for some of the violence that happened around Digana last week. The words of the STF had also indicated a deeply anti-Muslim, racist mindset. The attack on the Moulavis and desecration of the Mosque by entering with boots and weapons, reminded me of attacks on churches, mosques and Buddhist temples during the war by Sri Lankan military and the LTTE.

It was not clear whether the STF personnel allegedly responsible for both incidents were the same. But some of the survivors claimed they were from Kegalle.

Some of the survivors I spoke to were scared to disclose their identities, have their injuries photographed, make a formal complaint or even seek medical treatment at government hospitals, fearing reprisals. However, many were keen to have the truth exposed and justice for perpetrators in order to prevent such incidents in the future. This note is written at their request, with the hope relevant authorities will take speedy action.

Editor’s Note: A report from Verite Research on restriction to religious freedom of Christians found police were often inactive even when physically present in incidents of violence against Christians, from 1994 to 2014. Groundviews repeatedly tried to contact the police spokesman for an official comment on this story, but did not receive a response.


[1] This appears to be implying the injured to be responsible for beating and subsequent death of a Sinhalese man by some other Muslim men, who had already been arrested

Ekneligoda, Sugirtharajan and 24th January

First published at https://groundviews.org/2018/01/24/ekneligoda-sugirtharajan-and-24th-january/ on 24th January 2018

For several years, the Free Media Movement (FMM) of Sri Lanka and free expression advocates have dubbed January as “Black January”. This was in the context of a large number of journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, as well as attacks on media institutions – all in January.

24th is one such black day in January. The Trincomalee based Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was shot dead on 24th January 2006. The Colombo based Sinhalese cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on 24th January 2010.

The almost forgotten journalist killing: Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan

Sugirtharajan, popularly known as SSR, was a part-time provincial journalist working for the Tamil language daily Sudar Oli. He was a father of two children. He had been staying a few kilometers from the office of the Eastern Province Governor. A journalist and close friend of SSR, took me to the spot SSR was shot. It was approximately less than 100 meters from the Governor’s office and about 200 meters from his own house. Another journalistic colleague and friend of SSR told me that before the killing, SSR had been feeling insecure and wanted to find a safer house in a different location. A house had been identified, but he was killed before he could actually move. Everyone I spoke to mentioned that the nearest reason for his killing would have been the photos he took of 5 youth murdered on the beach of Trincomalee on 2ndJanuary 2006, popularly known now as the “Trinco 5 case”. Another friend of SSR, also known to me, told me that on the morning of 3rd January 2006, SSR had told him that he wanted to get photos of the five youth killed, whose bodies were at the mortuary. Our mutual friend had dropped SSR, armed with a camera, at the hospital. According to him, the military was not allowing anyone, even the families of the youth, access to the mortuary to see the bodies. But SSR had persisted. And finally, the photos he took were published on “Sudar Oli” newspaper on 4th January 2006. They had shown clear gunshot wounds, thus, disputing the version that the youth had not been shot dead. Reporters sans frontières (RSF) had noted that SSR had also detailed the abuses committed by Tamil paramilitary groups including the EPDP in the Trincomalee region, the day before his murder.

One journalist friend of SSR in Trincomalee spoke to me at length about his association with SSR and aftermath of his killings. He said he had spontaneously rushed to the spot of his killing when he heard the news, but later, was too scared to go to the hospital to see the body or even for the funeral. Two days later, he had got a letter, from group called “Force destroying the Enemy”. The letter had accused him of canvassing for Vanni Tigers, that 3 such persons had been identified, verdict had been delivered and implemented on one person (Sugirtharajan) and that he should count his days, as he was going to be the 2nd.

Disappearance of a journalist: Prageeth Ekneligoda

Like SSR, Prageeth Ekneligoda had also attracted the wrath of persons he had critiqued and exposed through his writings and cartoons. Prageeth also is a father of two boys. Reports by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to the Courts indicate that Ekneligoda was abducted from Rajagiriya in the Colombo district by Army Intelligence personnel, and taken to Giritale Army Intelligence camp, where he had been questioned about a book related to family of then President Rajapakse. According to CID investigation reports to courts, the abductors had moved from Akkaraipattu to Giritale from 25th until the 27th afternoon, without proper records of their movements and that of vehicles. Both the CID and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Hostile posters had appeared on public places against Ekneligoda’s wife, Sandya Ekneligoda, the central figure in the campaign for truth and justice in Ekneligoda’s disappearance. She has faithfully gone to courts more than hundred times, often alone, despite the hostility of suspects who were from Military Intelligence, that had been arrested and subsequently released on bail. The suspect’s supporters had also been hostile to Sandya, and she was compelled to complain to the Police about intimidation from one of these, Galaboda Ethhe Gnanasara Thero, leader of the Bodu Bala Sena. A separate case is progressing in relation to this, after Sandya had insisted on justice through the judicial process instead of “settling” the matter through a mediation board.

