Solidarity

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

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Sri Lanka’s 65,000 Disappeared: Will the Latest Missing Persons’ Office Bring Answers?

First published at http://thewire.in/2016/06/14/sri-lankas-disappeared-will-the-latest-missing-persons-office-bring-answers-42687/ on 14th June 2016

There is still a possibility to make the Office of Missing Persons an institution that can provide some degree of truth, justice and reparations to families of disappeared.

A few days ago I was with Mauri Inoka, whose husband disappeared in September 2013. She was protesting on the pavement of a major road in Colombo, close to the presidential secretariat, sweltering in the heat, with her twin children, aged about two-and-half years, born just two months after their father disappeared. The children seemed tired, hungry and thirsty, and cried most of the time. Their mother tried to console them and spoke with determination to the media personnel interviewing her, while the policemen tried to make her give up the protest. But later, after being compelled to talk to the same officials who had made empty promises at the presidential secretariat one year ago, and after the journalists and police left, Inoka also broke down and cried.

Inoka claims that the police are complicit or have information about her husband’s disappearance. Her complaints to the police, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and the former and present president have not yielded any answers for 1,010 days. She almost lost her job. They were often scared, homeless, hungry, displaced by floods and dependent on the occasional support that a few family members, friends, and activists could offer. Inoka was threatened several times not to pursue the case of her husband’s disappearance and was also abducted and dumped on the roadside.

Disappearances

In the late 1980s, most of those disappeared were Sinhalese, like Inoka’s husband. Since then, the majority of those who disappeared have been Tamils. Muslims also have disappeared, such as my friend and colleague Pattani Razeek. Razeek was one of the few whose body was found after he disappeared. Some suspects have been arrested, but his family believes the master minds are free and no one has been charged. Razeek’s son regularly calls me seeking help to ensure justice for his father.

In August 2006, Father Jim Brown, a Tamil Catholic priest and his assistant, Vimalathas disappeared. They had gone into a navy held area, after signing in at a navy checkpoint in Allaipiddy, Jaffna. Brown had offered shelter to people in his church to save them from bombs and shells, during heavy fighting but many civilians were killed and injured inside the church. Brown survived and had later pleaded with the navy to take the injured out of the fighting zone. He was reportedly threatened by a navy officer, and there were reports that the navy had refused orders of the magistrate to hand over the log book at the checkpoint.

They are amongst the 65,000 Sri Lankans reported to have disappeared. In the 36 year old history of the UN’s working group on disappearances, it’s the second largest case from Sri Lanka.

Eyewitness testimonies and other available evidence indicate that the Sri Lankan state – particularly its army, navy and police may be responsible for most disappearances, in the context of counter-terrorism operations mainly. The evidence also indicates that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is also responsible for many disappearances, especially during the last stages of the war.

Ironically, amongst the families of the disappeared that I have worked with, is a mother of an air force officer who had gone missing and a wife of a LTTE leader who had disappeared after surrendering to the army, along with hundreds of other LTTE leaders. About 5,000 soldiers from the Sri Lankan armed forces are also believed to be missing in action.

State role 

Families of the disappeared and the activists have faced numerous threats, intimidation, restrictions, surveillance, arrests and detention as they campaigned for truth and justice for the disappeared. In December 2011, Lalith and Kugan, campaigners against the disappearances, disappeared. In March 2014, Jeyakumary, a Tamil mother seeking truth and justice for her son, whose photo had been seen in a government-run rehabilitation facility, was arrested.  A colleague and I were also arrested when we went to investigate it. All three of us are still terrorist suspects with pending cases against us. In August 2014, when I was attending a private discussion between some families of the disappeared with lawyers, activists and diplomats, a mob led by Buddhist monks invaded the private church run building and disrupted the meeting. The police refused to intervene or provide protection. Families of the disappeared were stopped twice from coming to Colombo from the north to hand over petitions during the previous regime.

Successive government have set up many bodies to address disappearances, and families of the disappeared and activists have engaged with them, sometimes in good faith and sometimes in desperation. But truth, justice and reparations have been elusive.

