Human Rights

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

Sellamma returns home after Army occupation

First published at http://groundviews.org/2017/03/14/sellamma-returns-home-after-army-occupation/ on 14th March 2017

We first met 83 year old grandmother Sellamma when she was part of a protest fast outside the Puthukudiyiruppu Divisional Secretariat. At that time, her land and house across the road had been occupied by the Army for eight years. She was protesting along with her neighbours, mostly women, whose lands and houses had also been occupied by the Army. Even after a meeting with the Prime Minister in the early stages of the protest, they had vowed not to give up their protest, until their houses and lands were handed back to them.

After a month’s protest, Sellamma and some of her neighbours, were successful in forcing the Sri Lankan government and its’ Armed forces to return some parts of their village back to them. It was joyful occasion to meet Sellamma, her son, relatives and neighbours back on their own lands and houses last week.

But rather than talk about their victory in making the Army relent, Sellamma talked to us about the pitiful state in which they found their houses and the land, upon their return. She personally took us around to show us all the damage done.

“They (the army), must have been angry with us because we were protesting and asking for our homes back, so they destroyed our houses. We heard them (the army) breaking things whilst we protested across the road. I don’t know why they would do this to us? When we stepped into our home for the first time since 2008, there was shattered beer bottles and other glass pieces covering the entire floor. Our houses were stripped of its doors, some windows, kitchen sinks, the glass from our cabinets, and electrical fittings. Some window grills and glass were broken or removed all together, and entire roofing sheets had been removed from my son’s house. The toilet mirror has been taken, and the toilet is also not in working order anymore. They (the army) have cut our coconut trees and built summer huts in our garden. A few houses in our neighborhood have been razed to the ground. When we were brought back after the war to see our houses in 2014, these houses were all intact.” Sellamma told us.

“This was our ancestral house where my seven siblings and I grew up with our parents. The army has bulldozed our main house and kitchen to the ground post-2011, when we were last brought here to see our homes. We had a separate kitchen because there were so many of us to feed. I don’t understand why they would do this? The Army had built an outdoor kitchen complex in our garden, with a pipe leading straight from the kitchen to the well. The waste water from the kitchen has also gone back along the pipeline to our well and contaminated it. Our well is also now infested with insects and snakes, so we have covered it up, as the smell too is unbearable and the water is unusable,” said another returnee, of her recently released home in Puthukudiruppu.

“Our house used to be over there,” said an old amma (mother) pointing across to what now resembled a field. “They (the army) have mined so much sand there, that the land has become all marsh land now. It’s covered in overgrown grass and water, s0 that we can’t even access it anymore. Our house too has been destroyed,” she said sadly.

While Sellamma’s struggle and victory is inspiring, the sad reality she has had to return to, would have serious implications on the reconciliation process.

Firstly, why must elderly women like Sellamma resort to fasts and protests for the government to fulfill basic commitments it has made to the people and the UNHRC, such as releasing military occupied land?

Secondly, why did the Army destroy and loot these houses and properties prior to returning them to their rightful owners?

Thirdly, why is there zero government support for recent returnees, now returning home after eight years of displacement due to military occupation?

Fourthly, when can returnees expect compensation/reparation for the use of lands and houses by the Army, loss of income generation due to the occupation, destruction of property and trees, and losses as a result of looting by the Army?

Lastly, all the land releases so far, have been partial releases. In Puthukudiyiruppu, only about 7 acres of lands out of 19 been handed over, after a month long protest fast. Villagers told us that the Army had committed to release another 10 acres in 3 months time, and another one acre after 6 months. But will these promises be kept?

Sellamma’s struggle is one of many struggles against military occupation of lands in the North that gained prominence last month. Sustained, indefinite protests had led to release of lands in Pilakudiyiruppu and Paravipaanchan, which were released a few days prior to the Puthukudiyiruppu land release. When we visited these villages, we saw the trail of destruction left by the occupiers – the Air Force and the Army. We were told that there was no support at all from the government towards resettlement. We experienced and heard of continued intimidation and surveillance by the Air Force in these areas. At the same time, protests demanding the return of military occupied lands continue in areas such as Keppapulavu.

Celebrating Sellamma’s and others’ victories, as a result of sustained fasts and protests is still difficult, in the backdrop of returnees struggling to cope with military destruction of their homes, receiving no support from the government, including basic shelter and livelihood support, and continued protests of others displaced to regain their land still under military occupation.

