Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Is Govt. Stalling on Detainees, Disappearances?

by Ranga Jayasuriya, Lakbima News, Colombo, September 14, 2011

“We went to a village in Pesalai, Mannar, where out of 80 families, 20 have at least one family member (that had) gone missing. In some villages of Trincomalee, 50 out of 100 families have had their relatives disappear. And in Mullaitivu, the situation is terrible. Entire families have gone missing, entire villages obliterated.”..

A database of detainees held in various detention centres has been prepared.

However, families could not find any of their missing relatives on the TID database.

Vijitha, (30) surrendered to the army at Vattuval on May 16, 2009, a day before the long-running ethnic conflict reached its bloody conclusion. He was amongst the exodus of Tamils who headed to the government controlled area, after troops breached the final defence line of the Tigers. At Vattuval, military officials told incoming crowds that persons, who were even briefly involved with the Tigers, need to identify themselves. They were asked to form a separate queue and were assured that they would not be harmed. The military announcement sounded so reassuring to the beleaguered crowds that many parents handed their children over to the army. Vijitha, who served as a clerical worker at an LTTE office gave himself up at the check point, persuaded by his ageing mother. 
That was the last time his mother saw him. Since then, she had visited military camps and detention Mothers with disappeared children Sri Lanka 2011centres island wide, searching for him, but all in vain. 

His mother says she could even recognize the officer who took her son into custody. 

Vijitha is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of Tamils who disappeared during the war. The number of those who disappeared is itself in dispute.

Contacted by LAKBIMAnEWS, the National Human Rights Commission could not reveal the total number of cases reported to the Commission. A senior official said the Commission was now in the process of collecting data from its regional offices in the North and the East. Sources at the regional office in Jaffna confided that over 1000 complaints had been reported to the Jaffna office since 2006. 

The government has dismissed allegations of disappearances, at least until mounting international concerns and a threat of an independent investigation into war crimes compelled the government to revise that policy. The government’s policy of denial dissuaded the National Human Rights Commission — an agency which had its international accreditation downgraded due to political appointments–from investigating cases of disappearances. 

Udul Premaratna, the convener of Api Sri Lankikayo (We are Sri Lankans), an organization which is calling on the government to reveal the whereabouts of missing youth, explains the full extent of the problem.

“We went to a village in Pesalai, Mannar, where out of 80 families, 20 have at least one family member (that had) gone missing. In some villages of Trincomalee, 50 out of 100 families have had their relatives disappear. And in Mullaitivu, the situation is terrible. Entire families have gone missing, entire villages obliterated.”

A well-known Samasamajist, Britto Fernando is a leading campaigner of the Athurudahan Uwanage Pawl Ekathuwa (the Coalition of Disappeared Family Members), set up during the dark days of 1989, when the state’s military apparatus was involved in summary executions and disappearances. In those gory days, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and S.B. Dissanayake were vocal activists of the campaign to seek justice for disappeared youth.

“Even in those dangerous times, we could campaign for our cause and organize protests in the South. But now, under a president who once stood up against disappearances, we can’t even organize a demonstration to seek justice for the disappeared,” says a dejected Fernando. 

A series of demonstrations held in the North-East demanding that the government reveals the whereabouts of disappeared youth was disrupted by the army. In Kilinochchi, residents who turned up for a scheduled protest were herded into buses and transported back to their villages.

A Presidential Commission appointed after the election of the People’s Alliance (PA) government in 1994, investigated 30,000 odd cases of disappearances which took place in 1989, and recommended that compensation be paid to the families and legal action be taken against 600 military officials implicated in enforced disappearances. 

Families received death certificates, but the perpetrators, including 600 military officers implicated by the Presidential Commission, were never charged. 
That set a precedent for impunity, which continues to haunt the country.
Only international pressure has compelled the government to appear more conciliatory to the plight of the missing youth. 

Udul Premaratna said that when he first visited the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) with a delegation of family members and their lawyers, they were turned back.

