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These blog postings do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the Advisory Council.


Human Rights defender, a job not without risk in Sri Lanka: Herman Kumara’s story.

Herman Kumara is a well-respected Sri Lankan human rights defender. Convenor of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, founder member of People to People Dialogue on Peace and Sustainable Development [PPD], an active member of Platform for Freedom [PfF], and a board member for the Women for Development Alternatives of Sri Lanka. He has been active in many projects and has made an incredible contribution to Sri Lankan, as well as international, human rights campaigns.

This leading figure of the Sri Lankan civil society was accused wrongly of being the cause of protests by fishermen against fuel price increases of up to 50% as announced by the Government, in February 2012.

The demonstrations ended into violent clashes. Antony Warnakulasuriya, 35, was killed and several other were critically injured during the melee between the Police and the fishermen when the State forces indiscriminately opened fire with live bullets without any warning.

The Sri Lankan Government and the state media tried desperately to accuse NGOs of being responsible for this murder, saying that the protests were organized by anti-government forces. Addressing a cabinet press briefing on 23rd February, a group of Ministers described the recent protests against the fuel price increase as an “NGO funded conspiracy” supported by the West.

Fisherman, Negombo Lagoon, South-West Sri Lanka. Copyright Chloe Dsbnt. 
The trigger for persecution of Herman Kumara was a statement the Fisheries Minister then made in Parliament:
 “After the fisherman had reached an agreement, certain opportunists mobilized this protest. I will identify them by name. There is a man called Anura. The other person is Herman Kumara. ..... They are the real murderers."
Since then, Herman Kumara has received repeated threats, surveillance and intimidation. Fearing to be murdered or abducted he has been obliged to live covertly for a while. During that time the Sri Lanka campaign interviewed him, and we include that interview at the end of the article.

Returning from an international conference in Rome at the end of February, Herman found out that he was being closely watched by the Government. He was being followed by suspicious cars, people in his village - as well as direct neighbours - had been questioned about him and asked his family’s details: including his address and his vehicle number. Meanwhile five of NAFSO’s employees were visited at their homes by intelligence officers and questioned about the Herman and the organization’s activities.

There was clearly a plan to abduct and/or murder him.

Mr Kumara’s wife and NAFSO filed official complaints about the threats and surveillance against him. However, no credible action appears to have been taken to investigate the threats or to provide him with adequate protection.

This case is far from being unique. Since the end of the war, arbitrary arrests and abductions have become common in Sri Lanka. 58 abductions have been registered in the last 6 months. Many of the victims were those who are not afraid to talk against Rajapaksa’s Government: journalist, human rights defender, and religious leaders -all of them now defined by the title of “anti-Government forces” or Traitors. People like Herman Kumara testify to the critical condition of the rule of law in Sri Lanka.

Do you want to help? Please Act by joining the Asian Human Rights Commissions Urgent Appeal by clicking here.

An interview with Herman Kumara:

NAFSO Office, Negombo, South-West Sri Lanka. Copyright Chloe Dsbnt.
Herman, we now know a bit more about the hard situation you have been recently facing.

Were you officially accused of illegal acts by the governmental authorities?

No, I have never been accused of any illegal action; there have been no complaints to the police, or any case in the courts about me. I am doing my work within the framework of the democratic and political rights stipulated by the Sri Lankan constitution.

I have been an active member of civil society for the 20 years since 1992, I have never once received a complaint of illegal action from any government authority.

It was only the present Minister of Fisheries who accused me, claiming we are the responsible persons for the instigation of fishermen against the “incredible fuel price hike”. This was a spontaneous act of fishermen and no organization or trade union was involved. 

Did you, regarding  Sri Lankan law, commit any illegal acts that could be used to justify actions against you? Or lead to the threat of abduction?

No. There is no such illegal act committed by me or my organization.

Even if anyone else committed such an illegal act, the abduction or kidnap is not the way to respond it. There is a legal procedure. Sri Lanka is a so called democratic country. People respect the judicial system and still there are ways to take legal action for any crime. Extra judiciary acts cannot be justified at any cost.