Sellamma & her struggle to reclaim her house and land in Puthukudiyiruppu

First published at http://groundviews.org/2017/02/20/sellamma-her-struggle-to-reclaim-her-house-and-land-in-puthukudiyiruppu/ on 20th February 2017

Sellamma is 83 years old. She has a house in Puthukudiyiruppu (PTK) East, Ward no. 7, in the Mullaitivu district in the Northern Province. It’s opposite the PTK Divisional Secretariat (DS). But for more than two weeks, she has been braving the hot sun and cold nights on the street, opposite her house. Because her house and land is occupied by the Army. In fading light of evening, and beyond an Army watchtower, she showed me her house. I was tempted to take a photo of her house, as I had her – the owner’s – permission. But I restrained myself to avoid potential trouble.

Sellamma’s son and son in law were killed by the Army during a massacre in 1985. They were amongst the 24 killed that day by the Army. Her husband died in 2014. She wanted to keep his body and have the funeral in their own house and land. But she couldn’t as the Army was occupying her land. She had tried to douse herself in kerosene oil and burn herself in protest, but others had stopped her.

Sellamma is feeble now. She has one wish before her death. “I want to live and die in my own house and land”, she told me. “I had a lot of coconut trees in the garden. But now, the Army plucks them and I have to buy coconuts. And the Army lives in my house and I have to pay a rent of Rs. 8,000 now” she also told me.

Magaret Karunannathan is 68. She says there were 42 coconut trees in her land. In the same village as Sellamma. Her husband was also killed by the Army in the 1985 massacre.

Both of them, and the whole village, and district, was displaced in 2009. They suffered a lot. Later, they were detained in Menik Farm. They were eventually released, but never allowed to return to their own homes and lands. While they were displaced and detained, the Army had occupied the lands of 49 families spanning 19 acres. Till today. I was told some of the villagers have legal documentation such as deeds, permits and grants.

The villagers had protested several times before, demanding their lands and houses from the Army. They started another protest on 3rd Feb. 2017. This time, they were determined not to give up the protest till they were actually allowed to go back to their lands. They cook by the roadside, sit there during the day and sleep there during the night. And stare at their houses and lands across the road.

They were suspicious of me when we went, and asked whether I was also from the Army.  Later they became more friendly. They were tired of talking to visitors and repeating their story. But they still told it.

On 9th Feb., some of them had travelled all the way to Colombo and met the Prime Minister (PM). Despite the Army occupying their lands and killing some of their family members, the people had suggested to the PM to let the Army stay in adjoining state land. According to them, the PM had spoken to the Government Agent (GA) for the Mullaitivu district and promised to attend to the matter after a trip to Australia. The PM had asked them stop the protest. People had told him that they will stop the protest when they were allowed to go back to their lands. The PM had apparently no answer to that, and told them they can continue their protest, but requested them not to cause any obstructions. I wondered whether the PM can tell the Army not to not to obstruct people from going back to their own houses and lands.

Into the 3rd week of protesting and 10 days after meeting the PM, there has been no positive response from authorities. So the people have escalated their protest to a fast, taking turns to fast. They are not asking any favors. They are only asking a wrong to be put right. To be allowed to go back to their own lands and houses.

Their struggle is just one of many struggles of displaced people to go home. Since the new government came into power, some of the lands occupied by the military have been released. But tens of thousands of displaced Sri Lankans await the military to move out of their lands and allow them to go home. From nearby Kepapulavu to Mullikulam to Ashrafnagar to Panama to Jaffna. And more. The list is long. They have been protesting, appealing to authorities, filing court cases. And still waiting.

For Sellamma and all these peoples, reconciliation is about being allowed to go back to their houses and land. Whether and when they get their lands back will be a major factor in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and transitional justice processes. Government and others say these processes takes time. But for Sellamma, time is running out. She would like to go back to her house and land before her death.

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.

Refugee Jesus: Christmas & Refugees in Sri Lanka

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/12/25/refugee-jesus-christmas-refugees-in-sri-lanka/ on 25th December 2016

Jesus was born as a refugee child. When Mary, the pregnant mother on the move couldn’t find a place to give birth, it was poor shepherds that welcomed them to their stable. Immediately after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had to flee, to save the baby Jesus’s life from assassination attempt of a cruel King. This is the story of Christmas.

This story of Refugee Jesus, the stable and poor but generous shepherds and fleeing parents had a huge resonance for me during Christmas 2008 in when babies were born in refugee camps and later in bunkers amidst showers of bombs and shells, in Northern Sri Lanka. Last week, when I attended a Christmas gathering of Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka, I was again stuck by the story of this original Christmas.

