Tamil Political Prisoners Must be Released Immediately

Photo credit: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

Tamil political prisoners must be released immediately

(WASHINGTON, DC; October 23, 2015): Tomorrow marks the 15th anniversary of the Bindanuwewa massacre, in which over 27 Tamil political detainees were killed by a Sinhala mob in a premeditated attack.

Sinhalese villagers stormed the Bindanuwewa detention center in the south of Sri Lanka on October 24, 2000, where many detained Tamil youths were being held without charge on suspicion of involvement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Heavily armed police officers stood by as the detainees were killed by the mob with knives and clubs. Instead of exercising their duty to intervene and prevent the loss of life, not a single officer attempted to halt the massacre. Indeed, some police officers actually used the opportunity to open fire on the political prisoners. A military unit that was stationed in the area was withdrawn just ahead of the massacre, which continued for hours.

The government, led by then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga, first attempted to blame the massacre on the Tamil detainees, saying that they had attacked officials at the detention center and provoked the villagers at the ensuing protests by throwing stones and exposing themselves. But these claims were proven false with subsequent litigation, which ended with the sentencing to death of two police officers and three Sinhalese civilians to death in 2003. However, two years later, the convictions were overturned and all five men were allowed to walk free. Impunity for these state-sanctioned killings continues.

The Bindanuwewa massacre came days after Tamil detainees launched a protest for their release. Fifteen years later, hundreds of Tamil political detainees across the country are still calling for their immediate release from illegal, arbitrary detention, with widespread protests held across the North-East by Tamil civil society earlier this month, in support of the hunger-striking detainees. Most of the detainees have been incarcerated for many years, without being charged — a clear violation of international law. Disturbingly, a recent UN report found that sexual abuse and torture of Tamil detainees was likely to be widespread and systemic. Sri Lanka’s recent pledge to swiftly deal with the issue of unlawful detention is promising; without action, however, such words are meaningless.

PEARL urges the U.S. government to demand that Sri Lanka uphold its obligations under international law and  release  political prisoners. Families of thousands of “disappeared” Tamils are demanding answers as part of the right to truth. The government of Sri Lanka must immediately release a list of names of all detainees and then process their cases expeditiously. Investigations into prison massacres against Tamils must be conducted with international oversight, with credible and effective prosecutions of the perpetrators. Families desperate for answers deserve nothing less.

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