There is a culture of silence prevailing for such acts. Majority people in the south justified the abductions, disappearances, intimidations, harassments during the war time. Now, the same system is being applied to people in the south and the cost is very high. So, southern people are learning lessons today as to what the Tamil ethnic minorities faced over the last three decades.

You got back to Sri Lanka at the end of April, do you still fear for your life or to be abducted?

I went back to Sri Lanka because I have my role to play as a human rights defender.  There are thousands of such people struggling to ensure the rule of law, work against impunity, establish the right to freedom of expression, the rights of ethnic minorities,  the unended cries of the internally displaced people, the problems faced by women headed families, and as a whole establish democratic rights of the country.

So, I wanted to join hands with them as one victim among thousands. However, the danger is not over. Once you were targeted, you will not be safe even though you were able to escape once or twice. So, I am taking all possible steps to be safe and to survive. But I will continue my engagements to make Sri Lanka a democratic and decent society.

Small fishing boats, Negombo Beach, South West Sri Lanka. Copyright Chloe Dsbnt.

Can you explain a little bit how your life looks like in Sri Lanka? What are the kind of precautions you must take to feel as secure as possible?

I cannot explain all of my precautions as that would put me in further  danger.

I work in a high profile a manner as possible and I take as many security measures as possible in my private life. That is the main strategy I have adopted

However, my main precautionary measure is working more with the communities and building up trust. Perpetrators want to discredit my work and my name using all possible ways. My biggest strength is the trust of the people whom I am working with.

Additionally my engagements with local, national and international social movements are my strength. They keep an eye on me and my engagements.

Recently, there was a spate – we called it an epidemic – of abductions. That now seems to have stopped. It is a false impression? Can you explain what are the reasons in your point of view?

There were three major incidents that exposed the government engagements in the abductions in recent past. One was the attempt to abduct the mayor of Kolonnawa urban council. The other one was the abduction and releasd of a provincial councillor who is a brother-in–law of a cabinet minister. The last one was the abduction of the leader of the Front-line Socialist Party and a political activist.

In the first event, the Kolonnawa mayor and his people were able to capture the perpetrators and hand them over to police. But police did not take any legal action against them; there was a report that the DIG (Deputy Inspector General of Police) for Colombo division attended to the case and took the perpetrators to freedom.

In the second incident, the provincial councillor was released some time after the abduction. Then he came to the media and innocently revealed how he was released with the intervention of his brother-in-law, the cabinet minister. Divaina , a Sinhala language newspaper, reported that the cabinet minister had phoned the president and his brother,  the Secretary of the Defence ministry then got involved to release him from the abduction.

Negombo Canal, South-West Sri Lanka. Copyright Chloe Dsbnt.
The third incident was the release of the Frontline Socialist Party leader and the activist. With the involvement of the Australian high commissioner and the pressure from internal and external forces against the abduction, the perpetrators had to release both of them. It was somewhat long story but the involvement of the authorities was also exposed.

So, due to these very public embarrassments, the rate of abductions has drastically reduced during the few weeks since early April. However, there was another abduction reported within the last week. So, we cannot say the perpetrators are ready to give up their illegal operations just because  they reduced their vigour for the time being.

In my opinion, there is another important factor. The implementation of the recommendations in the LLRC (Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission) report and the National Action Plan for Human Rights is one of the important issues in front of the government. Unless we implement the LLRC recommendations, we will have to face the consequences in March 2013 when the UN Human Rights Council will meet in Geneva. At the same time the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has sent the foreign minister to the USA to explain how the GoSL is planning to implement the LLRC recommendations. The UN UPR (Universal Periodic Review)  will be happening this autumn.

So, the government need to implement some of the actions in some of these plans or we will face serious embarrassment in front of the international community. So, all these are challenges to the Sri Lankan Government and they need to show [or at least pretend] how seriously they take measures to ensure rule of law and establish democracy in the SL society.

Herman, thank you very much, and the best of luck.