Compared to grand Christmas parties and Christmas Carols in luxurious hotels, decorated and lighted up Christmas trees on streets, malls and churches in Colombo, the refugee’s Christmas party was a simple event. A few Catholic priests and sisters were present and helped to organize the event. But otherwise, it was attended and run only by refugee families including children. More than the Christmas Carols, I remember them singing “we shall overcome some day…we shall live in peace some day…we shall be free some day”.

Refugees from Sri Lanka and Refugees in Sri Lanka

More than a million Sri Lankans are estimated to have fled the country as refugees to India and western countries during the war and afterwards. Even this year, those subjected to abductions and inhumane torture in Sri Lanka have fled to England. Many activists and journalists who had criticized and challenged the Rajapakse’s dictatorial and corrupt family rule were also compelled to flee Sri Lanka. Some years ago, I also left Sri Lanka due to imminent threats. I and many others have benefitted from the care and support from our friends and strangers in foreign countries.

At the same time, a small number of people facing persecution in their own countries have come to Sri Lanka seeking refuge here. Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and Atheists as well as activists, journalists, bloggers and gay persons from Pakistan and Bangladesh have been amongst those who had come to Sri Lanka seeking refuge in the last few years. I have become friends and gotten to know some of them a bit better during this time. On one hand, I feel proud that they have trusted us and come to us, hoping that we would care for them in their time of need and desperation. But my predominant feeling is of sadness and shame, that we as peoples and our government has not been able to welcome them warmly and care for them.

UNHCR, Refugees and Asylum seekers in Sri Lanka

Through an agreement in 2005, the Sri Lankan government has agreed to facilitate the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate to determine refugee status of those from other countries who come to Sri Lanka and apply for refugee status.

According to UNHCR[1], there are 576 refugee claimants (asylum seekers) in Sri Lanka as of 31st August 2016, whose refugee applications are pending. These include 35 who registered in August. 439 are from Pakistan and 106 from Afghanistan, while others are from Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. The decisions on the refugee applications by UNHCR in Sri Lanka can take several years, with a longer process for those who have to appeal against rejections. In August, 10 persons were rejected refugee status by UNHCR, including 4 after an appeal.

According to the same UNHCR report, there were 649 persons in Sri Lanka who have been accepted as refugees as of 31st August 2016, including 23 recognized in August 2016.  529 were from Pakistan and 73 from Afghanistan, with others coming from Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Sri Lankan Government and Refugees in Sri Lanka

Despite the 2005 agreement, several refugee claimants were arrested, detained and deported in 2014. Although the new government has been more tolerant of refugees and refugee claimants, they continue to live a miserable and uncertain life in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankan politicians, activists and journalists are focused on issues considered “Sri Lankan”, such as economy, corruption, new constitution, transitional justice etc. We are of course quick to seek international assistance from abroad in relation to these. But sadly, our government doesn’t permit refugees recognized as needing international protection to stay in Sri Lanka, despite the number of refugees in Sri Lanka being around 0.003% of the population. This is indeed a sad indictment of our religiosity, culture, laws, policies and practice.

Hence, those recognized as refugees have to wait several years even after being recognized as refugees before a third country accepts them for permanent resettlement. According to UNHCR, 272 persons have left for USA, 11 to Canada and 1 to Sweden under UNHCR resettlement process between January to August 2016. Separately, 14 persons had left for Canada under Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR), a program separate to UNHCR, where private individuals and organizations in Canada can sponsor the resettlement of refugees. The waiting period for this too can be about 3 and half years[2].

Challenges facing Refugees in Sri Lanka

Refugee claimants in Sri Lanka don’t get any support from the government in terms of housing, food and other living expenses. UNHCR doesn’t provide any assistance to them either until and unless they are granted refugee status. Thus, they are totally depended on any of their own savings, support from relatives and friends, or other well-wishers such as NGOs and church groups. In Sri Lanka, there is hardly any such well-wishers, despite the extensive support hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan refugees and internally displaced persons have received from foreign organizations.

For those who are accepted as refugees, UNHCR provides an all inclusive amount of Rs. 10,000 (approximately USD 67) per person for a month, for accommodation, food, communication, transport etc. Families with up to one child receive Rs. 16,000 (approximately USD 107) and families with two or more children receive Rs. 22,000 (approximately USD 148). It is almost impossible to survive in Sri Lanka with such meagre amounts. There are very few groups who have shown interest to support refugees in Sri Lanka.