A commitment the present government made through co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council resolution, was fulfilled last month with the ratification of the International convention against disappearances. The government, however, barred Sri Lankans from making complaints to the committee monitoring the implementation of the convention by not recognising article 31. Another commitment in the UN resolution was to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP). The commitment to enact a domestic law making disappearances a crime in Sri Lanka has not been fulfilled and there is no timeline for this, though it is crucial for disappearances to be criminalised before the OMP is established.

OMP as an institution

The OMP was one of the four focuses of the consultation task force appointed to conduct consultations on transitional justice. But instead of consulting people, the government relied on a secret process to come up with a draft bill to establish the OMP. After about eight months, almost at the end of the drafting process, the foreign ministry held a hastily convened de-briefing for few activists. Due to insistence of activists, another de-briefing for few families of the disappeared was held ten days later. Both were in Colombo. Four days later, the draft bill was approved by the cabinet. Technically, the bill can still be amended before it is passed into law by the parliament, but it seems unlikely that it will be changed substantially.

The draft bill is promising with concern to the right of the families to truth, with no restrictions on temporal or geographical restrictions, clauses guaranteeing anonymity for witnesses, opportunities for international expertise, powers to summon any person and obtain documents and other materials, make unannounced visits to relevant places, seek search warrants and court orders for exhumations. The office will also have branch offices.

The draft bill, however, doesn’t give the OMP prosecutorial authority and this may hamper the possibility to offer plea bargains, immunity in exceptional circumstances and other forms of incentives to elicit information.

The draft bill is vague. Gender and ethnic composition is not specified. There is no provision to include families of the disappeared in the most senior oversight body. There is no requirement for the appointing authorities to give time and opportunities to families of the disappeared and others to comment on nominees or make nominations. The regularity to provide information to families is not specified and it’s not obligatory to provide maximum information to families.

The right to pursue justice is compromised by the OMP not having prosecutorial authority and being given the discretion to share or not share information with the external prosecutorial and judicial bodies. There is no provision to ensure that tracing investigations will be done in tandem with criminal investigations or that the OMP will ensure information and evidence discovered will be treated with best international criminal investigation standards, to enable them to be admissible during any subsequent prosecutions.

Justice and aid 

At the moment, there are no initiatives to ensure economic justice for the families or offer any financial and material assistance in the form of interim reparations. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, a totally separate entity, which is likely to take a long time to establish. Some of the families, whose breadwinners have disappeared, may not even be able to engage with the OMP because of extreme poverty.

Procedures and obligations to deal with identified or unidentified human remains are weak in the present draft bill. At the only opportunity they had before the cabinet approval, some families of the disappeared appealed to change the name from “missing” to “disappear”. But despite promises to consider it, the name remains unchanged.

The distraught mother of Brown passed away without knowing what happened to her son. His lonely and ageing father’s only hope is to hear news of his son before he dies. Inoka desperately needs support for housing, education and food for her children, so that she can continue her struggle for truth and justice. Many families don’t have adequate financial, emotional and legal support and accompaniment to strengthen their struggles. I have often struggled and ended up frustrated trying to mobilise support for families of the disappeared, amongst politicians, journalists, artists, lawyers, activists and the general public.

At least one person was abducted by the dreaded “White Van”, a symbol of disappearances in Sri Lanka, last April. He was later found in police custody. The discovery of explosives and suicide jacket near Jaffna had led to new wave of arrests of some Tamils from the north and east since the end of March, under the draconian and much abused Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the government has promised to repeal. Torture and lack of due process has been reported in relation to some of these arrests.

The above context, and lack of consultations and sensitivity to ideas of families of disappeared in creating the OMP and the limits in the draft bill has created an environment of suspicion about it. There is still a possibility to make the OMP an institution that can provide at least some degree of truth, justice and reparations to families of disappeared, rather than giving more agony and trauma. But it will require principled commitment from politicians, sensitivity of the general public and lot of work from families themselves and those supporting them.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who worked with families of the disappeared, and was involved in documentation, campaigns and advocacy in relation to the disappearances. He is a member of Watchdog Collective, Advisor to INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre in Colombo.

Activists in an international system: pushing for change in Sri Lanka

Local and international activists have been crucial in getting a UN response in Sri Lanka. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate,Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Stephen Hopgood argued several years ago that it is activists, not states, who will make a difference in the future, and to a certain extent this has proved to be true in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, the primary struggle for human rights has to be waged at home. But there are also times when international support—such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is crucial. For us, 2006-2014 was such a time.

