Government rounds up activists as UN fudges on inquiry

As the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva was discussing the clauses of its resolution on Sri Lanka, the Colombo government used troops and special laws to arrest human rights defenders (HRDs) in the northern part of the country last week. It is ironic that while the Sri Lanka Government decided to beef-up militarisation in the former warzones and arrest activists, the UNHRC agreed to delete the word “demilitarisation” from its draft resolution.

On March 13, in the former warzone of Kilinochchi a large number of military personnel and police officers of the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) surrounded the home of Tamil activist Balendran Jayakumari, and her daughter, 13-year-old Vibooshika. According to the police, as they tried to enter the house a fugitive described as an LTTE member shot and wounded a policeman before escaping. The police detained Jeyakumari and her daughter overnight.

On March 14 Jayakumari was produced before a magistrate, arrested on a detention order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and sent to Boossa, a prison about 200 miles from her home. Besides the distance, set as it is in the heart of the Sinhala area, Boossa remains a security risk for Tamil family members wishing to visit detainees. But worse, the prison has over the years become a byword for torture.

Jurists the world over have denounced Sri Lanka’s PTA as a law that facilitates torture, arbitrary detention and denies suspects fair trials and due process. Yet Sri Lanka continues to use the law with impunity.

The government’s interest in Jayakumari and her daughter stem from the prominent role they have played on mobilising protests against disappearances. Jayakumari’s 15-year-old son was conscripted by the LTTE and surrendered to the government when fighting ended in May 2009. Later, however, the Government denied he was in its custody. But a when a photograph of him in a Government-run rehabilitation facility with other ex-rebels was published, Jayakumari’s demands for her son became more insistent.

With the authorities refusing more information, Jayakumari and Vibooshika became active in mobilising public support against disappearances. Their protests became the focus of international attention when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited northern Sri Lanka while he was in the country for the Commonwealth Summit in November. When families of the disappeared scheduled to meet Cameron were forcibly prevented from doing so, a group of women broke through a police cordon and spoke to foreign journalists. At the centre of that protest were Jayakumari and Vibooshika, whose story was filmed by the British network Channel 4 and told throughout the world.

The legal, judicial and military operation on Thursday that resulted in Jayakumari’s confinement in Boossa is a microcosm of government policy in northern Sri Lanka. Following the militarily defeating LTTE rebels, Colombo has done very little in tackling the political roots of the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils. The inevitable outcome of this strategy is the government having to pacify the former warzone by saturating it with the military, and controlling the population through the PTA rather than normal law.

Assuming the police story about the fugitive LTTE member is not a fabrication, the first question is whether Jayakumari knowingly and willingly harboured this “terrorist suspect.” Even if she did, normal law in Sri Lanka is adequate to deal with persons who harbour criminals but themselves did not commit violent acts. Others who have harboured violent criminals are not detained under counterterrorism laws and automatically made accomplices of terror – it is only to those to whom the Government selectively applies the PTA. Further, if Jayakumari was charged under normal law she could have obtained bail and need not have to be separated from Vibooshika, her only surviving child, who was handed over to child probation officers.

Meanwhile, on 17 March, two more human rights defenders were arrested under the PTA in Kilinochchi. Ruki Fernando, a Sinhalese, is one Sri Lanka’s best known human rights activists campaigning against disappearances, detention of journalists and documenting violations for the UN. Father Praveen Mahesan, a Tamil Catholic clergyman and director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Jaffna, has also been active in tracking disappearances.

Fernando and Mahesan spent Sunday looking into the care of Vibooshika after her mother’s arrest and speaking to families of the disappeared. They had told friends that they were under military surveillance while doing so. That night they were arrested by the TID, questioned and said to be detained under the PTA. They were then brought to Colombo for further interrogation. They were released late Tuesday evening following an international outcry.

As in the case of Jayakumari, what befell Mahesan and Fernando was also a consequence of militarisation. There is no legal restriction on people speaking to others because their families having been detained or disappeared. However in Sri Lanka’s north and east, as Mahesan and Fernando found out, all such activities are considered suspect and need to be videoed by the military. Reports coming in from Killinochchi and villages in the area speak of ever-increasing surveillance and militarisation even after the arrest and release of the two activists.

The Government’s strategy right now is using the military and PTA to intimidate persons with strong connections with the international community for two, connected, reasons.

First, Colombo remains nervous about persons and institutions – especially civil society organisations – with extensive international connections. The reason is that international connections are, relatively, a better shield to HRDs from government intimidation to silence them. Second, with the UNHRC sessions now going on in Geneva there is concern that documented information on human rights abuses is being supplied to strengthen a resolution asking for an international investigation into past war crimes and present abuses, including militarisation.

Realising the deleterious effects of militarisation, there were concerted efforts in the past to make the international community address it. And it was seen as something of an achievement that the first draft of the resolution to be adopted later this month by the UNHRC demanded demilitarisation. Significantly, however, the most recent draft has struck out the word “demilitarisation.”

The international community’s move to delete demilitarisation from the draft signals to Colombo that there will be no serious opposition to it ruling northern Sri Lanka through the military. It also tells the Government very clearly that while the international community might pressure Colombo to release detained HRDs off and on, there will be no consequences to perpetuating the main instruments – militarisation and the PTA – that cause human rights violations to take place, and put in jeopardy the liberty of activists  like Jeyakumari, Fernando and Mahesan.

© Asian Correspondent

JS Tissainayagam, a senior journalist and former Sri Lankan political prisoner, is a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard. He won Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism (2009) and the CPJ Press Freedom Award (2009).


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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