The government prohibits refugee claimants and refugees from engaging in employment. But in desperation, some work illegally. One refugee told me that he works as a construction worker a few days a week, earning Rs. 1,000 (approximately USD 6.70) per day. He explained difficulties in language and also due to the fact that he had never done such work in his home country. The inability to work legally has made them extremely vulnerable, with no recourse to legal remedies if they are abused by employers. Recently, an Australian volunteer initiated a livelihood project for two refugee woman and had managed to sell most of the initial products. But sustaining sales and marketing their products in Sri Lanka remains a major challenge.

Education for children is another major challenge. UNHCR covers school expenses of children between the age of 6 to 10 years. But this means that children are unable to attend school or pre-school until they are 6 and after 10. As a result, many refugee children are unable to attend school. Although some initiatives were taken in the past to organize teachers within the community, these were difficult to sustain and could not become a viable replacement for a formal school system.

Refugees have sought and received primary health care through hospitals, but when more serious health care is needed, and when external medication and medical tests are required, refugees are unable to access such services due to lack of money. Persecutions suffered in home country, prolonged periods of stay as refugee claimant / refugee, lack of basic needs and uncertainty about future has resulted in trauma for many refugees and their families, but a refugee told me recently that mental healthcare and counselling is not easily available for them.

According to the government[3], 78 (69 males and 9 females) refugees/refugee claimants are presently in detention, with the largest number of 36 being from Bangladesh. Last week, one lady told me her son had been in detention for around two years and another lady told me her husband has been in detention also around two years.

Refugees in Sri Lanka & Legal protections 

Sri Lanka is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although Sri Lanka is a party to the UN Convention Against Torture[4] there are no specific legislative provisions in Sri Lanka to give effect to article 3 (1) of the convention, to prevent the state from returning or extraditing a person to another state when there are substantial grounds for believing that such persons would be in danger of being subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, despite this also being a well-established principle of Customary International Law.

In the Constitution, article 12(2) dealing with prohibition of discrimination excludes non-citizens. And protections from arbitrary arrest, detention and punishment provided for in article 13(1-6) in the constitution has been denied to persons arrested, detained and deported under immigration related laws under article 13 (7).

Thinking about refugees in Sri Lanka during Christmas & beyond

Reflections about a giant Christmas tree and millions of rupees being spent on Christmas celebrations and inspiration from Refugee Jesus could hopefully enable Christians to offer more care and support to refugees in coming years. Beyond Christmas, the constitutional reform process in 2017 offers Sri Lankans a good opportunity to do away with legal provisions that are discriminatory and unjust towards refugees. And to enable a more welcoming and supportive environment for refugees where their rights, dignity and wellbeing are guaranteed through our constitution, laws, policies and practice.

[1] Monthly report of Asylum Seekers & refugees by UNHCR Colombo, August 2016

[2] http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/information/times/index.asp

[3] Written Additional Information submitted by the Government of Sri Lanka on the 5th Periodic Report to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), Nov. / Dec.2016, available at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=1085&Lang=en

[4] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Can the Office of Missing Persons make a difference?

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/can-the-office-of-missing-persons-make-a-difference/77471 on 2nd November 2016

Ruki Fernando, Colombo
Sri Lanka November 2, 2016

Sri Lanka has a legacy of disappearances. According to the government, 65,000 complaints have been received since 1994.

The country also has a legacy of government failure to uphold the rights of victims’ families to truth, justice and reparations.

Sri Lankan society also has a legacy of apathy in the face of mass disappearances — in the past and even now.

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, families of the disappeared have become symbols of resistance and courage — the front line in the pursuit of truth and justice.

The international attention they have attracted has ensured that the present Sri Lankan government has given some priority to addressing disappearances. In August, parliament passed a law to establish the Office of Missing Persons.

The move followed a visit by the United Nations’ Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in November last year, 16 years after their last visit. The government also ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in May.

However, the government has stopped short of allowing Sri Lankans to lodge complaints directly with the committee monitoring the implementation of the convention. The criminalization of enforced disappearances, an obligation after ratifying the convention, has not happened.

The government had committed to nation-wide consultations on transitional justice mechanisms such as the Office of Missing Persons. But instead of consulting the people, the government relied on a secret process to come up with a draft bill to establish the office.

In May, the Foreign Ministry held a hastily convened briefing for a few activists. At the insistence of the activists, a further briefing was held with some families of the disappeared. Four days later the draft bill was approved by the cabinet and subsequently passed by parliament with some amendments, but without a substantial debate on the bill.

