Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

Violence against civilians by all parties to the conflict continued to characterize the war in Sri Lanka in 1990. In the south, the murder in February of a prominent journalist brought world attention to the activity of government-backed death squads, which then seemed to subside. An armed Sinhalese nationalist group, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was responsible for several thousand killings, appeared to be crushed when its top leaders were apparently killed in custody in late 1989. By late 1990, however, both the JVP and the death squads had resurfaced. In the northeast, human rights conditions reached a new low in June, after the breakdown of a 14-month ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the largest Tamil opposition group.

Even for Sri Lanka, the utter brutality on all sides that followed the LTTE's June attacks on police stations and military installations in the northeast was unprecedented, creating an atmosphere of terror. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan security forces both carried out massacres of civilians. The army summarily executed suspected Tamil insurgents; the LTTE did the same to Sri Lankan police officers. Both the LTTE and the security forces used civilians as shields against attacks. The army engaged in heavy bombing in civilian areas, resulting in damage to homes, hospitals, temples, churches and pedestrians. Burning bodies appeared along roadsides in many parts of the country, and reports of mass arrests and disappearances increased.

Since June, more than 4500 may have been killed in the course of the fighting in the northeast. An estimated one million people have been displaced, of whom over 100,000 have fled to southern India.

From July to September, bloody massacres of Muslim and Sinhalese villagers in the north and east left hundreds dead.64 The Sri Lankan government attributed the killings to the LTTE, a charge which the group has repeatedly denied. Others are less sure, claiming to have heard both Tamil and Sinhala spoken during the attacks.

The killings led to retaliatory attacks by Muslims and Sinhalese on neighboring Tamil communities, perpetuating the already familiar cycle of ethnic violence in the region. Many of these attacks appeared to have been the work of Muslim home guards – volunteer forces that were armed and trained by the Sri Lankan army at the request of Muslim community leaders following the massacres of Muslims in July.

The government announced in a November 15 press conference that it would continue to support and train these home guards. At the same news briefing, Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne admitted that the security forces had also "deployed" members of the EPDP (Eelam People's Democratic Party) and TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), rival Tamil groups, against the LTTE. He said that the government would begin using these militia more extensively to protect Tamil villagers against attack by the Muslim home guards. These rival Tamil groups, in turn, have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial executions of suspected LTTE members. Despite the utter ruthlessness of these killings, Asia Watch is unaware of any serious government investigation.

As a result, members of the security forces, operating outside the law, continue to be responsible for extrajudicial executions, sweeping arrests and torture of Tamil civilians, particularly though not exclusively young men. The aim appears to be to wipe out all possible active supporters of the LTTE.

In late 1989 and early 1990, government-backed death squads, reportedly made up of members of the security forces and police officers, are believed to have murdered tens of thousands of students and other civilians suspected of sympathizing with the JVP. A delegation of European parliamentarians who visited Sri Lanka in October 1990 estimated the number of killed and disappeared on all sides in south and central Sri Lanka alone to be at least 60,000 in the prior two years. Other more conservative estimates place the number at around 35,000. Local human rights groups estimate that several thousand of these deaths are attributable to the JVP. The majority are thought to be the work of government-linked death squads.

After the top JVP leaders were killed under suspicious circumstances in police custody in November and December 1989, the organization was widely considered crushed. Yet death squad killings of suspected JVP sympathizers continued. The Financial Times reported on January 17, 1990 that "147 headless corpses – presumed suspected members of the JVP – were found on roads in the south." As late as November 1990, Asia Watch continued to receive reports from southern Sri Lanka of disappearances of people forces suspected of JVP links. In Kandy District, which had been a JVP stronghold, burning bodies continued to appear along roadsides. These practices had been characteristic of the government's counterinsurgency campaign since 1988, although the number of persons killed declined in 1990.