Here, in a separate interview, you can see Herman discussing the threats made against him



Reflections on the resolution on Sri Lanka

Now that the Resolution on Sri Lanka has passed, it is a good time to reflect on the Sri Lankan Government’s stance and the untruths it continues to assert. On the opening day of the session, many member states addressed the Council, including the representative for Sri Lanka: Mahinda Samarsinghe MP. Several members took the opportunity to urge Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations reached by the Government’s own report (the LLRC Report). Samarsinghe took the opportunity to argue that UN member states shouldn’t interfere with its business.

Making sense of Samarsinghe’s speech is not easy, but the language used by the Sri Lankan Government is very important, particularly at a time when it is accusing Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders of being traitors. The Government often takes every opportunity to enforce a nationalistic rhetoric and this was no exception.

The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’s (LLRC) Report featured heavily in the Sri Lankan address to the UN Council; in particular the idea that the Government is doing everything possible to act on its recommendations to avoid any international condemnation. The Government has in fact moved particularly slowly to act on Interim recommendations made by the LLRC well over a year ago. This includes the release of a list of names of those in custody since the end of the war - something which could be done very quickly. In fact, in the over four months since this report has been published it has only really been mentioned outside of Sri Lanka. In front of a domestic audience President Mahinda Rajapaska and senior colleagues scarcely even acknowledge its existence; a state of affairs demonstrated by the fact it has still yet to be translated into Sinhala or Tamil.

The most deficient aspect of the ‘comprehensive’  LLRC Report is the absence of investigation into Government instances of war crimes, which we know took place. Samarsinghe attempts to debase the evidence that this took place - the UN Panel of Experts report - as this report relied upon ‘closed door hearings with unnamed witnesses who were guaranteed 20 years’ anonymity’. Thus the well established and recognised UN witness protection procedures were painted as somehow secretive, and as calling into question the reliability of witness’s evidence to the Panel. The contrast with the LLRC’s public hearings where people ‘testified freely and openly’ in front of a camera (and would have suffered to consequences for so doing afterwards) is then taken to show the ‘substantive and credible’ actions of the Government toward accountability.

Samarsinghe thus creates the fantasy that the Report and the Government’s international rhetoric on the subject is enough, in itself, to hold the perpetrators to account.

Samarsinghe’s reporting of what the Government has already implemented of the Report’s recommendations is similarly thin, fantastical and laughable. For example, the idea that the Government has already made headway into the implementation of a ‘language policy’ to encourage the celebration of a diverse multicultural society is far-fetched at best. Boasting the Government has conducted a ‘comprehensive census’ in provinces in the North and East further destabilises Samarsinghe’s argument; the fragile situations of many thousands of internally displaced people in these areas in particular renders the census quite meaningless. Furthermore, forming a Land Task Force to ‘deal with land issues’ when there is still land occupied and reserved for the Army in Sampur and around Vanni has so far helped very little. Indeed, the Indian construction project of 50000 new houses he touts is still not yet underway. It appears the resettlement aspect of Sri Lankan Government’s rehabilitation programme is anything but comprehensive.

Clearly there is a trend: barely factual claims, used as a poorly-disguised attempt to persuade the UN community against voting for a resolution on Sri Lanka. The resolution passed anyway, and Samarsinghe has failed to convince member states. So the Government is renewing efforts to intimidate critics inside Sri Lanka. Unless real efforts are made to press the Government to be accountable for its actions, this intimidation is likely to escalate into further violence.

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Banned websites go to supreme court

The arbitrary blocking of four websites by the Ministry of Media and Telecommunication Regulatory Commission stands contrary to the idea of freedom of expression. Last week the supreme court of Sri Lanka heard a case brought on behalf of the banned websites. We received several emails describing the case and we have used them to put together the description of events below.

Sunil Jayasekara and Udaya Kalupathirana of the Free Media Movement, acting on behalf themselves, the Free Media Movement and the general public recently bought a petition stating that blocking websites prevented them from exercising their right to expression alongside having access to information to form opinions.