The Office of Missing Persons Act has some positive features. There are no time limits or geographical restrictions on claims, anonymity is guaranteed for witnesses and there are powers to summon people, obtain documents and issue search warrants and court orders. The Office of Missing Persons can also have branch offices.

But there are limitations. There is little place for victims’ families to participate in the Office of Missing Persons processes. Furthermore, the Act does not give the office the authority to prosecute. One of its clauses states that the office’s findings cannot lead to civil or criminal liability. There is also no requirement for the Office of Missing Persons to work in tandem with prosecutorial bodies.

Despite widespread poverty, there are no initiatives to ensure economic justice for families or offers of interim financial and material relief. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, a totally separate entity that is likely to take longer to establish.

Progress in the courts has been slow and unpromising. While there were regular hearings at the Magistrate Courts for disappeared Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, there have been no indictments against any of the suspects arrested.

This month, the president expressed displeasure about military personnel being detained and his wife had complained of threatening calls. There appears to be no progress for many other cases, including well-known cases of Tamils such as journalist Ramachandran Subramanium, Catholic priests Father Jim Brown and Father Francis Joseph, and human rights activist Stephen Suntharaj.

Catholic priests have been amongst the disappeared, yet, by and large, church leaders and the Catholic community has not been an active supporter of the families of the disappeared. There have been some notable exceptions but these individuals have faced arrest, threats, intimidation and been branded “traitors.”

In the months leading up to the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, several cases of abductions were reported, with at least 10 between March and June this year. At least two of those who disappeared have not returned, despite complaints to the police and Human Rights Commission. Some have been reported to have been found in police or remand custody and others dumped by the roadside after being abducted.

The Office of Missing Persons, like other transitional justice mechanisms, came out for the Sri Lankan government’s commitments to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2015. It appears these were more about placating the international community than addressing the grievances of families of the disappeared.

However, there is still hope the Office of Missing Persons can make a difference.

For this to happen the office must appoint individuals of integrity and competence. These appointments should include family members of the disappeared. They should encompass women, ethnic and religious minorities. Independent international involvement is a must. The government should criminalize enforced disappearances before the Office of Missing Persons begins its operations.

But in the end, the success of the Office of Missing Persons will depend on Sri Lankans. The families of victims and activists, including Catholics, will have to critically engage with the Office of Missing Persons in order to ensure it delivers on what it promises.

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

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

Harrasment of human rights defenders even under “yahapalanaya”

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/10/02/harassment-of-human-rights-defenders-even-under-yahapalanaya/ on 2nd October 2016

Today, 1st Oct. 2016, I came the Bandaranayake 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 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.

While I was being questioned, other officers appeared to be checking from the TID head office in Colombo whether to allow me to proceed to my flight or not. They appeared to be trying to expedite the process to ensure I will not miss the flight.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s department and TID head office has been contacted through my lawyers. One of my lawyers who was also traveling overseas and had cleared immigration already, requested to come into the office I was being kept to speak to me and officers who were questioning me. But she was not allowed and had to stand outside while I was being questioned.

This appeared to be a violation of recent recommendation of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to strengthen suspects access to lawyers, especially by providing access before statements are recorded.

Finally I was informed that I was free to travel. I asked the officer in charge what was the reason I was detained and questioned. He pointed out there was very limited time left for my flight and suggested I proceed to the flight rather than discuss this further and risk missing my flight. I then left towards the boarding gate with my lawyer.

The officers questioning me were polite and didn’t physically harass or threaten me. But it was a scary experience to be detained and questioned even briefly, especially given my past experiences of being detained, questioned, threatened etc. And to know that I was still under close scrutiny and not able to travel overseas for human rights work without harassment and intimidation. After long tense journey, I have now arrived safely in London.

Background
I was traveling to deliver several talks on transitional justice and human rights at events organized by the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York in UK and several other human rights related meetings.

I’ve been subjected to an ongoing investigation under the Prevention of Terrorism Act since March 2014 (case no. B4414/08/14). This is after being arrested, detained and released by the TID in March 2014. A court order that TID had obtained in March 2014 continues to restrict my freedom of expression and my confiscated electronic equipment had not yet been returned. My lawyers have made several written submissions and oral representations to the Attorney General’s department but there is no update in closing the investigation against me, returning the confiscated equipment and removing the gag order.

From March 2014 to July 2015, I had to obtain court permission for each of my overseas travels. Despite obtaining court permission, I encountered delays at the airport. On one occasion, I was not allowed to board the flight and and was only allowed to travel overseas the next day, after additional interventions of my lawyers. Based on an application I made to Colombo Magistrate Courts through my lawyers, this travel restriction was lifted by courts in July 2015. Since then, I had traveled overseas several times, without being stopped or questioned by the immigration or any other officials. It remains a mystery why the immigration suddenly had to get permission from TID again to allow me to travel overseas and why I had to be detained and questioned before being allowed to travel.

