Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

Head of state and government: Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
Capital: Colombo
Population: 18 million
Official languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice

Grave human rights abuses were reported in the context of the protracted armed conflict between the security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main armed opposition group fighting for an independent state, Eelam, in the north and east of the country. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced as a result of the conflict. Both the government and the LTTE manipulated their freedom of movement and their access to food and medicine. The government took some steps to address past human rights violations by the security forces, including exhuming the remains of 15 people who were reported to have "disappeared" in mid-1996. Members of the LTTE were responsible for deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, torture, hostage-taking and abductions. The government announced an end to the practice of automatic commutation of death sentences in force since 1976.


A state of emergency remained in force throughout the country. Press censorship declared under the state of emergency in mid-1998 also remained in force. There were several reports of attacks on journalists.

There were various initiatives within civil society aimed at resolving the conflict, including by the business community and relatives of security forces personnel missing in action. On the other hand, several groups within the Sinhalese community became more vociferous in their campaign against negotiations with the LTTE. Government efforts to introduce constitutional reforms to solve the ethnic conflict remained deadlocked, and talks with the LTTE which had broken down in 1995 did not resume.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was re-elected in December.


While some important steps were taken to address past human rights violations by the security forces, the longstanding problem of impunity remained a major concern. A school principal and six army personnel were convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in connection with the "disappearance" of a group of young people at Embilipitiya in late 1989 and early 1990. Two members of the security forces, including the son of the principal, were acquitted at the trial, which ended in February. Both the state and the defendants appealed against the judgment.

The Criminal Investigation Department and the Attorney General's department proceeded with investigations and prosecutions in cases recommended by three presidential commissions of inquiry into involuntary removal and disappearances. By the end of the year, 213 such cases had been filed in High Courts. A fourth presidential commission of inquiry, set up in May 1998 to investigate complaints which the three earlier commissions had not examined, continued its work.

In June and September, the bodies of 15 people who "disappeared" in 1996 were recovered from shallow graves in the Chemmani area of Jaffna. International forensic experts, including from AI, observed the exhumations. Criminal investigations to identify those responsible continued, but by the end of 1999 no one had been arrested.

By the end of 1999, no one had been convicted in relation to the crime of torture in Sri Lanka. However, early in the year, there were press reports that a number of police officers had been charged under Sri Lanka's Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act of November 1994. The cases were reportedly those in which the Supreme Court had found police officers responsible for torture, awarded compensation and recommended further investigation with a view to prosecution.

Political prisoners

Thousands of Tamil political prisoners, including possible prisoners of conscience, were arrested under the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allow for long-term detention without charge or trial. As of early September, 764 detainees were held without charge or trial at Kalutara prison and scores more were held at other places.

There were reports of secret detention, particularly in small army camps in Jaffna and camps run by the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), an armed Tamil group operating alongside the security forces in Vavuniya.

  • Sivam Ashokumar, who was secretly held by PLOTE for 39 days, reported that he was held in chains for 26 days and badly beaten on his chest, legs and hands with a pole and electric wire.


Torture, including rape, remained common, both in the context of the armed conflict and during routine policing operations. Reports of torture of people arrested on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE were received from all parts of the north and east.

  • In Colombo, police at Mirihana police station tortured three students arrested on 25 August by hanging them by their wrists and beating them all over their bodies.
  • Anthonipillai Binoth Vimalraj, was tortured during interrogation at Kotahena police station. Police allegedly beat him all over his body, inserted pins under his fingernails and an iron rod into his anus.


There were reports of "disappearances" from Batticaloa (five), Vavuniya, Killinochchi, Colombo and Mannar districts. During a visit in October, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances examined the implementation of recommendations for the prevention and investigation of "disappearances" made during previous visits in 1991 and 1992. It urged the government to establish an independent investigation into the estimated 540 "disappearances" reported from Jaffna district in 1996.

  • Among those reported "disappeared" from Batticaloa district were 50-year-old Eliyathamby Narayanapillai and 47-year-old Poopalapillai Thiagarajah, two farmers from Mandur who had reported to the local police station on 14 January. Police claimed they were released, but they failed to return home. It is feared that they died under interrogation. Their "disappearance" was investigated by the Human Rights Commission and the Committee against Undue Arrest and Harassment but they failed to establish their fate or whereabouts. No action was initiated against the police.

Violations of international humanitarian principles

The armed conflict has been described as a "no mercy war", given the number of combatants on both sides who appeared to have been deliberately killed on the battlefield instead of being arrested. This practice appeared to continue throughout 1999.

There was heightened concern about violations of international humanitarian principles by both sides. The killing of 23 civilians in a bombing raid by the Air Force in the Puthukkudiyiruppu area of Mullaitivu district in September indicated a lack of precautions to avoid harming civilians. The government claimed it had hit an LTTE camp, whereas independent sources confirmed that all those killed were civilians. The government later stated that the attack had been a "mistake".

In November, 40 displaced civilians were killed when at least three shells hit Madhu church. The exact circumstances of the shelling were difficult to establish, but it was clear that both the security forces and the LTTE were aware that civilians were sheltering in the church. Neither side took all necessary measures to prevent civilian casualties.

Human rights abuses by the LTTE

There were ominous signs that the LTTE might be returning to large-scale deliberate attacks on civilians in Colombo and areas bordering the north and east, a practice from which it had largely refrained over the last three years. More than 50 Sinhalese civilians were killed in a pre-dawn raid on three villages in Amparai district. The deliberate targeting of members of parliament and local councillors belonging to Tamil political parties represented in parliament also became more pronounced.

  • On 29 July, a prominent member of parliament and member of the Tamil United Liberation Front, Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam, was killed on his way to work by a suicide bomber. In Jaffna, the total number of local councillors killed for not complying with orders by the LTTE to resign from their post rose to 11. Among those killed was 50-year-old Bandari Kandasamy, of the Eelam People's Democratic Party, who was shot dead on his way home from church in February.
  • In two attacks on election rallies in and near Colombo on 18 December, at least 25 civilians were killed. Numerous others, including President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and four ministers, were injured.

Child soldiers

Throughout the year the LTTE continued to recruit children as combatants. There was little sign of the commitment given by the LTTE leadership to the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in May 1998 that it would not use children below 18 years of age in combat, and would not recruit under 17 years. AI obtained a copy of a pamphlet dated 3 June 1999 circulated by LTTE leaders in Batticaloa district to school principals, appealing for people to "join in thousands". The pamphlet did not refer to any age limit.

  • A 13-year-old boy from the Muttur area in Trincomalee who had been recruited by the LTTE in February and had twice managed to escape from their camp, was on each occasion forcibly taken back. The second time, he was beaten as a punishment.

Death penalty

In March, amid reports of rising crime, the government announced that death sentences would no longer be automatically commuted when they come before the President. Instead a policy was put in place whereby the President would refrain from commutation if the judge in the case, the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice unanimously recommended execution. AI expressed concern about this retrograde step for Sri Lanka after 23 years of being a de facto abolitionist state.

AI country report

  • Sri Lanka: Torture in custody (AI Index: ASA 37/010/99)

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