In 2005-2006, I was working at the FORUM-ASIA Secretariat based in Bangkok. As the conflict in Sri Lanka escalated in 2006, I decided to go home and came back to chaos. There were large-scale enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, mass displacement, forcible recruitment (including of children), and severe restrictions on traveling and communication. It was also a time where human rights activists, including non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, humanitarian workers, independent journalists, clergy and opposition politicians with critical views of the government, were killed, disappeared, detained or threatened. Domestic human rights protection mechanisms, such as the Judiciary, National Human Rights Commission and the Ad Hoc Commissions of Inquiries, had become completely ineffective.

It was a very dangerous time to be an activist living and working in Sri Lanka, and it is in this context that international solidarity became a crucial element of our struggle for human rights. The primary focus of our international advocacy was targeting the United Nations (UN), and a secondary strategy of engagement was towards the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s failure to intervene severely harmed its credibility, resulting in some heads of states boycotting the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. And I still believe the level of atrocities we saw in the last phase of the war, particularly in 2009, could have been less if a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field presence had been established.

In September 2008, when the government ordered all UN agencies to leave the war zone, the people appealed not to be abandoned. But we failed to persuade the UN to stay. In early 2009, as the war reached its peak and civilian casualties escalated dramatically, we as human rights defenders sought a special session with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). We finally got it—but only after the war—and the outcome was a disaster for Sri Lanka and the UN.

The internal UN review that followed recognised that “events in Sri Lanka marked a grave failure of the UN” and that “many senior UN staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility.” But in March 2012 and March 2013, with continued pressure from human rights groups, the tide started to turn. In March 2014, the UNHRC passed another resolution on Sri Lanka, asking the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct an investigation into serious violations of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka. Though late and limited, this was a victory for survivors, victim’s families and some of us who had long campaigned for this, even when it seemed to be against all odds.


Flickr/Vikalpa (Some rights reserved)

 

In September 2015, the High Commissioner’s office released the report of its investigations. It detailed horrific narratives of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, forcible recruitment of children, obstructions of movement to safe areas, sexual and gender based violence, torture, and arbitrary detention on a mass scale and in a systematic manner. The High Commissioner recommended the establishment of a Special Hybrid Court with international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators to ensure accountability for the reported violations, along with other international action such as universal jurisdiction and vetting. The “hybrid court” and “international participation” appears to be what has caught the media attention. Going beyond this to address other needs such as truth seeking, reparations, memorialization, constitutional change and introspection is where more local activism is so desperately needed.

The strong involvement of survivors and the families of victims made a huge difference to international advocacy. While the international focus of Sri Lankan human rights defenders was on intergovernmental bodies, such as the UN, the Commonwealth and individual Governments, these would only change course if others—smaller in size but perhaps bigger in passion, determination and commitment—pushed them relentlessly. The strong involvement of survivors and the families of victims made a huge difference to international advocacy. Mothers, fathers, and wives came forward courageously to give testimony to high profile representatives from foreign governments and the UN, in Sri Lanka itself or in Geneva. Amongst those regular visitors and strong advocates was the wife of disappeared Sinhalese journalist, Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda, and Dr. Manoharan, the father of a teenage Tamil boy killed on the beach in 2006.

Despite the government clampdown on local media, some international media continued to give coverage to stories of survivors of human rights violations and families of victims, in particular their struggles for truth and justice. Though their interest was not consistent and tended to focus on specific events, such coverage was essential since it was an opportunity to share an alternative narrative with the world. Several writers spent significant amounts of time with war-affected persons in the North and wrote books highlighting their stories, while others made films using materials from the last phases of the war and afterwards. They too had to face intimidations, defamation, severe restrictions on travel to the North, and surveillance and obstacles once they got there. Some were arrested, detained and deported. But these stories, through articles, video clips, films, photography and books, went a long way in keeping alive the dwindling world attention on Sri Lanka.

Probably the most controversial group has been the Sri Lankan diaspora. I met with several diaspora groups, some exclusively Tamil and some mixed with Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil. Some diaspora groups clearly supported and justified the war and tried to cover up violence and abuses by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government. But many with whom I engaged appeared to be fuelled by concern and care about what was happening in Sri Lanka, about the survivors and families of victims of human rights violations. Some groups became very influential in lobbying foreign governments and UN officials, and there is no doubt that they contributed to the developments in the UN in relation to Sri Lanka.