 

 

 

UN Chief’s Visit to Sri Lanka Does Little to Address Struggles of Those Awaiting Justice

First published at http://thewire.in/65729/un-secretary-generals-visit-and-tears-of-sri-lankan-survivors/ on 13th September 2016

Ban Ki-Moon acknowledged the “big mistakes” the UN made in relation to Sri Lanka under his leadership, but is yet to lay out a concrete rights-based strategy for the country.

bankimoon_reuters

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Colombo. Credit: Reuters

Madushka De Silva disappeared on September 2, 2013 in Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist heartland in the North Central Province. The third anniversary of his disappearance coincided with Ban Ki-Moon’s visit to the country. On that day, the UN secretary general was so close, and yet so far from De Silva’s wife, Mauri Inoka.

While Inoka, along with about 12 activists, was confronting a hostile police on the streets of Colombo, who claimed to be concerned about the security of the secretary general, Moon was at the nearby Hilton Hotel with his delegation, politicians, government officials and some of Colombo’s diplomats and civil society activists. The secretary general, or even a member of his delegation, had no time to drop by and spend a few minutes with Inoka, who had submitted a formal complaint about the disappearance of her husband to the UN. When she went to the hotel to attend the secretary general’s “public” lecture, she was turned away, as she was not on the list of “public” who were invited to this “public lecture”.

Beyond the physical distance and barriers, Inoka’s frustrations with the new government appeared to be in stark contrast with the secretary general’s optimism and praise for the new government. Or perhaps, it showed the distance between the diplomatic niceties of the UN and the tears of Inoka and her children along with the tens of thousands like her.

 Attacks on freedom of expression and assembly

Inoka had spent the previous night and day on Colombo’s popular beachfront, Galle Face Green, observing a 24-hour protest vigil. For three years, she had been calling on authorities to investigate the disappearance of her husband and provide some interim relief to her and her children. However, she hasn’t receives any answers in the past three years and they don’t appear to be forthcoming in the future.

In desperation, Inoka, together with 12 friends and supporters, organised a peaceful and silent march towards the Presidential Secretariat and the Hilton Hotel. “We were armed with only photos of Madushka and banners. Vehicles and pedestrians passed by us freely, with absolutely no disruption. But despite our pleas, we were stopped by the police, violating our rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” she said. “After we were compelled to disperse, a lawyer and an activist at the protest were stopped and subjected to intimidation by the police when they were leaving.”

Instead of expediting the investigation into her husband’s disappearance, the police have started investigating Inoka and some activists who were supporting her. She and at least four activists have been summoned to the Fort Police Station on the morning of September 14. Some of the activists have expressed fears of being arrested.

On August 31, hours before the secretary general arrived in Colombo, several university students were reported to have been hospitalised due to the teargas and water cannons used by the police to disperse them from staging a protest march against a private medical college and demanding an increase in the university intake.

On the day after the secretary general left from Sri Lanka, the police stripped a young man on the road and assaulted him on charges of being a drug user. When a journalist challenged the police conduct, he too was assaulted.

Although the space for freedom of expression and assembly has increased since January 2015, such incidents have happened regularly in the past 20 months, especially in the highly militarised North.

Despite these incidents, the secretary general chose to unreservedly welcome the good governance initiatives of the new government.

Long wait 

More than 100,000 Sri Lankan families, who have reported missing relatives since the 1980s, share the pleas of Inoka.

Like Inoka, nearly all families await truth, justice and reparations. When the secretary general visited the war-torn Jaffna, several Tamil families of the disappeared, from across the North, lined up the streets with photos of their loved ones, placards demanding truth and justice, and with tears in their eyes.

Protesters rally as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Sri Lanka. Credit: Reuters

Protesters rally as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Sri Lanka. Credit: Reuters

A few days after the secretary general left, a young Sinhalese boy was reported to have disappeared in the Southern city of Hambantota after last being seen in police custody. The day before the arrival of the secretary general, an ex-LTTE cadre – a Tamil – was reportedly abducted in a white van, in the highly militarised Northern city of Kilinochchi.

He was later reported to have been found in police custody, just like several other Tamils who were abducted earlier this year. The whereabouts of at least two other Tamils who disappeared from the North earlier this year remain unknown despite complaints to the authorities.