According to the Ministry of Media and Telecommunication Regulatory Commission blocking the websites could be justified because “some websites are defaming VVIPs (Very Very Important People - clearly a reference to the President and his Brothers) and their privacy is under attack.” They further argued in Court that the owners of the four websites blocked had not come forward to identify themselves and register when “invited” to do so.  In light of Sri Lanka’s appalling record on free speech and expression coupled with the disappearances of numerous journalists, such an invitation would be daunting at best. The Government therefore disputed the rights of FMM to bring this case - FMM nobly countered by arguing they were petitioning as viewers who were using the unique opportunity offered by cyber media to participate actively through comments.

Attempting to stifle public opinion which may criticise government not only stands contrary to the tenets of democracy but may also, in this case be extra-judicial. Indeed as detailed by the petitioners, the blocking of neither websites nor the registration of such is not prescribed by law. The respondents (the Ministry) further failed to mention which specific laws had been violated, which highlights the arbitrariness of the action. According to the Ministry, the grounds to block the websites stemmed from complaints which were consequent to an inquiry. Yet, despite this justification, no such inquiry was produced before the Court. Indeed, the Sri Lankan Courts have previously recognised the right to access to information as stemming from the Freedom of Opinion and so to restrict the right in this case would be inconsistent.

And yet in spite of all of that, a three judge bench chaired by the Chief Justice dismissed the case. The petitioners will now have to file a complaint with the UN Human Rights Commission.

This is yet another blow to freedom of speech in Sri Lanka and yet another damning indictment of the Supreme court's cowardice when it comes to actions against the Government. In order for commitments to democracy by Sri Lanka to be truly taken seriously, there cannot be such a flagrant breach of the right to expression and opinion by citizens wishing to participate in their country’s politics. A culture of intimidation cannot be a base for democratic values and aims.

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A Viewpoint on International Scrutiny, the Human Rights Council and the LLRC

This viewpoint has been shared with us by a Sinhalese Sri Lankan who has been active in human rights work in the country.

Sri Lankans have always felt quite strongly about international scrutiny. Many people see it as “foreign interference” and the politicians have upheld this view by emphasising the importance of national sovereignty. This is not a recent notion; it has been with Sri Lankans since even before the Portuguese invaded in 1505!

The Sri Lankan Kings of ancient periods instilled this notion of “interference” or “invasion”. These values have continued through time and similarly the present government of Sri Lanka has been successful in trying to instil, under the guise of nationalism, the notion that sovereignty means rejecting scrutiny, in its people. They believe that international scrutiny is unhealthy and is a barrier to achieving “lasting peace”. People in the country have been refused access to unbiased opinions and so have not been given the space for critical thinking. The State media carries on a pro-government campaign which keeps highlighting the war victory, and have stressed the “damaging effects” and “untruths” of the diaspora and the Non Governmental Organisations.

But there still remains a small minority of persons who do challenge this view and call on the international community to hold the government accountable for its actions of the past and try to campaign towards peace, justice and reconciliation. But they are barely heard above the governmental clamour. Therefore a change of perceptions is required to start the process of reconciliation. Media freedom, an important element to achieve this change in perception, continues to be undermined - and the state still continues to attack and challenge the media and other civil society actors.

The Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council is of great hope for many Sri Lankan human rights defenders. The commitments made by the government in 2008 and the implementation of the recommendations set out in the Concluding Observations of four UN treaty body mechanisms:  the Child Rights Committee, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee against Torture will be reviewed in November 2012. This seems to have brought about much pressure on the government, but again any lobbying or campaigning on this issue would be frowned upon by the Sri Lankan majority.

Since the release of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) the government has continued to consider it with high regard, (abroad at least) even amongst much criticism brought by the civil society and the international community. This report has been already tabled in Parliament and it was alleged that the government’s plan for a political solution will be referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee (critics have frowned upon this as a postponing tactic). It remains to be seen if this will still take place in the new, much hotter, political climate around accountability issues.

