Sri Lanka Grants Bail to Tamil Rights Activist

By Gardiner Harris and Dharisha Bastians, 'The New York Times,' March 10, 2015

“But the true test will be whether her release marks the beginning of a broader reversal in a pattern of harassment by the security forces against families of the disappeared and other Tamil activists” …

NEW DELHI — A Sri Lankan judge granted bail to a prominent Tamil activist on Tuesday, in a case widely seen as an important test of the new government’s willingness to reconcile with the country’s disaffected minorities.

The activist — Jeyakumari Balendran, who has been involved in efforts to find missing people from the country’s 26-year civil warwas arrested a year ago at her home in Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka, but she was never charged with a specific crime. Instead, she was held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a catchall statute that has been used to detain hundreds of people indefinitely. Nine other people held under the act were also released Tuesday.

Ms. Balendran was required to post bail of about $1,500 and surrender her passport, and she must report in person to the police each month, officials said, adding that the investigation of her would continue.

Her arrest, and those of two other rights activists around the same time, prompted international outrage. They were seen as an effort by the president at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his government to intimidate critics as the United Nations Human Rights Council was weighing whether to investigate possible war crimes by each side in the civil war. The council voted to go ahead with the inquiry, and Mr. Rajapaksa lost his bid for re-election.

Ms. Balendran’s son was forced into the ranks of the rebel army as a child, and he has been missing since 2009, when he reportedly surrendered to government forces. About 20,000 complaints have been filed with the authorities about similar disappearances.

Ms. Balendran’s 13-year-old daughter, Vibooshika, has been in the custody of the child protection authorities for the past year. Last month, she issued a three-page appeal for her mother’s release to the new president, Maithripala Sirisena,who was elected with overwhelming support from Tamils and other minorities.

“Please think of me as your child and release my innocent mother — she has not committed any crime,” Vibooshika wrote.

Human rights groups and fellow activists have been mounting protests against Ms. Balendran’s detention, and Tamil leaders have been stepping up demands that she and others held under the terrorism act be freed immediately. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promised in a recent interview that such detainees would be accounted for and released soon.

When Ms. Balendran emerged from the courtroom on Tuesday, she was garlanded with flowers by activists. “Thank you for helping me to go back and live with my daughter,” she said through tears. “I will continue to search for my missing son.”

Activists said her release was a hopeful sign that Sri Lanka may soon begin a genuine process of reconciliation. “But the true test will be whether her release marks the beginning of a broader reversal in a pattern of harassment by the security forces against families of the disappeared and other Tamil activists,” Fred Carver, director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, wrote in an emailed statement.

The government has estimated that nearly 300 people are being held without charge under the terrorism act, but some Tamil leaders say the true figure may be many times that.

The release of Ms. Balendran removes an irritant in relations with India, which has a large Tamil population. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to arrive in Sri Lanka this week for the first visit by an Indian head of government in 28 years.

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