Ironically, the abduction of the ex-LTTE cadre was reported to have happened on the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances, in the same month parliament approved the setting up of an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) – the government’s latest initiative to address disappearances – and three months after Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

Despite serious concerns being expressed about the “consultation” process and the OMP by families of disappeared, byactivists and by the government’s own Consultation Task Force, long before and even during his visit, the secretary general chose to welcome both.

Tamils, whose lands are occupied by the military, also took to the streets of Jaffna when the secretary general present. Some of them travelled several hours and over hundred kilometers and were probably consoled by the fact that the secretary general had called for speeding up process of return of land so that they could return home.

Before the secretary general arrived in Colombo, families of the Welikada prison massacre and eyewitnesses who were being threatened and intimidated appealed to him for a meeting. They also pleaded with him to highlight the lack of progress in investigations and prosecutions in his private meetings and his public remarks to the media. While the contents of private discussions are unknown, there was no reference to impunity in relation to this single largest post-war massacre in any of secretary general’s public remarks.

He, however, did emphasise that the victims deserve to have their voices heard, that they deserve credible, transparent and solid transitional justice mechanisms and that they cannot wait forever. He also indicated that he had stressed the importance of these with political and military leadership.

UN’s failure and attempts to move on

The secretary general was forthright about what he called the “big mistakes” that the UN made in relation to Sri Lanka under his leadership, and that if the organisation had been more engaged, they could have saved several more human lives.

Despite this having been acknowledged in 2011 by the secretary general’s panel of experts and subsequently by a UN internal review report, the secretary general personally acknowledging this in Sri Lanka was of significance. He, however, stopped short of apologising for this monumental failure under his leadership and avoided facing those who were abandoned by the UN, despite some of them lining up the streets in Jaffna while he was there.

Instead, the secretary general remarked that the UN had learnt “very hard lessons from Sri Lanka where the fog of war had obscured the centrality of human rights” and that the UN had taken steps to ensure that human rights were at the centre of all its decision-making. He squarely attributed the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative as a response to the mistakes the UN made in Sri Lanka and the lessons they had leant.

Looking ahead

If the UN’s HRuF were to become a reality, a good place to start would be Sri Lanka – the tragedy that led to the initiative. The report of the panel appointed by the secretary general helped kick start subsequent actions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council and by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). However, a coherent rights-based strategy from the UN towards Sri Lanka is not yet visible.

The new government has improved relations with the UN and intensified engagement with UN officials. But despite this, the secretary general doesn’t appear to have elicited a major commitment from the Sri Lankan government during the visit, such as ways to engage with the Human Rights Council beyond March of next year, or establishing an OHCHR field office in Sri Lanka.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage with UN officials and the member states, especially to get a response for people like Inoka, the families and eyewitnesses of the Welikada prison massacre and the many survivors and families of victims from the North who ask, “will the UN listen to us, what they will do for us?”

Last week I choose to be with Inoka at her vigil and forego the meeting with the secretary general. But, despite survivors, families of victims and some activists trying to communicate reports of continuing violations, and the limited progress in addressing impunity to the UN, rights issues didnot feature prominently in the secretary general’s public remarks.

Neither was there much symbolic action expressing solidarity and support for the struggle for rights by Inoka and others like her.

The UN, especially the incoming secretary general should be careful not to get carried away with the “charm offensive” of the Sri Lankan government and its ambitious promises. Changes for the better, after an end of a three decade brutal war and a decade of authoritarian rule, should not lead to Sri Lanka being prematurely marketed as a “success story,” even before the survivors and the families of victims experience tangible changes in their lives.

While much of the reform must happen within Sri Lanka, the UN officials and member states still have an important role to play beyond praising the positive initiatives and the progress made. The secretary general, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN’s various mechanisms and institutions should try to provide an objective picture of the situation in Sri Lanka to the UN member states, find ways of continuing engagement over the next few years and give a central place to the tears, cries, struggles and expectations of Inoka and others like her.

Remembering, celebrating and missing Sunila Abeysekera

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/09/09/remembering-celebrating-and-missing-sunila-abeysekera/ on 9th September 2016

Ever since Sunila passed away 3 years ago, I have wanted to write about her, but found it difficult to articulate my experiences and feelings. There’s much that has been said by many about her. Among these, what Dayapala Thiranagama wrote about her two years ago has remained in my memory, as it captures much of the Sunila I knew, remember, celebrate and miss.

Below are some excerpts of how Dayapala, describes his first encounter with Sunila which led to their long years of friendship.