This just shows that the government does not seem to have the political will to bring about reconciliation in the true sense of the word. The government’s attitude and process towards reconciliation seems to consist entirely of a smokescreen to overcome international pressure, rather than actually addressing the problem. They seem to want to use this report as a tool to wipe out the scepticism which has been created. Many countries, including India, Australia and the UK, have welcomed this report and have stated their hope towards the implementation of the recommendations and this has also been noted with high regard by the government. Thus the government continue to wax lyrical about the LLRC abroad, but rarely bring it up at home.

In a critic's view it is true that some of the interim LLRC recommendations have the potential to strengthen human rights in the country, but it must be noted that there is little hope of this as they have remained without implementation for over 16 months. Sri Lankan civil society also feels strongly on the report’s silence on issues of justice and accountability, for violations of human rights and humanitarian law that took place in the final phase of the war. The report also does not seem to contain any recommendations that would actively contribute to the process of reconciliation.

But the public, who have no access to the truth or a critical view point and seem to trust the words of the extremists within the government, seem to share the government's viewpoint and consider this as sufficient to achieve peace and deal with the causes that led to the start of this civil war.

There is a very strong need for methods to tackle these strong emotions of hatred. This needs to be a central plank of the process of reconciliation.

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Help beat Sri Lanka's crackdown

The government of Sri Lanka did not play fair, in trying to win the vote at the human rights council - with state media referring to any Sri Lankan who dared to criticise them as "traitors to the motherland", "dogs" and "supporters of the LTTE Rump". After they lost the attacks continued with the Minister for Public relations, no less, threatening to break the legs of activists and state TV using photographs of an exiled journalist's thirteen year old daughter in an attempt to further intimidate critics.

However the Government of Sri Lanka is making a big mistake if it thinks those it seeks to intimidate will take their smears and not respond. Civil society issued a strong joint statement, and several of those who were singled out have responded in written media, and on television.

This is Gene Sharp's concept of "political ju-jitsu" in action. The harder the government attempts to crack down on and vilify the people they see as their opponents, the more they prove the criticisms of the regime to be justified.

But sadly that lesson has yet to be learned by the Sri Lankan Government. For this reason we bring you the case of Sandya Ekneligoda

Sandya is the wife of Prageeth - the journalist and cartoonist who has been missing for over two years. She has been working to find him ever since with, as she was forced to write to the National Human Rights Comission: virtually no help from the institutions of state.

On the 9th of November last year, Mohan Peiris, the former Sri Lankan Attorney General, and current legal adviser to the President, was testifying before the United Nations Committee Against Torture. In passing he said, "our current information is, that Mr. Ekneligoda has taken refuge in a foreign country." It seems almost certain that this was simply a cruel and hurtful lie. If it were true, then Mr Peiris is guilty of obstructing the course of justice for failing to disclose the whereabouts of somebody believed to have disappeared.

For this reason Sandya asked Peiris to testify before the magistrates court investigating the case. Last Thursday investigating magistrates finally agreed that this should happen. This is great news and something that we all strongly welcome. Peiris will now appear in court on the 5th of June unless the Attorney General tries to prevent this on the 31st of May.

It is very important that Peiris testify– so please do take part in our action at the end of this piece.

But in the meantime Sandya went to Geneva - as was her right - to raise the case of her husband's disappearance with people attending the human rights council. She spoke about her husband's case at a side event on minority rights. For this she was subjected to brutal and inaccurate attacks in the Sri Lankan media.

Returning to Colombo the next week Sandya's attended the latest day of the case she had brought on her husband's disappearance. However, instead of discussing the matter at hand, the Government council spent the whole of the Monday session questioning her on her trip to Geneva. In other words, despite the fact that Sandya was not on trial, and despite the fact that this was a magistrates court that was hearing a case she had brought, Sandya had to defend herself against continuous and repeated allegations of treason.