Free expression today

I feel this write-up will not be complete without briefly looking at free expression in Sri Lanka today. I will try doing this through some incidents that made strong impressions on me in 2017. In and around Colombo, the house of a vocal campaigner against a prison massacre was shot at, a human rights lawyer got death threats from an unknown caller, another rights lawyer was threatened by the then Minister of Justice for speaking out against violence against religious minorities and a trade union leader was abducted amidst months long worker’s protest. In the former war ravaged North, a protesting wife of a disappeared man was assaulted, a memorial for war dead was stopped and organizers harassed and subjected to investigations, youth were questioned and threatened by Police for posting photos of a government office and journalists were summoned for questioning, stopped from engaging in investigative journalism and reporting issues such as disappearances and militarization etc. Websites have been blocked arbitrarily. There are many more I can add to the list. Clearly, although no journalist was killed or disappeared in Sri Lanka in 2017, it was still a bad year for free expression and fundamental freedom.

Prospects for justice for Ekneligoda, Sugitharajan and other victims

The courageous, determined and sustained campaign of 8 years by Sandya, significant national and international media attention and investigations by the CID appears to have brought out some truths about the disappearance of Ekneligoda in 2015-2016. But progress appears to have stalled, or even moved backwards last year, primarily due to lack of cooperation from the Army and key suspects being released on bail a few weeks after President publicly questioned their detention. Compared to Ekneligoda, there has been very little national and international interest about Sugirtharajan, murdered four years before Ekneligoda disappeared. Not surprisingly, there is no progress in investigations and no arrests.

It is twelve years since Sugirtharajan was killed. Eight years after Ekneligoda disappeared. And three years since a government that had a mandate of “good governance” came into power, promising accountability for past violations, such as against Sugirtharajan and Ekneligoda. But right now, for both of them, as well as numerous other freedom of expression violations, including in Black January, prospects for truth and justice through prosecutions and convictions appear bleak and a distant dream.

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

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

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

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

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

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

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

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

Empty promises of institutions and laws

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

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

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

Evolution of the protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

OMP

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

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

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

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

Economic justice

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

Moving forward

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka

First published on 21st June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/

20th June is World Refugee Day. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. I have heard that close to one million Sri Lankans have fled the country to escape violence, war and persecution. I had met few of them in different countries and been struck by their differences in their experiences, challenges, fears and aspirations.

It was alarming to hear that some had fled the country since 2015, including this year. Acording to the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP)[1], they have taken testimonies from 57 Sri Lankan Tamils who had sought asylum in European countries after having faced abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence at the hands of intelligence and security officers under the Sirisena government in 2015-2017. There have been many more who had sought asylum during previous governments.

Early this year, in Thailand, I met a Sri Lankan family who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. They were barely surviving, with no possibility to be employed legally, struggling to pay for a room to stay in, find food to eat and unable to send children to school. But they were still scared to return home. In 2016, a Tamil journalist / human rights activist who had decided to return to Sri Lanka after going into exile, was detained at the airport and questioned about his activism for more than 24 hours, before being produced before a magistrate and released on bail. His family members were subjected to questioning afterwards.

I also know a few Sinhalese and Tamil journalists and activists who had sought refuge abroad under Rajapakse regime, but had returned to Sri Lanka since 2015. Some had come permanently and some have been visiting regularly. Some had given up benefits of refugee status and possibility to obtain citizenship in a European country which had offered them refugee status. They had not faced any harassments at the airport or afterwards.

Despite rhetoric of inviting those who went into exile to return, the new Sri Lankan government has done very little to guarantee security and assist those who had requested for assistance to return home after being recognized by UNHCR as refugees. In 2015, it literarily took an earthquake for the government to take action to ensure the return of two Sri Lankans from Nepal, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.[2]  For around a year, the Sri Lankan government had not assisted two other activists also in Nepal who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and had made repeated requests for the government to intervene to bring them home.