For us, the years between 2006-2014 were a time of desperation and emergency, when we local activists, students, artists and many other human rights defenders, needed the international system—but the international system would not have taken action if we hadn’t pushed for it. There is slightly more space now for us to work inside Sri Lanka, but it would be a mistake for our international friends to leave us now, especially after the long journey they have undertaken with us. We can only hope the UN and the Commonwealth step up.

As I give thanks, I look forward to a continuing journey.

*A longer version of this piece first appeared on Forum Asia.

Solidarity Actions and Struggles for Justice in Sri Lanka

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/12/30/solidarity-actions-and-struggles-for-justice-in-sri-lanka/ on 30th December 2015

On 28th December 2015, the Nuwara Eliya High Court delivered a historic judgment: two men were each sentenced to 23 years rigorous imprisonment and ordered to pay Rs. 200,000 in compensation after being convicted for the abduction and rape of Rita, a 17 year old Tamil girl from Talawakele in the hill country, on 12th August 2001.

It was a happy moment for Rita and those of us who were in courts with her. It was a victory for exceptional courage and determination of Rita and all those who supported her long struggle. But it also showcased the exceptional decay of Sri Lanka’s justice system – more than 14 years to ensure justice for abduction and rape of teenaged girl. In his introduction to the judgement, the Judge also highlighted this delay in justice and also referred to delays at Police stations.

Rita’s challenges, struggles, courage and determination 

It is rare that victims of rape, especially a teenage Tamil schoolgirl from an estate area, will fight for justice. She will be victimised, again and again, in the verbal comments made to her, in the way people look at her, in her village, school, work place. The Police, the Attorney-General’s Department, the Judiciary, the family, the media, and society in general are not sympathetic. Even the sympathetic may not be committed to help pursue justice. She and her family are likely to encounter threats, intimidation, and attempts to discredit her if she decides to pursue justice instead of keeping quiet.

But Rita perused justice with exceptional courage and determination, right from the time she was raped. Her first step after the incident was to go and complain to the Police and then accompany the Police to show the place of the incident and search for the suspects. These steps were referred to by the Judge in positive way yesterday in his reasoning given for the judgment.  The state counsels prosecuting her case had changed 15 times. At least 9 judges had heard her case. There were more than a hundred court hearings – in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya High Courts, non-summary proceedings, and another civil case in the District Courts. She had to go through the trauma of repeatedly explaining what happened to her in detail over a number of years, including in the face of harsh and probing cross examinations, and she even fainted once. But Rita had remained consistent in her story. The Judge also recognized this and highlighted that the defence lawyers were not able to cast doubt

on Rita’s testimony, which appeared to be corroborated by medical evidence, observations of the Police, circumstantial evidence some statements by accused

Rita had lost her father when she was young. Her grandfather died in 2009, midway through her struggle for justice – he had supported and encouraged her, and had given witness in her court proceedings. She pursued justice, despite intimidations to her and family and attempts to offer money and get her to withdraw the case. She was compelled to stay in 21 safe houses for security. She had to leave her friends and familiar surroundings and change school, village. She even had to seek employment in the Free Trade Zone, far away from the hill country she had lived all her life.

Solidarity and support for Rita 

Within a few weeks of Rita being raped, I participated in a protest in Hatton in the hill country, demanding justice for Rita. That protest was spearheaded by Fr. Nandana Manatunga, a Catholic Priest. He has remained an inspiration and good friend since then. He was the director of Caritas Kandy then, but has moved on to take new positions, in various parishes and institutions. But he had never wavered from accompanying and supporting Rita, and was in court yesterday, as he had been with Rita and numerous other victims, hundreds of times. He and his dedicated band of staff and volunteers at the Human Rights Office (HRO), Kandy, had protected Rita; finding safe houses, facilitated her education, employment, provided legal and medical assistance and counselling, provided some financial assistance, and even assisted in family funerals, sicknesses, and Rita’s own wedding. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar appealed to the then President Kumaratunga to expedite the case. National and international campaigns have been organised to exert pressure to expedite the case.