The following comes from the AHRC’s record of events:
Mr. Fernando asked who invited and paid for expenses of the visit to Geneva and whether she received any money. The defense objected saying the questions did not pertain to the objective of the case, to which Mr. Fernando replied “I am entitled to ask any question to find out whether international organizations and NGO’s are provoking something against the state”.
In other words, the government council claims he is entitled to accuse a private petitioner in a civil case of treason – even when it is not relevant to the matter at hand – for the crime of talking to international NGOs. The case was then deferred until May.

Please act.

Sandya's trials will be worth it if eventually Mohan Peiris is compelled to testify and we get some information as to Prageeth's whereabouts or fate. We have put together a suggested letter and some suggested recipients on this webpage. Please do take the time to visit and to write - it could make all the difference.

The curious case of the vanishing LLRC

In December 2011, the “LLRC” report on the conduct of the Sri Lankan military and circumstances surrounding the end of the civil was published. Considering it was commissioned by the same state that committed the alleged war crimes, which killed at least 40,000 civilians in its final stage, hopes were not high for the report holding any value. However, the report’s findings, although biased and toothless, did offer some criticisms and solutions that many hoped the government would act upon.

However, six months on from the publication of the report, over 18 months on from the publication of that report’s interim recommendations, and three years since the end of the war, it is evident that the Sri Lankan government have no intention of acting. It is true that some of the recommendations of the LLRC will take time, but the process of implementing them has not even started. Meanwhile others could be implemented tomorrow – and yet still haven’t.

In Recommendation 9.277 of the LLRC’s report, it stated that “the practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages to the same tune must be maintained and supported.”

Yet a number of high profile events: independence day, New Year, have passed since these recommendations came out: events at which the anthem was sung exclusively in Sinhalese. Then, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, said in a characteristically brusque and incendiary fashion that singing the national anthem in Tamil, a simple and cheap measure to implement, was “a ridiculous idea”.

The last time the national anthem was sung in Tamil was in December 2010 and was scrapped by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet, who stated that no other country in the world had a national anthem in more than one language. This is incorrect: Canada and New Zealand have their national anthem in two languages, whilst Switzerland and Belgium have four different linguistic versions of their anthems - all enjoying equal status, sometimes being sung separately and sometimes with alternate verses taken from each version. Meanwhile South Africa’s national anthem has five verses each in a different language.

This means of excluding the Tamil population and language from the national identity occurred after decades of the Tamil national anthem being used and officially recognised at public events.

The Sri Lankan government’s failure to implement this simple yet symbolic measure proposed by the LLRC is a reflection of the lip service it has paid to the LLRC and to reconciliation with Tamil communities, indicating that it is merely appeasing demands by the international community rather than genuinely attempting reform.

Many other proposals from the report, including investigating its use of heavy artillery in civilian areas at the end of the civil war and giving more powers to Tamils in Tamil majority areas, have been disregarded, or indeed retrograde steps appear to have been taken, in the hope the international community will forget to check up on their progress in time.

This week GL Peiris, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister met Hilary Clinton, US foreign secretary in Washington. Clinton stressed that that the North of Sri Lanka needed be demilitarized, with provincial elections there and she emphasized the need to implement the LLRC plans and investigate war crimes allegations, “to strengthen reconciliation, public confidence inside and outside Sri Lanka, and, frankly, to speed the healing of the country.”

However, despite their assurances to the world they are making progress, the Sri Lankan government has been busily engaged, doing the exact opposite through its militarization of the country.

Since the end of the civil war, the number of army camps in Tamil provinces have increased, with many military settlements being created to evict Tamils and increase the Sinhalese foothold in the region. Nowhere was this militarization more evident than in this week’s celebration to mark the anniversary of the end of the war.

For any external commentator or foreign body who may believe the government’s claim that they are pursuing reconciliation, they only need to watch footage of the victory parade in Colombo, featuring artillery, tanks and rocket launchers parading down Galle Face, with warplanes flying above and navy gunships sailing along the coast.

At a time when sensitivity and restraint needed to be displayed, with many Tamil, Sinhalese and other communities grieving for their deceased loved ones, the government dispelled all notions of reconciliation with a flamboyant and unsavoury show of military might.

