Finding the Disappeared

Gao Zhisheng with his family.

Disappeared human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng with his family. © AI

On August 30, Amnesty International and other human rights groups around the world will observe the International Day of the Disappeared.  We’ll be pressing governments to disclose the status of  the disappeared and to prosecute those responsible for enforced disappearances.  Here’s how you can join us:

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Sri Lankan journalist at risk

I heard some very disturbing news last night.  Dileesha Abeysundera, a Sri Lankan journalist and media rights activist, is in danger.  Several unidentified people traveling in white vans tried to break into her compound in Colombo (Sri Lanka’s capital city) at 11:45 P.M. on Sept. 28.  While they didn’t succeed and Dileesha wasn’t harmed, I’m very worried for her.   The use of white vans was particularly chilling; they’ve been used in many abductions and enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka since 2006. 

Dileesha had organized a meeting on Sept. 28 calling for the abolition of the Press Council Act, a law which restricts freedom of expression in Sri Lanka by prohibiting publication of materials relating to economic policy, government documents and other topics.  The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly defended the Act.  It’s thought that she was threatened that evening because of her work in organizing the meeting that day.

Over 14 media workers have been killed since 2006 with no one brought to justice in any of these cases.  For more information on how freedom of expression has been under attack in Sri Lanka, please see our report, “Sri Lanka:  Silencing dissent.”

Please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka and ask him to ensure Dileesha’s safety and to investigate the attempted intimidation of her.  Please also ask him to investigate the attacks, including killings, of other Sri Lankan journalists and media workers.  His address is:  Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka; email:  prsec@presidentsoffice.lk.  Thanks for your consideration.

Sri Lanka: time to end irregular detention

Mostly I’ve been blogging about the internally displaced civilians who are being held in internment camps in northern Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lankan government says they can’t be released until they’ve been screened to determine if any are former fighters with the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International is conducting our “Unlock the Camps” campaign to demand that these displaced civilians get the freedom of movement they’re entitled to.

Today, however, I want to talk about the more than 10,000 suspected Tiger members who are being held, separately from the displaced civilians, by the Sri Lankan government.  Amnesty International reported today that one of those detainees, Sri Chandramorgan, was seriously injured last Tuesday when he tried to escape from the teachers training college where he is being held.  The college is being used as an unofficial detention center to hold suspected former combatants.  It was rumored that Sri Chandramorgan had been killed when he tried to escape; the rumor of his killing sparked a clash between the security forces and the detainees at the college.

Unofficial detention centers, which aren’t officially acknowledged by the government, unfortunately have a long history in Sri Lanka and have been used to facilitate torture, disappearances and political killings by the security forces.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has had no access to the suspected Tiger members being held by the government.  Many of them have not had contact with anyone outside the detention centers, most of which are not officially acknowledged as places of detention by the government.

Although the Tamil Tigers were responsible for thousands of grave human rights abuses during the war with the Sri Lankan government, that does not mean that former Tiger combatants (or those suspected of links with the Tigers) do not have any rights.  They should be treated humanely, in officially recognized places of detention, and not be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.  They should be allowed access to their families, lawyers and doctors and have the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court.  They should be promptly charged with a recognizable crime in civilian courts and provided a fair trial in accordance with international standards.

I know some may say that the Tigers didn’t afford any of this to the people they held prisoner during the war, but surely the Sri Lankan government wouldn’t want to use the Tigers as a standard of measurement for adherence to human rights standards?

Disappearance of Sri Lankan human rights defender

It’s not only the war zone in northern Sri Lanka where people are at risk.  On May 7, Stephen Sunthararaj was abducted in Colombo, the capital, by five men dressed in military uniform and carrying pistols.  At the time, he was traveling in his lawyer’s car with his wife and two children, when two men on motorcycles pulled up in front of the car to stop it.  As the car stopped, a white van pulled up next to it and the five men emerged and forced Sunthararaj into the van which then drove off.  There’s been no word from Sunthararaj since then.  The police haven’t started any investigation and the Sri Lankan authorities haven’t provided any information as to his status or whereabouts.

Sunthararaj’s enforced disappearance may be due to his work as a Project Manager at the Centre for Human Rights and Development, a Sri Lankan human rights organization.  At the time of his abduction, he had just been released hours earlier from police custody.  He had been arrested by the army on February 12 in Colombo and later transferred to the police.  He was never charged with any offense.

Sri Lanka’s security forces have been responsible for tens of thousands of enforced disappearances over the past thirty years.  Last year, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed concern about the high number of recent cases of enforced disappearances reported from Sri Lanka.

Please write to President Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk or modadm@sltnet.lk) on behalf of Sunthararaj.  Ask that the government carry out an independent investigation into his enforced disappearance and prosecute those responsible.  If he is found to be in custody, he should either be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense or else immediately released; while he is detained, he should be treated humanely and given access to his family, lawyer and medical care.  Ask that the government ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their work without fear of harassment or intimidation.  Thanks.

Sri Lanka: When a ceasefire isn't enough

The opposition Tamil Tigers announced a unilateral ceasefire today, which the Sri Lankan government immediately dismissed.  Successive government offensives in recent months have reduced the Tiger-held area to a 5 square-mile strip of land along Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast.  (If you’re new to this story, the Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the island’s Tamil minority.)  Trapped with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who’ve been used by the Tigers as human shields and a source for forced recruitment.  The Sri Lankan government has pointed out that the Tiger didn’t allow civilians to leave the war zone during an earlier two-day ceasefire declared by the government; the U.N. confirmed that fewer civilians left the war zone during the ceasefire period than during periods of fighting.

The Tigers’ ceasefire declaration said nothing about allowing civilians to leave the war zone.  Amnesty International has reported that the Tigers have attacked civilians trying to flee the area.  AI also said that the Sri Lankan government has used heavy artillery in attacking the Tigers, which has resulted in civilian deaths and injuries.

You also need to understand that some young Tamil men who have managed to flee the war zone have  “disappeared” after being detained by the army (and by “disappeared”, I don’t mean they just vanished; rather, the government had first detained them but is now denying knowledge of their whereabouts).  AI had warned last month that civilians fleeing the war zone were at risk of enforced disappearance and other human rights violations, if they were suspected to be members or supporters of the Tigers.  I was sickened to read last Friday that enforced disappearances were now occurring.  Fleeing civilians should be protected from any Tigers who may be mixed with them, but given the long history of enforced disappearances by the  Sri Lankan security forces, any screening process by the army of the fleeing civilians should be supervised by international monitors.  

Here’s what I think should happen:  The Tigers should announce that any civilians who wish to leave the war zone would be free to do so.  If they don’t make this announcement immediately, the Tamil diaspora should publicly call on them to do so.  The Sri Lankan government should announce that it is agreeing to a pause in hostilities to allow civilians to leave and aid to enter the zone.  The Tigers and the Sri Lankan government should allow the U.N. team currently in Sri Lanka to enter the war zone to monitor civilians leavning the zone and the distribution of aid to those still in the zone.  The Sri Lankan government should announce that international monitors will supervise the screening of all civilians leaving the zone.  The government should also say that the U.N. and other international agencies will have access to the camps housing the civilians who’ve left the zone, so that they won’t be at risk of human rights violations from the security forces.

If anyone has any better ideas for protecting the trapped civilians, I’d welcome your comments.  We must do whatever we can to save them.  Visiting the AIUSA website and writing the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers is one thing you can do.  I’d welcome other ideas as well.