Disappearances in Sri Lanka

Received by mail from HREA – A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

AS-027-2007, February 7, 2007 – The alleged abduction of three persons belonging to the Railway Workers Union who are also associated with the publication of the union’s journal, Akuna, was reported in many publications including the BBC Sinhala Service.

Reporters without Borders also reported these abductions on the 6th February, 2007. The names of the three persons are Nihal Serasinghe, a contributor to Akuna was is said to have been abducted near Fort as he left a printing office, Lalith Senaviratne, a former journalist attached to Hiru and who was in charge of page layout at Akuna, was seized at his home by about seven persons identified by his wife as plain clothed police officers who had shown her an identity card from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), and Sisira Priyankara, the editor of Akuna, who was snatched from his work place. Sisira Priyankara was also involved in a complaint made to the courts by trade unionists against the salary hikes granted to ministers and the president.

These abductions indicate the spread of disappearances in the suppression of trade unions and media activities. In Sri Lanka in recent decades disappearances have been developed as a very sophisticated technique to deal with opponents, whether they be political opponents, trade unionists or anyone else engaged in any form of protest.

In recent months the numbers of disappearances have increased without any significant action on the part of the government to bring this situation to a halt. In the early 90s when the disappearances were taking place extensively, a special task force was evolved by the government with the powers to visit any of the alleged places of detention without prior notice as a measure to stop such disappearances. At that time the government also gave clear orders that in all instances of arrest a written notice should be given to the nearest relatives of the arrestee acknowledging the arrest and mentioning the details of the detaining authority. Despite of both local and international outcry against the present day disappearances no measures have been taken to bring these to a halt. The lack of action on the part of the state to stop disappearances has lead to an alarming increase of the incidents prompting a minister of the present government itself to write to the president stating that a disappearance takes place every five hours in Sri Lanka and that despite whoever may be behind such actions, the responsibility to stop it belongs to the government.

The government position has been that the situation is beyond its control and that the LTTE and armed opponents of the LTTE may be responsible for these acts. However, the government’s unwillingness and incapacity to successfully investigate any of the abductions and disappearances places the responsibility for the present situation at their very feet. Abductions and disappearances in Sri Lanka have spread also into the snatching of businessmen for obtaining ransoms. There have been many reports on this issue in recent months.

Media personnel have also been a constant target of abductions and other forms of harassment in recent months. Now these incidents are spreading into the trade union sector.

The spread of this form of gross abuse of human rights into the trade union sector is no surprise. In similar incidents from 1987 to 1991 when around 30,000 persons were reported to have disappeared, mostly in the south, trade unionists were among the targeted groups. In recent months the cost of living has increased enormously and there is high discontent among the working population. There have been many threats of strikes in different sectors of the economy. Legal and other measures have been devised to suppress such protests. Under these circumstances the use of disappearances against three persons from the railway union, demonstrates a disturbing development. Railway workers have traditionally been considered one of the most important sectors among the trade unions and known for their struggles to improve their conditions.

Adding to the alarm is the fact that Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has also ceased to be an open supporter of the government. In all instances of disappearances in the south, in the past, the JVP has been made a target.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has for many years highlighted the problems of disappearances in Sri Lanka and is alarmed by the present trend which may easily spread in a short time into even larger scale disappearances. Given the fact that persons with extensive experience in organizing and carrying out the large scale disappearances of not long ago are still available, their experience may be utilized by unscrupulous persons to cause heavy casualties to individuals, as well as to the whole process of the rule of law and democracy. The fact that previous disappearances did not lead to any form of legal redress may also be an encouraging psychological factor for those who may be behind the present pogrom. None of the recommendations of the United Nations Working Group on Disappearances on the past disappearances in Sri Lanka were implemented by any of the governments.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges the Sri Lankan government to publicly acknowledge its responsibility to stop abductions and disappearances and its capacity to do so. If it is unwilling or incapable of doing this there is justification for the United Nations and the international community to intervene on this matter. The government should demonstrate its willingness and capacity to stop these abductions and disappearances by the reinstituting the task force with the capacity and special powers to pursue all complaints of abductions and disappearances, including the right to visit any place where persons are alleged to be detained. The government should also issue instructions which should be supervised and enforced by the Inspector General of Police and the National Police Commission that in all instances of arrest certificates of such arrest with the necessary details should be issued. The Human Rights Commission should alert all its sub offices to open a 24 hours service for receiving and dealing with the complaints including a special arrangement to alert the government on this issue. We also urge the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights to alert her office in Colombo to evolve means for diplomatic and other interventions on all cases of complaints of abductions and disappearances.

(HREA – Human Rights Education Associates is an international non-governmental organisation that supports human rights learning; the training of activists and professionals; the development of educational materials and programming; and community-building through on-line technologies.)

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