“They (TID sleuths) said they didn’t have anyone in their custody.”

“Same thing happened on our second visit,” he said.

It was soon after the release of the UN Secretary General’s Panel report, which was highly critical of government’s conduct during the war, that Premaratna and a delegation of family members made their third visit to the TID.

“Strangely, the officers were cooperative that time. They took us to the director, who assigned eight officers to write down information provided by us,” he says.
When a delegation of about 80 family members visited the fourth time, weeks before the UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to meet, officials were ever more obliging.

A database of detainees held in various detention centres has been prepared.

However, families could not find any of their missing relatives on the TID database.

There had been a few success stories in the past. Earlier, activists traced Rasaiya Dwaraka, an undergraduate of Peradeniya University, to a TID cell where she was held incommunicado. Since then, she has been released. In another instance, activists discovered another Tamil youth, whose family was unaware of his whereabouts, kept in the Boossa detention centre. 

During their last visit to the Boossa detention centre, the family members were initially told that particulars of the database indicated that two missing youth were, in fact, kept in the camp.

Then after a visit to the cell by officials, the families were informed that no such men were kept in the camp. Two aging mothers who were cheerful that they, at last, had found their sons alive, fainted.

“I felt the whole affair was mischievous,” says Premaratna. Britto Fernando adds: “We have doubts as to whether the government has disclosed all the detainees kept in camps. We don’t feel that the government is sincere in addressing the issue (of disappearances).  

Fernando is not alone. Many others share his feeling.


TRUTH IS SIMPLER, SAYS RAJIVA


7-2President’s advisor on reconciliation and MP, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha says that the government has prepared a list of detainees continuing to be held in detention centres.

There are three levels of uncertainty about the issue of disappearances, he says.

The first are about the rehabilitation centres, where it was claimed that visits were not allowed, which was a misconception. Every single person, out of 11,000 who was in these, had someone who knew he or she was held in a rehabilitation centre. Regular visits were also allowed, he says.
The second is about those who were taken into custody under the PTA. And the allegation was that no list of these detainees was available, ‘which I believe could have been the case.’ Now a list is prepared and that is the list which has been given to the Human Rights Ministry and the National Human Rights Commission. 

That is available for people who visit there. Therefore people who are in government, in its charge or care, are documented.

The third concerns though far fewer in numbers, the real problem with what are termed actual disappearances, so called disappearances which certainly happened at a pace since 2000 onwards. There were allegations that some of those disappearances were due to actions of the LTTE and paramilitaries, etc. By and large, though there were allegations of so many hundreds of disappearances in 2007, 2008 and 2009, the allegations were in single figures, what I use as the benchmark is the Human Rights Watch report of 2008. They had 97 cases documented, and 94 of them were from 2006. Only three cases had happened in 2007.

As you know, these numbers have gone down. What we do, in those cases, is to set up a database of people, about whom information is available, bearing in mind that there are four possibilities:

One is that they died during the war and no one knew. That is why the UNICEF and the government have set up the government inquiry centre in Vavuniya. I think, according to UNICEF, the numbers are very low

The second possibility is that they went abroad. When I went to Chennai recently, I was told about the numbers who came during the last days of the war. I was given a figure of about 10,000 that arrived during the last three months. That is a ballpark figure, though. 

Third, some of these cases could pre-date the war. That is why we have given the Human Rights Commission a list of everybody in government custody. Then, there will be clarity about the pre-2007 situation

Fourth is the allegation that some of the cadres were taken away when they surrendered. But of course, in one particular instance, when they made allegations about Isapriya, the government was able to show that she, in fact, died on such and such a day in the battle front. There were allegations that many people had disappeared. Whether they died in battle or afterwards should be investigated. Also, in addition to the lists of those in custody and rehabilitation centres, there is a list that the army has put up about cadres who have died. That list, presumably, may not have been checked by families who have no access to internet, he said.