In what has become one of the most publicized cases of death squad activity in Sri Lanka in 1990, Richard De Zoysa, a respected actor and journalist who had been outspoken in his criticism of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan security forces, was found murdered on February 19. Eyewitnesses reported that on the morning of February 18, six gunmen, two wearing police uniforms, arrived in a police jeep and took De Zoysa from his home. Other witnesses reported that they knew some of the abductors to be members of a special police team that reported directly to President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

De Zoysa's mother, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu, positively identified Senior Superintendent of Police Ronnie Gunasinghe as the leader of the group of abductors. In statements to the police and, through her lawyer, to the court of inquiry, she also said that she had information implicating a second police officer, Ranchagoda, in the abduction. She has continued to press for a full inquiry into her son's death, despite death threats received in May warning her away from the case. Her lawyer, Batty Weerakoon, received a similar threat, as did two police guards appointed for his protection.

Not unexpectedly, a court-ordered investigation by the police into the charges against their colleagues made little headway. At a hearing before the court on August 30, representatives of Attorney General Sunil De Silva reported that there was insufficient evidence against Gunasinghe to proceed against him. Gunasinghe remains on active duty.

Attempts to press for an independent inquiry into the De Zoysa abduction and murder have so far been unsuccessful. The police officers identified by Dr. Saravanamuttu have brought a defamation suit against her.

After De Zoysa's widely publicized death, the incidence of death squad killings gradually decreased, only to increase again with reports of renewed JVP activity in the south. According to human rights organizations in Sri Lanka and Amnesty International, there were at least twelve disappearances and many reports of burnt bodies found along roadsides in Kandy District in September and October. The European parliamentarians' report estimated that the combined total of reported disappearances and killings in Kandy was between 20 and 40 a week for that two-month period.

US Policy

While the Bush administration has recognized the seriousness of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, its response has been muted. Administration officials acknowledge the flagrant abuses by all parties, including the existence of government-linked death squads and the killing of civilians by security forces in the northeast. They have also called publicly for prosecution of perpetrators of death squad killings. But they have made little effort to reinforce such statements with concrete actions, such as economic sanctions.

Although US aid to Sri Lanka is only approximately $31 million (mostly in the form of food aid), the United States nevertheless is in a position to exert economic leverage on Sri Lanka through its participation in the Sri Lanka Aid Consortium, which accounts for approximately $1 billion in nonmilitary grants and loans. At the Consortium meeting in October in Paris, US representatives acknowledged human rights abuses by government forces as well as the LTTE, and urged the government to discipline those involved in violations – an important step. The US refrained, however, from any effort to condition aid on an end to abuses – a step which, in light of the severity of Sri Lankan abuses, should have been taken.

In 1989, the last full year for which data was available, the United States supported loans to Sri Lanka totaling $172 million from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Substantially more seemed to have been extended in 1990, with US support. In accordance with Section 701 of the International Financial Institutions Act, which mandates US opposition to such bank loans to governments that consistently engage in gross violations of human rights, except those that expressly benefit the poor, the US should oppose all loans to Sri Lanka that do not fall within the statutory exception.

In fiscal year 1990, the United States also provided Sri Lanka $18.5 million in development assistance and approximately $30 million in food aid under PL 480. The Defense Department in its FY 1991 Congressional presentation for Security Assistance Programs estimated that licenses for commercial sales of military equipment to Sri Lanka would total an estimated $1 million. The figures on equipment actually shipped were unavailable. According to the State Department, no sales of munitions were approved during 1990.

The Work of Asia Watch

Asia Watch in 1990 continued its efforts to document and respond to the ongoing human rights abuses by all parties to the Sri Lankan conflict, focusing particular attention in the first part of the year on violations by government-linked vigilante groups in the south and later in 1990 on the war between the LTTE and the government in the northeast.

On February 5, Asia Watch cabled the Sri Lankan government, expressing concern over the arrest of V.S. Wanniarachchi, wife of Nimal Jayawardena, a human rights lawyer and chairman of the Kandy Citizens Committee who had received death threats in connection with his work and left Sri Lanka in late December 1989. In January 1990, armed men came to Jayawardena's home, demanded human rights documents belonging to the Citizens Committee, and shot two young men who had assisted him. On February 4, Jayawardena's wife and her brother-in-law, Sarath Pathirana, were arrested, reportedly by army personnel. Asia Watch urged the government to ensure their protection and investigate all assassinations of human rights lawyers. The New York City Bar Association, acting on information received from Asia Watch, also sent a cable to the Sri Lankan government on this case. The two were later released.