Returning Refugees from India

A significant number of Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from North and East, had fled to India during decades of war, living as refugees. More than 11,000 are estimated to have returned to Sri Lanka. Despite some limited support from the Sri Lankan government, those who want to return face multiple challenges and the majority of refugees remain in camps in India, uncertain of their future. Like some of those mentioned above, they also fear intrusive visits and questioning from Sri Lankan authorities.

A major challenge they face is lack of legal documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the National Identity Cards (NIC). The lack of supportive documents[3] of parents has been a major hurdle for children to obtain consular birth certificates and subsequently Sri Lankan citizenship. Many returnees face difficulties in obtaining their citizenship, including heavy penalties and complex documentation requirements. A waiver of penalties is available only to those who possess a return letter from UNHCR, but not to those who return spontaneously of their own accord. Difficulties in obtaining consular documents increase the risk of refugees falling into the category of stateless persons. The inability of refugees born in camps to obtain citizenship (through the Sri Lankan consular process) before return causes delays in their ability to obtain other documents in Sri Lanka after return, such as the NIC, passports, and driving licences. This results in further delays in returnees claiming rights and reintegration benefits, including social welfare schemes, opening bank accounts, finding employment, and enrolling in educational institutions.

Many returnees have ended up being homeless and landless. Some of the refugee’s lands and houses have been occupied by others and refugees have been compelled to live with friends and relatives, in welfare centres or spend their meagre resources on rent. Loss of land documents, land disputes over boundaries and the inability to locate and demarcate land have also been challenges. Some returnees who are able to recover their land are unable to use it for resettlement due to the land being overgrown by jungle growth and wild animals. There are no governmental programmes to provide temporary or transitional shelter.

Deprivation of agricultural land, inability to get fishing licences, and requirement of compulsory guarantors for loans makes it difficult to restart livelihoods. They also face difficulties in finding employment opportunities in both the private and public sector, with limited support schemes available. There are no special employment schemes.

Non-recognition of educational qualifications, including high school / secondary school, degrees and diplomas, obtained overseas while living as refugees, has posed challenges for pursuing higher education and career opportunities. Obtaining equivalent certificates (to recognise certificates from foreign institutions) places an additional financial and procedural burden on returning refugees who are already struggling with very limited resources.[4]

Refugees and Asylum seekers coming to Si Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Refugees who come to Sri Lanka are left to the care and protection of UNHCR, which, in agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination.

About 75% of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and about 15% from Afghanistan. Visa restrictions for these nationals to enter Sri Lanka remain in place and some asylum seekers are turned away at the airport and sent back to the conditions they sought to flee, without an opportunity to present their case or right of appeal, violating the customary law principle of non-refoulement. As of end of 2016, there were 604 refugees who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and 576 whose applications were pending at UNHCR in Sri Lanka. In addition to Pakistanis and Afghans, others were from countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen. Asylum seekers and refugees live in fear of random and unannounced intrusion into their lives by the police and immigration authorities, and the threat of deportation.

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few religious groups (Muslim and Christian) and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal, often adhoc and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure rights of housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment to asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. Due to hostility, mistrust, and negative stereotyping from the local community, and threats from police and immigration officers, landlords have been reluctant to rent houses and are known to take advantage of their vulnerable situation and charge unreasonable rental rates and advance payments.

They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite having had to flee after experiencing and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they had left behind and finding themselves in unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. As of March 2017, there were 106 children of primary school age, of whom 46 were asylum-seekers and 60 are refugees. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but a further 167 children of secondary school age, of whom 71 are asylum-seekers and 96 are refugees, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilise in seeking employment and living independently in their countries of resettlement.

Long way to go

After the end of the war in 2009 and change of government in 2015, some Sri Lankan refugees try to return back, amidst security concerns and minimal assistance from the government. At the same time, other Sri Lankans continue to flee from persecution. And Sri Lanka is failing to provide humane care to asylum seekers coming from other countries, in line with international standards.  Our government and as people, we still have a long way to go towards being a compassionate society where it’s citizens don’t have to flee from persecution and fear and welcome those fleeing from persecution in their countries and coming to us for care and refuge.

[1] http://www.itjpsl.com/

[2] https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/

[3] Such as birth certificates of parents, marriage certificates, grandparents’ birth certificates, parents’ consular birth certificates

[4] The expenses include travelling to and from Colombo and the fees for conversions, such as Rs 35,000 for National Apprentice and Industrial Training certificates and Rs 2,500 for university degrees.