I was waiting in my cell for yet another excruciating round of torture, which I had been subjected to since I had been abducted two weeks ago from my university boarding house. All of a sudden, a young, smartly dressed woman, of middle class appearance was standing in front of my police cell. She called me by name. This was the first visitor I had seen since my capture. CID had not recorded my abduction or my presence in the police station and did not allow anyone to see me. My torturers told me that I would not be going home this time. Sunila and I started our friendship in these extraordinary circumstances. Her courageous presence before my police cell, even for a few minutes, ensured that there was a witness to my abduction and torture.”

He goes on to say “She used to visit detainees at police stations, prisons and other places such as those who were living underground, to offer vital support to them when necessary. Such visits had a profound effect on those she helped. Much of the help she gave others was not widely (known) but was invaluable to those people. One such example was her support and help when my wife Rajani was assassinated by the LTTE. I was still underground and Sunila undertook the most difficult task of organising my safe passage to Jaffna to attend Rajani’s funeral. Sunila also led a group of activists from the South to join a protest march in Jaffna town one month after Rajani’s assassination. In Colombo Sunila organised a commemoration meeting around that time.”

Sunila was probably the most sought after, celebrated and well known Sri Lankan human rights and women’s rights activist nationally and internationally in recent times. She won prestigious awards and held many positions. But that is not what I remember her for.

Her approach to activism – and I mean practice, not preaching or teaching – has had a profound influence on me. I consider Sunila to be one of my two main mentors (other being Fr. Tissa Balasooriya) and I’ve been fortunate to have been with Sunila and watched her “in action”. As she confronted military personnel on frontlines of the war in the East in 2007, trying to reach populations in areas that were cut off. As she negotiated with Police who were trying to disrupt a protest in front of the Fort railway station. When she was talking to the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Diplomats in Colombo and the then Minister of Human Rights. When she was asking uncomfortable and thought provoking questions during a training on gender and sexuality. And maybe most importantly, when she spent time visiting and talking to families of disappeared persons, displaced and others affected by war and violence.

Much of what I have learnt about fact finding in dangerous and difficult circumstances, doing documentation and sharing personally sensitive and politically explosive stories, providing protection to those whose lives were at risk and engaging in lobbying and advocacy comes from Sunila. It was about ethics, principles and attitude, as much as it was about skills. It was about why we were doing these as much as how.

Looking back now, I also fondly remember the scoldings I got from her, with a strong flavor of love and care – for me and others. For instance, the wrath I had to face when she found out  that a pregnant colleague had gone with me to Jaffna at the height of the war in 2008.

I remember how comforting it was to have been able to call and talk to her when I was being held up for hours at an Army checkpoint one evening in 2008, near the frontlines of the war in Mannar. She insisted on staying on the phone most of that time. And she took the opportunity to scold me for having ventured there, for dragging others into danger and returning at a time she considered to be too late. Later in 2009, I came back to Sri Lanka, after a colleague was arrested while I was in India, disregarding a SMS from Sunila suggesting for me to stay on there. She didn’t say anything afterwards. But weeks later, when threats were getting serious and imminent, she called from overseas and instructed me to leave Sri Lanka immediately. I obeyed. While I was in exile, we talked regularly and she helped me assess the security situation and challenged me to return to Sri Lanka after a few months, without ever pressuring me. Among the many times I wished she was alive was on the lonely and scary night that I was arrested and detained. Later, after my release, as I was discredited and marginalized by friends, relatives and even some activists, I felt sure she would have been among those who would have warmly embraced and welcomed me.

Memories of Sunila also consist of some good times even during the worst of times. Good food, drinks, stories – in her house in Maharagama, in Batticaloa, Geneva and Bangkok. When I was living in Bangkok, she was the most frequent visitor from Sri Lanka. She regularly brought me ginger beer, arrack and Sinhalese newspapers, and rarely did we miss watching a movie together. The few days I spent with her in her apartment in Kuala Lumpur while I was in exile in 2009 and the week I spent with her in The Hague in 2013, as she was battling cancer, will remain as the most precious days I’ve spent with her.

Today in Sri Lanka, there are changing ground realities, shifting political positions and alliances, debates on compromises and realism, and blurring of lines. As we search for meaningful, principled and relevant ways of activism, meeting up to different expectations of diverse survivors and families of victims, Sunila is greatly missed. Trying to carry forward even a small part of her legacy remains a great challenge.

Compared to many other activists, I’ve only known Sunila for a short period. But it has given me much to remember and much to celebrate about Sunila. Enough to miss her greatly.