As I write this on my way back in the train from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, I remembered stages of Rita’s struggles over the years and my meetings with her, what she had told. I also wondered whether there would have been justice even after 14 years, if not for Rita’s unwavering courage, her family’s and others support?

Rare successes due to survivors and victim’s families courage & determination

Courage and determination of survivors and their families have brought about justice in several other cases, in a country where justice has been, and still remains, elusive and inaccessible to many. In many of these cases, there has been long term accompaniment and significant support from individuals and organizations.

In May 2012, a man was sentenced for 20 years and ordered to pay compensation of Rs. 100,000 for raping 13 year old Divya, who like Rita, was also a Tamil girl from the estate community. Earlier this month, two Police officers were sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment each for torturing two persons from Kandy. HRO had also managed to obtain the release of several persons who were detained for long periods under the PTA, after long years of support to the detainees and the families.

In a rare judgement from the highly militarized and war ravaged North, in October 2015, four soldiers from the Army were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for the rape and sexual abuse of two Tamil women from Vishvamadu, in 2010. A determined struggle by Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda[1]for six years in Sri Lanka and beyond, supported by strong national and international campaigns, has led to the arrest of several persons, including those from the military and intelligence units, who are suspected to be responsible for the enforced disappearance of her husband, cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010.

But, in contrast, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no progress in investigations, no arrests in the 2007 enforced disappearance of Ramachandran Subramanium, a Tamil journalist from Jaffna, despite what appears to be eye witness accounts of military involvement. Is it because his elderly parents could not campaign like Sandya and they did not get the national and international support Sandya got? Tens of thousands of survivors and families of victims of rape and sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances await justice in Sri Lanka for decades.

Reforming justice system

The few successes in struggles for justice in Sri Lanka have been largely due to exceptional courage and determination of survivors and victims’ families and the solidarity and support from few individuals and groups, rather than effectiveness of the state and statutory institutions established to deliver justice.

It’s a major fault of our justice system that justice is not accessible and available independently and as of right, and quickly, but rather, appears to depend on a victim’s courage or ability to garner support. 14 years is way too long for teenaged girl who was raped to wait for justice. Thus, in the longer term, reform of the justice system will be key.

Solidarity and accompaniment – how important is it?

At the same time, I believe it is also important for all of us who believe in justice to reflect how much of our time and energy we should invest in accompanying survivors and victim’s families, in their struggles for justice. It would be particularly important to reflect on ways to sustaining accompaniment and solidarity for long years, as the justice system itself tries to wear us down and make us give up. Rita’s case is a good example of sustained struggle, accompaniment and solidarity despite the delays in the system.

I have been privileged and inspired to have worked with and encountered survivors and families of victims, who had braved extreme odds and risks to pursue justice. Rizkhan, the son of my murdered friend Pattani Razeek; Sandya Ekneligoda, who I mentioned above; Mayuri, whose husband was abducted in 2013; Dr. Manoharan, whose teenaged son was executed 10 years ago; some villagers in Mullikulam whose village has been occupied by the Navy since 2007; and several wives of those who have been unjustly detained are amongst those who come to mind. There are more of course.

I have also come to admire the work of individuals and groups in different parts of Sri Lanka and beyond, who have been supporting such struggles. Together with some colleagues and friends, I have also tried hard to support some such struggles. But despite the risks we have taken, personal sacrifices we have made, and our best efforts, we have not been able to do enough. It has been heart breaking to ignore or say “no” to some desperate appeals and being unable to find others who could support where we could not. I have also been frustrated at my inability to motivate and encourage others, including colleagues and friends, to work more with survivors and victims’ families and invest more in accompaniment and solidarity.

Research, campaigning, advocacy, legal action, trainings appear to be considered more important than accompaniment and solidarity.  But in my experience, simple things standing by their side on street protests, like accompaniment to courts and other institutions, visiting them in their prisons and homes, providing moral support, helping with translations, introducing them to others who could help their cause, have been key in survivors and victims’ families obtaining justice, as has been the case with Rita and several others I mentioned above. And it’s likely to be so in the immediate future, till we have more independent, accessible and effective justice system.

[1] For a more detailed account of Sandya’s struggle in first three years, seehttp://groundviews.org/2013/01/23/11073/