In support of religious minorities, rule of law and Lakshan Dias

First published on 18th June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/18/in-support-of-religious-minorities-rule-of-law-and-lakshan-dias/

Religious minorities in Sri Lanka – particularly Muslims and Evangelical Christians – faced serious persecution under the Rajapakse Government, which has continued even under the Sirisena-Ranil Government. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, who has been hostile towards Evangelical Christians (a numerical minority amongst Christians), now appears to be assisting this Government’s approach of denying the actual problem and attacking those who are attempting to highlight the gravity of the problem. The latest victim is well known human rights lawyer and my good friend, Lakshan Dias.

Given the latest statements from the President and the Minister of Justice, and the general lack of focus on violations of religious rights of Evangelical Christians, I will focus on violence directed towards them (Evangelical Christian) in this article. Some of the systematic violence directed towards the Muslim community has been already well documented.[1]

On 27 May 2017, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) issued a press release, expressing concern about increasing attacks on religious minorities in Sri Lanka.[2] They cited over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation against Christian places of worship across the country in 2017 and over 190 incidents of religious violence against churches, clergy and Christians since 2015. Many of these incidents have been documented on the NCEASL website.[3] The NCEASL press release also highlighted the “alarming increase in the number of incidents led against Muslims”.

On 31 May 2017, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the President, drawing his attention to the “spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship in the recent past” and expressing grave concern about acts of violence and aggression targeting the Muslim community.[4] The Commission requested the President to “give urgent directions to Ministry of Law and Order and the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary action against the instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting the Muslim community as well as other religious minorities.” This clearly doesn’t seem to have happened.

Lakshan’s brave expose and reprisals from President and Minister

On 14 June 2017, during a the TV talk show titled “Aluth Parlimenthuwa (new parliament)”, Lakshan highlighted that Muslim and Christian places of worship are under attack and that 195 attacks against Christians have been reported since 8 January 2015.[5] Lakshan has been a determined and long standing campaigner and advocate on the rights of religious minorities. He often travels far to rural areas, interacts with victimized communities, publicizes their plight, and appears in courts across the country on numerous cases, during this Government and under the previous Government. Although he was referring to the NCEASL report, he is personally aware of many such incidents.

His comments on the TV talk show, especially his candid assertion that Buddhist Monks are behind some of these attacks, drew immediate and angry reactions from a hostile anchor and two other panelists. And within days, it also drew negative reactions from President Sirisena and Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, both of whom were quoted on primetime news of government TV station, ITN on 17 June 2017.[6] President Sirisena said that he had called the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, and asked from him about attacks on Catholics/Christians (although Lakshan never mentioned attacks on Catholics in the TV talk show). According to President Sirisena, the Cardinal had said that there had been no such attacks. Minister Wijeyadasa misquotes Lakshan as having said 166 attacks against Christians in recent days of this year (what Lakshan actually said is that there have been 195 attacks between 8th January 2015 till todate[7]). The Minister then goes on to say that the Cardinal had claimed no such incidents have happened in Sri Lanka.

Complicity of the Cardinal

The Cardinal on his part has accepted that he doesn’t know that Churches have been attacked to this extent and claims he doesn’t know where this data comes from.[8] This is despite NCEASL incident reports being available publicly for many years, their 27th May 2017 press release and the open letter from the Human Rights Commission etc. The Cardinal’s claim that he is not aware of such large numbers of attacks against Evangelical Christians is difficult to believe, and is likely to be an attempt to sweep these incidents under the carpet, or justify them, given his hostility towards Evangelical Christians. If he is actually ignorant, that shows an extraordinary degree of insensitivity to the rights of religious minorities in Sri Lanka and towards a minority group amongst Christians. His hostility towards some non Catholic Christians is apparent as he refers to them as “fundamentalist Christian groups”. He acknowledges that these Christians may have faced persecution, and that he doesn’t know whether such persecution has been in context of them (fundamentalist Christian groups) building “things like new churches” or trying to “recruit members in areas they had no members”. Cardinal appears to have conveniently forgotten that that for centuries, in Sri Lanka and beyond, thousands of Catholics have been recruited from areas there were never Catholics and that “things like churches” have been built across Sri Lanka by Catholics, including in areas where there had never been Catholics historically.