The way the Government behaves one way abroad and another at home can be further seen in their approach to the LLRC. While the LLRC is constantly used abroad as a shield to hide from international pressure it is scarcely mentioned by the government domestically and they have not even translated it into Sinhalese or Tamil.

According to Sri Lankan news reports, Clinton praised Sri Lanka’s new inquiry to implement post-conflict recommendations, saying it was an “excellent mechanism for implementing the LLRC’s recommendations”.

The onus lies with the international community to keep the pressure on Sri Lanka as it makes yet another promise to implement reconciliation. This is another delaying tactic, and unless international powers agitate for reform, the government will be keen to let this inquiry gather dust, just like its many many predecessors.

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The disappearance epidemic

A while back we blogged about two politicians who disappeared. After a number of confusing rumours and counter rumours they were eventually released. Good news, which shows how abductions can be stopped by swift action and a significant media response. Gunaratnam, who has Australian citizenship, was deported. The Sri Lankan Government first of all laughably tried to claim Gunaratnam was never in Sri Lanka, and then claimed that he was merely deported over visa issues.

However these abductions were just the 32nd and 33rd of the month.

The Sri Lankan journalist with the pseudonym “Watchdog” has recently released an article and a list of recent disappearances in Sri Lanka which contains some shocking numbers.

According to the list released by Watchdog, between February and March there have been 31 disappearances reported in Sri Lankan media, which bring the total over the last six months to 58. They report that 19 cases were reported during the time when “the sessions (sic) of the UN Human Rights Council were in progress in Geneva”. That is nineteen people who disappeared even as Government representatives were trying to persuade the UN that all was well in Sri Lanka.

A facebook page has now been set up to draw attention to this disappearance epidemic.

After taking a look at the list we have reason to believe that at least 26, or a little under half, of these abductions had a direct and cleat political link. In this group we find five ex-tamil tiger cadres who were abducted between the end of February and the beginning of March (numbers 17 to 21 in this list), an Urban Council Chairman and his brother (numbers 10 and 28), two human rights defenders and political activists (numbers 40 and 41), an organizer of the ITAK political party (number 31), a government member (number 36), the uncle of a government member (number 45), a close associate of a Minister (number 39), the suspected murderer of a former Prime Minister (number 55), and the son of a former provincial councillor who was released after being warned not to criticize the government (number 16).

In at least nine of these 26 cases the abductors are suspected to belong to the government in some way (numbers 6, 7, 8, 32, 49, 50, 51 and the most recent two). These include a man believed to have been abducted by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s “white van clan”, and three Veddah (indigenous Sri Lankan) youths. As the recently freed Gunaratnam said “the way they operated strongly suggested that abductors were a part of government security services and operate with the blessings of a political authority”.

It is also worth highlighting the abduction of Mr. Sagara Senaratne, brother-in-law of Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga. As the article puts it he “was released within hours of being abducted after the abductors had got “a call” while he was still in the van that he had been abducted in. Mr. Sagara had claimed that he would not be alive if not for the intervention of Minister Kumaratunga, the President and the Defense Secretary. It is not clear how the Rajapakse brothers and the Minister were able to ensure the release of Mr. Sagara even as he was being taken away by the abductors, without even the involvement of the Police”.

It looks like there are two other main reasons for abductions. The first is the extrajudicial removal of criminals. At least 10 of the 58 abductions were of lawbreakers, with four gang members (numbers 22, 35, 47 and 54), three drug traffickers (numbers 9, 23 and 46) and an “underworld leader” with two of his associates (numbers 42, 43 and 44) amongst the abductees.

The second most common non-political reason for abductions is financial. At least three of these abductions fall under this category, as the abductors actually asked for a ransom (numbers 13, 14, and 24). There are also a further seven possible abductions that may fall under this category; those of three school kids, one university student and three business men (numbers 3, 4, 5, 15, 26, 27 and 38).

The remaining 12 abductions have no known reasons. These include a bookshop owner that was released after the abductors realized that he was the wrong person (number 48) and seven murders (numbers 29, 30, 33, 34, 53 and 56).

