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The Disappearing Act in Sri Lanka

by Sunila Abeysekera, The Real News Network, Canada, June 13, 2009

Sharmini Peries of Real News speaks to Sunila Abeysekera, award-winning human rights defender and the Executive Director of INFORM. Ms. Abeysekera is the daughter of Charles Abeysekera, at one time President of MIRJE and the Chairman of the Official Languages Commission.



June 16, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Registers on entry and leaving of internally displaced persons needs to be created urgently to prevent forced disappearances

Every day 20 to 30 young persons are taken away and their whereabouts are unknown, a leading human rights organisation in Sri Lanka, INFORM, reported this week. The source of information is the testimonies of the relatives of the IDPs who have visited the camps. There are severe restrictions on civil society organisations and the media visiting the camps.

In an interview to the BBC Sinhala Service, a spokesperson for the organisation said that persons wearing hoods are brought into the IDPs camps and that they indicate by signs as to whether one of the IDPs had connections with the LTTE or not. If identified positively the IDPs are removed from the camps and their whereabouts are thereafter unknown. The spokesperson referred to the practice of using ‘Gonibilla’ (the bogeyman). On previous occasions, like the time of the JVP suppression between 1987 and 1991, many persons were identified in this manner and later removed. Many such persons have thereafter been treated as forced disappearances. The official figure of these disappearances in the 1987 to 1991 period is around 30,000. Unofficial figures give a larger number.

A minister taking part in the same interview to the BBC Sinhala Service denied the allegations of the report and said that when persons are removed for investigations their families are informed.

No register is kept in IDPs camps of such removals. In any case a list of persons who have been removed from the camps has not been made available to any of the government authorities who, under the law, are entitled to be informed of such arrests for the purpose of investigations. Under the law, even where anti terrorism laws apply, any authority that arrests a person for the purpose of investigation needs to inform the nearest Magistrate's Court. The government has already admitted the removal of about 10,000 persons for questioning regarding their former links to the LTTE. These and all others removed daily would, under the law, need to be treated as persons arrested for investigations. On that basis the list of such persons should be available at the Ministry of Defence. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is also entitled to have lists of persons arrested for questioning.

Previous experience in Sri Lanka shows that failure to register an arrest is often a precursor to a forced disappearance. The commissions of inquiry into forced disappearances in the mid 90s of the last century described a disappearance at the time as an abduction followed by the killing and disposal of the body. The absence of registration helps the authorities to deny that abduction ever took place or that the person was in the custody of the authorities at any time.

The problem of registration in taking persons outside the camps itself is a grave violation of the normal rules of any camp for displaced persons or refugees. It is a paramount requirement that a public record should exist of all persons kept inside a camp for IDPs and any removal of the person outside the camp should also be recorded. In fact, all visits to any of the displaced persons should also be recorded. Under these circumstances any authority in charge of a camp which allows visits to IDPs without prior registration and allows the removal of the person without proper registration is committing a serious transgression. Custody within a camp, like custody in any other place, imposes a duty of protection by the authority that controls the facility. The removal of persons from such places without registration should be subjected to inquiry.

The habit of making people disappear during times of instability is an endemic practice in Sri Lanka. Particularly since the JVP uprising of 1971 there has been many such occasions. Due to public outrage on the previous occasions the government and many authorities intervened to devise some rules in the event of the arrest of any person. One such rule was to issue a written notice of arrest to the family or the closest relatives of the arrested person. After this practice was introduced in the early 90s the number of disappearances was reduced greatly. The incumbent president himself issued this same instruction for the issuing of written notices at the time of arrest not very long ago. However, no attempts have been taken to ensure that such instructions are complied with. The recommendations by many concerned groups to enact a law to this affect have not been heeded.

The United Nations Working Group on Disappearances has also made many recommendations to avoid the occurrence of abductions which carry the possibility of a permanent disappearance of persons. One such recommendation was for the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to maintain a central registry of all arrestees and detainees.

Allowing persons to be taken out of IDPs camps without registration of such removals, not making reports of such removals to the courts, other authorities and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka are all fundamental violations of the law and the rights of persons.

Proper registration of persons is one of the basic norms of any civilisation. This obligation is even greater where the peril to the lives of people is greater due to certain circumstances. IDPs are persons who lives are placed in peril due to circumstances beyond their control. Proper registration of their entry into camps and all that happens to them within the camps should be one of the most basic obligations to them as human beings. It is also an obligation to society so that people in the society could have a clear conscience that at least the basic protection to the IDPs has been ensured by their political authorities.



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