The President and the Minister appear to be ignorant of the fact that there are many Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and that the Cardinal is only one of the leaders of one of these Churches, the Catholic Church. It’s noteworthy that the Cardinal himself acknowledges that he is only in charge of Catholics in the Western Province (Colombo Archdiocese).[9] There 11 other Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka led by different Bishops in the other 8 provinces in the country, and there are many other non-Catholic, vibrant Christian communities across the country. Given his limited mandate even within the Catholic Church, his open hostility towards other Christians and his stated ignorance, Cardinal is indeed a very poor choice to consult on matters affecting Christians in Sri Lanka. Indeed, while recognizing Christians as being a numerical religious minority in Sri Lanka, we also need to recognize Evangelicals Christians as a marginalized numerical minority within the Christian community in Sri Lanka, persecuted also by some Catholics, who are the majority Christian community in Sri Lanka.

It appears that both the President and the Minister had not made any effort to contact the NCEASL, even though Lakshan had cited the NCEASL as the institution which had documented the 195 attacks. If the President and the Minister had looked at the NCEASL press statement and incident reports on their website over the years, they would have got a wealth of information about attacks on Evangelical Christians under their watch as well as under the Rajapakse Government. Furthermore, the comments by the President and Minister make no mention of whether they made inquiries with other institutions – such as the Human Rights Commission and the Police – about complaints made to them.

State and Police complicity and refusal to act

An examination of documented incident reports by the NCEASL[10] indicates a range of incidents such as arson, demolition of churches, damage to property, physical assault of clergy and church members causing serious injury, death threats, intimidation, discrimination, forced displacement, and forced closure of churches. Amongst the perpetrators are Buddhist Monks, State officials and Police officers. Police officers have been known to compel Protestant Christian pastors to discontinue religious worship activities.[11] A Police officer, a Hindu religious leader and other community members had also denied burial rites to an Evangelical Christian in a public cemetery.[12]

A common theme in incidents is the seeming reluctance of the Police to act against suspects infringing on the rights of religious minorities. This reluctance appears to be due to influence and pressure exerted by local Buddhist monks, government officials, and politicians. For example, there has been much said and written about the arrest warrants and non-arrest of errant Buddhist Monk, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, so I will not comment further on it.

Although Sri Lankan law does not require the registration of religious places of worship for any religious body, a circular in October 2008 issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs demanded that all “new constructions” of places of worship should obtain approval from the said Ministry. This has not been withdrawn by the current Government. Since the introduction of the circular, Christian Evangelical churches have faced routine harassment, including forced closures by local government authorities who claim such places of worship as not ‘recognized’ or ‘registered’ with the government. Refusal of ‘recognition’ by the state has deprived thousands of Christians of their right to practice their religion. THE NCEASL incident reports indicate that after this Government came into power, more than 50 incidents involving local government and law enforcement officials involved the use of the October 2008 circular to infringe on the rights of Evangelical Christians. The October 2008 circular appears to be used to target the numerically smaller Christian churches in Sri Lanka and not the Catholic and other numerically larger and politically influential churches.[13]

Threat to remove Lakshan from legal profession

Perhaps the most outrageous parts of this drama is the public threat by the Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana to take legal action to remove Lakshan from the legal profession, unless Lakshan apologizes for his comments within 24 hours.[14] Given that a Minister has no role to play in a process of the dismissal of a lawyer, this is clearly a political threat from the Minister.

I am amongst the many victims of injustice on whose behalf Lakshan has advocated in and out of courts. It is left to be seen if some of the many Christians and others Lakshan has defended, campaigned, and advocated for, will stand by Lakshan. And whether and to what extent the Bar Association in Sri Lanka, religious groups, media organizations and others concerned will respond to this threat, which appears to be a threat not just to Lakshan, but to the legal profession as a whole as well as to free expression, religious freedom and the rule of law.

Ruki Fernando is a member of the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Commission of the (Catholic) Conference of Major Religious Superiors (JPIC-CMRS) and the Ecumenical group, Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM).

[1] http://groundviews.org/2017/05/22/escalating-violence-renewed-assaults-on-the-muslim-community/

[2] http://mailchi.mp/0f02c4911569/press-release-increase-in-attacks-on-religious-minorities-in-sri-lanka-1208153

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

[4] http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Letter-to-H.E.-re-Religious-Intolerance-E.pdf

[5] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (5.47 – 7.33)

[7] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (1.33-2.07)

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (2.23-2.33)

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

[11] http://nceasl.org/pastor-demanded-to-discontinue-religious-activities/

[12] http://nceasl.org/burial-rites-denied-pastor-harassed-at-christian-funeral-2/

[13] The majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Catholics. The Catholic Bishops are generally recognized as their leaders and have access to powerful politicians. Catholics and Christians in the Churches who are members of the National Christian Council (NCC) are also generally recognized by the government as legitimate and “de-facto” Christians / Churches. But Christians belonging to numerically smaller Churches, many of whom are members of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, are often not recognized by the government and not given opportunities in representative bodies and consultations, even though several of these churches are legal bodies incorporated by acts of parliament.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (6.37 – 6.57)

Military Occupation: documenting civilian protests and the struggle of the newly resettled

First published at http://groundviews.org/2017/03/16/military-occupation-documenting-civilian-protests-and-the-struggle-of-the-newly-resettled/ on 16th March 2017

Editor’s Note: Since early February, Ruki Fernando and Marisa de Silva have been joining protests against land occupation by the military (security forces) in the North.

