'Vavuniya killing is just the tip of the iceberg' - Mano Ganesan

At noon on the 29th of June, the police Special Task Force (STF) commandos and Army troopers broke into the Vavuniya prison, where at  least 170 Tamil prisoners were held. By the time the 'military operation' unfolded, the political prisoners were on a hunger strike, demanding  information about a fellow inmate who was taken away by the prison authorities. The details of the brutal crackdown that followed  were  deliberately suppressed by media.

The JDS spoke to Mano Ganesan, a prominent Tamil politician and the Convenor of the Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC), an organization based among the families of the disappeared and political prisoners.

"The prisoners were simply desperate and frustrated after being held for a long period without any legal process" Ganesan said. "We have seen many such incidents in many parts of the island in the past. During the time the Sinhala youth were held in prison in late 80s, similar incidents occurred.  But the government projected the recent incident as an unprecedented situation and even went to the extent of portraying  the prisoners hunger strike as a 'revival of the LTTE' that needs to be crushed using extreme force."

Excerpts of the interview follow:

JDS: What really happened in Vavuniya?

Mano Ganesan: The Tamil political prisoners held in Vavunia Remand Prison were pushed under shear frustration to take collective action, so that this government and the international community would listen to them. That's what happened. In fact, when the STF, the police and the army went into the prison, everything was over within three minutes or even less. But in government media it was projected as the biggest military operation conducted since May 2009. We totally reject such exaggerations and we see such interpretations are motivated by sinister political aims.

Following the crackdown, all of the prisoners were brought to Anuradhapura prison, and from there, they were transferred to Mahara Prison, which is closer to Colombo. Even during the time of transportation - while they were inside the vehicles - they were mercilessly attacked. And after they were brought to Mahara, they were assaulted again. Three of the inmates are now imprisoned at Bogambara prison in Kandy. The rest are still imprisoned in Mahara and one other prisoner is still being treated at Anuradhapura Hospital. The prisoner who was murdered - Ganeshan Nimalaruban - died while he was held in Mahara prison. In fact he passed away inside Mahara Prison hospital and not after being admitted to Ragama Teaching Hospital as the government claims. It was his dead body that was transferred to Ragama hospital morgue.

So we have eye witnesses who told us that they were attacked brutally by the STF as they were waiting to take the revenge. We have seen in the past in 1983, and even before that, how the Tamil political prisoners were attacked inside prisons. As we know, in July 1983, the famous political prisoners, Thangathurai and Kuttimany were attacked and killed along with another 51 Tamil prisoners inside a Colombo prison. Again in October 2000, in a similar incident, 26 Tamil inmates were hacked to death inside a so called Prisoner Rehabilitation Centre in Bindunuweva. In all those incidents, the perpetrators walked free. We haven't seen any justice.

JDS: You mentioned about a prisoner who is now being treated at Anuradhapura hospital. This particular prisoner -  Muthurasa Dilrukshan - has now being identified as someone who was considered as a missing person for last five years.  

MG: Yes! I am not surprised about that. This simply exposes the true nature and the conduct of the government of Sri Lanka. There had been instances where the government claimed to have arrested people, who later went missing without a trace.  Even though the family members and the eye witnesses claimed that they  had witnessed an arrest, we couldn't get such claims confirmed through the government law enforcement authorities who kept denying it. Therefore they were considered as missing. But later, some of them were found in remand prisons.

So the killing of Nimalarooban has brought one such issue into the limelight now. Muthurasa Dilrukshan, who has been listed as a missing person since 2007, has surfaced from Vavunia prison. He is one of the inmates who had been mercilessly beaten. The parents of the other inmates, who had visited the hospital had realized that Dilrukshan had also been held in Vavunia prison.  They had informed Dilrukshan’s parents and later the parents found their 'missing' son lying on a hospital bed under critical condition. On the one hand they are happy as their lost son has been found. But on the other hand they are devastated because their son has been mercilessly attacked and his condition seems quite bad.

This single incident reflects the precarious situation prevailing in Sri Lanka despite the government's repeated denial of abductions.

JDS: Let's move back to the issue of the deceased prisoner. The Minister for Prison Reforms has stated that Nimalarooban died due to a heart failure. Any comments?

MG: We totally reject Minister's claim. It's an outrageous lie. How can he go so low to cover up a murder? It is a sick joke, I would say. Can you believe that this minister belongs to Sri Lanka Communist Party? Being a nominal leftist, at least, he should be able to show some sort of decency and sensitivity.  

I call upon the Minister to visit Ragama Hospital and have a look at Nimalaruban's dead body.  He does not need to see the medical report. Just only if he can look at the Nimalaruban's body he will understand the blunder he made in the Parliament. And I also demand the minister to visit all the other inmates in Ragama Hospital, in Mahara Prison Hospital and also in Bogambara, Kandy. He will realize more and more the blunders he is making inside and outside the Parliament as the Minister in charge of Prisons.

JDS: Are there any further actions you are planning to ensure the rights of the political prisoners?

MG: We as the Civil Monitoring Commission has always been in the forefront in fighting against the human rights violations in this country. Lately the issue of the Tamil political prisoners has come into limelight. We are already in consultation with the diplomatic community in Colombo. We, along with other concerned parties and groups, have already held a briefing in Colombo for the representatives of the diplomatic community. Even with a very short notice over 14 diplomatic missions in Colombo had sent their representatives to the briefing. 

We also invited the Members of Parliament from Tamil National Alliance and many other Tamil political parties as well as keeping the diplomatic community informed.

JDS: What happened in Vavuniya cannot be seen as an isolated event. The plight of the Tamil political prisoners still remains largely unknown to many. As an organization, how do you plan to bring these issues into focus?

MG: Vavuniya incident was just the tip of the iceberg. It was a mere manifestation of growing frustration among the Tamil political prisoners who made a desperate bid to gain attention for their grievances. They have been repeatedly tricked by the government with false promises and assurances about speeding up their legal processes. Also, in Vauniya, they were worried and concerned about the fate of some of their fellow inmates who were taken away by the prison authorities.

We as the Civil Monitoring Commission have written to the President regarding three issues. Firstly, we have demanded the President to allow the family to perform the religious rituals and to give the last rites, not in Mahara or Gampaha, but in the village in Vavunia where Nimalaruban was born. Secondly, to conduct a second proper post-mortem with the assistance of an independent forensic expert, since we have serious credibility issues regarding the first forensic. Thirdly, we have demanded to ensure the rights of Nimalaruban's parents to engage lawyers and safeguard their right to pursue legal action.

Apart from that, we have also demanded that the government conduct proper medical examinations on all the other prisoners who were brutally beaten and to make the relevant reports available to their parents and the parliamentary representatives. The government should allow the family members and lawyers to visit the inmates as it is one of their fundamental rights.

Photo courtesy: Dinidu de Alwis / Perambara (Flickr)



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.