The fact that almost half of the abductions are probably political is very significant. But it would be wrong to suggest that the Government is blameless for the other half of abductions that take place. Repeated incidents have made it clear that the Government’s culture of impunity is having far reaching consequences. Even ignoring the many probable links between members of the administration and the underworld it is clear that the government’s approach is creating a -significant cadre of people who consider them above the law or who think nothing of taking the law into their own hands. The rule of law is in retreat, and clearly nobody is safe.
Video: TNA MP MA Sumanthiran asks why not a single "white van" abductor has been brought to justice.


The attack on the Dambulla mosque

The attack carried out on a Muslim Mosque (reminiscent of the Babri Masjid incident) in Sri Lanka sparks new fears that there is a rise in attacks religious freedoms within the country. The protest outside the Jumma mosque in Dambulla on 20 April 2012, which also included members of the Buddhist clergy, disrupted the Muslims’ traditional Friday afternoon prayers.

Then, despite the police presence, the protestors broke into the mosque and caused damage to the property, and copies of the Quran and other religious texts. Subsequent to this attack came a letter from the office of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, dated 22 April 2012, ordering the removal of the mosque from the area, claiming that the mosque is situated within a Buddhist religious area. The office of the Prime Minster states that the order for removal was sent after consultation with Muslim political leaders, but Muslim leaders (even those who support the government) have denied this openly in the media.

This incident also raises questions about the Buddhist values the government claims to practice which are clearly a move away from the teachings of Lord Buddha.

This mosque, which was allegedly built in 1964, is – according to some - built on land belonging to a Buddhist temple, but this claim is refuted by the Muslims who state that the land previously held a shrine of a Muslim Sufi saint. According to a research carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka the report concludes that “In the instance of the Dambulla Mosque, contradictory reports have created confusion as to the rightful owner of the land due to the contestation of ownership and the lack of clarity, regarding which laws are applicable to the specific case.

Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka have coexisted for more than ten centuries and good relations have, for the most part, withstood 500 years of colonialism, the politics of divide and rule and the tensions of the modern era. There is a belief the Muslims stood as buffers against the division of the country during the three decade long civil war. During an opening of a Mosque in Nuwara Eliya on 11 April 2012 the President of Sri Lanka noted that “the Muslims have always been friends of the Sinhalese historically as well as today and that they have been defending the country together with the Sinhalese”.

This incident calls that into question. It must be noted that this attack follows a string of attacks on the property of Christians and the Muslims – as well as the summer of “grease devil” attacks largely aimed at Muslim women. In addition these attacks happen against a backdrop of the continued cultural attacks on Hindu shrines (the predominant religion of Tamils) and promotion of Bhuddist iconography (the predominant religion of Sinhalese people) across the north. Recently Illangaithurai Muhathuwaram (which was renamed Lanka Patuna), a Hindu Shrine, was removed and replaced by a Buddhist statue. Sri Lanka has a fundamental and the constitutional right of any person to engage in worship, and no one has the right to enter a place of worship for the purpose of disturbing worship or damaging property. But repeatedly these rights are waived.

It is clear that the attack on the mosque and the order for its removal is in clear violation of international law concerning minorities and religious freedom. This rising Buddhist fundamentalism and extremism, whipped up for the civil war and the Rajapaska election campaigns, poses grave danger to a country which is already brutalised by an ethnic war and post war militarisation. Recently, Sri Lanka has been criticised for its lack of reconciliation, in both the UN Human Rights Council Resolution and their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) report. It is important that Government of Sri Lanka should take immediate action to promote and protect the rights of minorities, either ethnic or religious, in order to have proper reconciliation and lasting peace in the country.

As the Minority Rights Group have said, they could start by ensuring that they carry out a full and impartial investigation to this attack and revoke the order of removal, while also conducting discussions with the Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders in order to reach an amicable solution to this problem. It must be highlighted that it is the responsibility of the government to protect the rights of its citizens, especially that of religious minorities.