This is an immersive photo story written by them, compiled using Microsoft Sway. Click here to access it directly, or scroll below.

https://sway.com/s/PYeLhcgFAhWbpcTH/embed

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.

The Troubling Detention of Ruki Fernando

First published as an interview by Taylor Dibbert at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/taylor-dibbert/the-troubling-detention-o_b_12310814.htmlon 3rd October 2016

On October 1, Sri Lankan human rights activist Ruki Fernando was detained at Bandaranaike International Airport. This is Sri Lanka’s principal international airport and is located about twenty miles north of Colombo, the capital. Mr. Fernando has written about the experience (and provided some background information) for Groundviews, a Sri Lankan civic media outlet.

Here’s a paragraph from that piece:

Today, 1st Oct. 2016, I came [to] the Bandaranaike International Airport in Sri Lanka to travel to London. I was asked by the officer at the immigration counter to get clearance from an office I understood to be an office of the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), situated next to the immigration counters. Inside this office, I was questioned [about] whether I have a case pending, where I was traveling, purpose of my travel, my work and personal details, including addresses and phone number, details of family members etc. An officer wrote down my answers, but I was not shown what was written and I was not asked to sign any documents. Photocopies of my travel documents were also made. They also appeared to examine a file they had.
He was eventually allowed to board his flight. Nonetheless, there’s no question that this is a worrisome development. In a brief exchange, he provides additional insights. This interview has been edited for clarity.

During the past couple weeks, did you notice anything unusual? Had you been under surveillance?

Well, the TID has reportedly asked about me from at least one person they were interrogating recently. Beyond that, I don’t recall anything unusual. But I have been confronting police trying to obstruct peaceful protests and been pushing hard on the right of detainees to access lawyers during detention, especially by the TID. I’ve also been publicly highlighting continuing abductions/disappearances, arrests and detention under the [Prevention of Terrorism Act] PTA this year — the vast majority have occurred in the North. And I’ve generally been quite critical of continuing human rights violations and lack of progress and genuine will to addressing the past. Although I have also been trying to engage constructively with various government processes. So maybe this is an attempt to try and shut me up, or to try to co-opt me to be less critical?

I didn’t feel I was under surveillance for the last year or so. Except at protests, other events, and when in the North, where it appeared to be the event and everyone at it was under surveillance and not just me.

Like my arrest in March 2014, this incident appears to have generated a lot of attention. But this type of intimidation, questioning and surveillance is commonplace, although of less intensity and regularity than under the Rajapaksa years. It will be tragic if this incident takes away attention from Balendran Jeyakumary who is still being investigated under the PTA and subjected to harassment and questioning. The same goes for political prisoners who are still being detained under the PTA for many years — and also threats, intimidation and attacks on human rights defenders and journalists by police and security agencies, negative remarks on [nongovernmental organizations] NGOs and journalists by the president, the prime minister and other government officials, etc.

And I hope the attention this incident has generated will open the eyes and ears of some who appear to want to be blind, deaf and dumb to such incidents and trends. And make them think twice about uncritically welcoming developments in Sri Lanka and prematurely and mistakenly portraying Sri Lanka as a success story in good governance, economic development and transitional justice.

Do you anticipate any problems getting through airport security when you return?

I really, really hope the authorities will officially provide me with some clarity on who actually stopped and questioned me and why before I return. I’m worried about what may happen on my return. But I want to return and continue my activism.

What impact, if any, will this incident have on your work in Sri Lanka?

This will impact my activism and life. My parents are very worried. They and relatives and some friends will again exert pressure for me to restrain myself. Some survivors and victims’ families, as well as local activists I have been assisting and working with will worry about drawing attention to themselves by their interactions with me, and may want to distance themselves from me. It might even intimidate some of them to reduce their activism, thinking about what may happen to them.

Follow Taylor Dibbert on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/taylordibbert