Richard De Zoysa's fame as a television personality and the ceaseless efforts of his friends and family helped focus much-needed international attention on the activities of the death squads operating in southern Sri Lanka. In February, Asia Watch issued a press release condemning his murder and calling for the prosecution of all security personnel involved in death squad killings.

On March 8, Asia Watch published a longer newsletter, Journalist Murdered in Sri Lanka as Death Squad Killings Continue, which linked a special police team with close ties to the Premadasa government to De Zoysa's murder. The newsletter called on the Sri Lankan government to institute an independent investigation into this and other death squad killings, and urged the government to prosecute security forces who have engaged in extrajudicial executions. Asia Watch also called for the repeal of the Indemnity Act, which grants immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses committed by security personnel.

On the same day, Asia Watch issued a press release denouncing unsubstantiated accusations by Sri Lankan officials that De Zoysa was a member of the JVP, that he had issued "death threats to fellow journalists, shopkeepers, hospitals and transport workers," and that he had written "false articles" on Sri Lanka's human rights situation to "damage Sri Lanka's image." The press release concluded that the allegations "appeared to reflect an effort on the part of some government officials to justify his murder" and reiterated Asia Watch's demands for an independent investigation.

Following the publication of this newsletter, an Asia Watch delegation met with Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations Daya Perera to discuss human rights concerns.

In late March, an Asia Watch researcher traveled to Sri Lanka where she met with US embassy officials, journalists, members of international humanitarian organizations, government officials and human rights organizations.

On March 12, Asia Watch wrote to Secretary of State James Baker urging the State Department to convey US concerns about human rights abuses to the Sri Lankan government. Asia Watch called on the US to press the Sri Lankan government to stop abusive activities, focusing particularly on the killings in custody of top JVP members in late 1989 and the continued activity of death squads as evidenced by the De Zoysa murder in February.

Asia Watch denounced the killing and harassment of human rights lawyers and the imposition of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permits the government to detain persons incommunicado for up to 18 months without charge or trial in any place selected by the Interior Minister. Asia Watch also urged Secretary Baker, in accordance with US law, to oppose loans to Sri Lanka that do not expressly benefit the poor in view of the Sri Lankan government's consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.

On April 4, in consultation with Asia Watch, Reps. Tom Lantos and John Porter of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus sent a letter of concern to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States, W. Sunta De Alwis, focusing on continuing abuses by government forces and pro-government vigilante groups and specifically denouncing the De Zoysa killing. Their letter urged the Sri Lankan government to launch "an independent inquiry into death squads and to prosecute members of paramilitary organizations or the army or police who are engaged in killings and disappearances of noncombatants."

On June 4, Asia Watch issued a press release calling on the Sri Lankan government to ensure the safety of human rights lawyer Batty Weerakoon and Richard De Zoysa's mother, Dr. Saravanamuttu, after they received death threats in connection with the police investigation into the De Zoysa murder.

On July 9, Asia Watch issued a press release providing an update on the human rights situation in northeastern Sri Lanka following the breakdown of negotiations, and condemning abuses by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.

In a press release issued on October 3, Asia Watch condemned the seizure by government forces of papers documenting human rights violations which a member of the Sri Lankan parliament was carrying to a meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Disappearances in Geneva.

In advance of the Sri Lanka aid consortium meeting in Paris in October, Asia Watch sent a letter to members of the consortium designed to stimulate a discussion of human rights issues.

On October 19, Rep. Stephen Solarz, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Gus Yatron, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, wrote a joint letter which cited the Asia Watch release of October 3, urging representatives of the US Agency for International Development to raise human rights concerns during the aid consortium meeting.

64 The majority of Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka are Hindu. Many Muslims also speak Tamil, but are considered a separate ethnic group. The Sinhalese are predominately Buddhist. There are also small numbers of Christians who speak each language.

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