Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Sri Lanka

Political context

Whilst fighting between Government forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and armed Tamil groups believed to be aligned with the Government was already intense following the resumption in hostilities in 2006, the situation worsened when the Government officially abrogated the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement on January 16, 2008.1 Intensified fighting between Government forces and the LTTE resulted in a significant increase in human rights violations by all parties to the conflict, as well as in thousands being internally displaced. In the first month after the collapse of the ceasefire, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted an increase in the number of civilians killed in the cross-fire or in targeted or indiscriminate attacks, stating that this had reached "appalling levels".2 The LTTE-controlled areas of northern Sri Lanka, known as the Vanni, were particularly affected due to the large-scale military operation taking place there.3 Enforced disappearances, abductions and killings were reported regularly from the Vanni region and the surrounding areas, in particular the district of Jaffna. Tamils were the most affected by these human rights abuses, and restrictions imposed by the LTTE on leaving the Vanni for Government-controlled areas exacerbated the situation.4 The Government also placed severe restrictions on internally displaced persons leaving refugee camps, most of whom were Tamils fleeing the fighting in the Vanni, and increased the registration and identification requirements for people from the north and east.5 In addition, restrictions were placed on human rights defenders and aid workers, in particular foreign nationals, travelling to the area.

Media workers also became high profile targets in the course of 2008, particularly those who reported on the conflict that intensified following the collapse of the ceasefire. Journalists were often barred from the conflict areas, the LTTE not allowing independent reporting in LTTE-controlled areas and those who were allowed into such areas frequently fled given the considerable risks to their security. To silence the media, media workers and journalists were threatened, intimidated, violently assaulted and even murdered. Anti-terrorism legislation was also used to arrest and detain those seen as a risk.

At the international level, Sri Lanka was considered under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review in May 2008. Concerns raised during this process included the need to address the culture of impunity, the incidents of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, the repression of human rights defenders and humanitarian workers and the attacks on freedom of expression, the media and journalists.6 On May 21, 2008, Sri Lanka lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Council. This followed widespread opposition from Sri Lankan and international NGOs on the basis of continuing systematic human rights violations by the Government, in particular widespread disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and a failure to cooperate with UN human rights experts.7

Silencing of critical voices

Throughout 2008, the security forces continued to exercise the sweeping powers granted under the current version of the emergency regulations,8 searching, arresting without warrant and detaining individuals for up to one year without judicial review. Most of those arrested and detained were ethnic Tamils. However, anyone speaking out against the Government or its policies was at risk of repression. Muslim and Sinhalese human rights defenders, journalists and others voicing dissent were often accused by the Government of having links with the LTTE and seen as undermining the war against terrorism waged by the Government. They were thus branded terrorists or traitors, or at the very least accused of acts "demoralising the armed forces".9 For instance, on July 12 and 13, 2008, representatives of four human rights organisations10 were interrogated for over eight hours by the Colombo Crime Division over leaflets distributed on December 10, 2007. The leaflets highlighted the human rights situation, in particular, the current spate of disappearances and called for accountability of the police and armed forces and for the ending of impunity. The police alleged that they were attempts to demoralise the armed forces. The organisations' representatives were informed that the files would be sent to the Attorney General's Department, which would decide on the further course of action. Those questioned feared that legal action could be taken against their organisations, or against them or other members personally, under the emergency regulations. However, as of the end of 2008, the four human rights defenders had not been subjected to new interrogations or judicial proceedings.

The Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM), an independent group of Christians from various denominations that actively investigates and documents the human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Vanni region and is campaigning for protection and assistance for civilians affected by war, was also a target for intimidation and repression by the Government. In October 2008, Fr. Sarath Iddamalgoda, founding member of CSM, was accused by Mr. Sarath Gunaratne, MP and Deputy Minister of Ports and Aviation, of misleading innocent people by distributing materials against the Government and the Armed Forces.

At a public meeting on October 13, Mr. Gunaratne tried to intimidate CSM into stopping its campaign, saying he had brought the matter to the attention of the Presidential Advisor and Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse (Defence Secretary and brother of the President) as well as the Church authorities. On March 7, 2008, Mr. Jayaprakash Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist and co-Director of the website Outreach Multimedia, was arrested and detained by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID).11 No reason was initially given for his arrest although Government sources suggested that Mr. Tissainayagam had links with the LTTE, but they produced no evidence of this. Mr. Tissainayagam was detained for more than five months without charge, before being indicted in August under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Regulations for promoting terrorism through the magazine Northeastern Monthly in 2006 and his activities as a website editor. Mr. Tissainayagam had been critical of the Government in a number of respects, but the relevant articles criticised the Government's military operations carried out in Tamil regions, because of their "indiscriminate impact on civilians".12 As of the end of 2008, Mr. Tissainayagam remained in detention.

Less visible, and extremely difficult to document and expose given the tight media controls in LTTE-controlled areas, were the abuses unleashed by the LTTE on human rights defenders, particularly dissident voices within the Tamil community who do not see the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil population and who condemn the violence inflicted by the LTTE on all civilians.13 For example, on May 13, 2008, Ms. Maheswary Velautham, an ethnic Tamil, human rights lawyer and founder of the NGO Forum for Human Dignity, was shot dead in Jaffna by unknown gunmen believed to be acting for the LTTE.14

Furthermore, in 2008, the situation of human rights defenders was exacerbated by reductions in security protection assigned to those at risk. In December 2007, the security assigned to Mr. Mano Ganesan, a Member of Parliament, President of the Democratic Workers' Congress and the founder of the Civil Monitoring Commission on Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances (CMC), was severely curtailed without notice. It is believed this was aimed at sanctioning his human rights activities, particularly given that it took place one week after he had been awarded the runner up position for the US Government's Freedom Defenders Award 2007. Mr. Ganesan left Sri Lanka at the end of 2007 given his fear for his safety but returned in 2008. He continued to face threats, intimidation and harassment by the authorities throughout the year. For example, on August 26, he was summoned by the TID and interrogated for more than seven hours in relation to visits to Kilinochchi on Government business to speak with officers of the LTTE during the 2002-2005 ceasefire. The TID wanted to know if he had established a special relationship with the LTTE. The Government had also reduced the security assigned to Mr. Thiyagarajah Maheswaran, a Member of Parliament for the opposition United National Party (UNP), from eighteen persons to two in December 2007. On January 1, 2008, Mr. Maheswaran was killed by unknown gunmen. His assassination took place just hours after he had informed the media that he would soon reveal details in Parliament of how the Sri Lankan Government carried out abductions and killings in Jaffna through the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) paramilitary.

No relief for humanitarian workers

In 2008, the Government continued to restrict access for aid workers, in particular foreign nationals, to those areas most affected by the conflict as well as restricting the provision of essential items. For instance, on September 5, 2008, the Government advised all UN agencies and international NGOs that it could no longer guarantee the safety of aid workers in the Vanni area of northern Sri Lanka and ordered all international NGOs and the UN to withdraw from the area with the exception of the ICRC.15

In addition to restrictions, aid workers were threatened, abducted and killed. Despite the large number of attacks, no successful investigations were carried out into the attacks and the perpetrators therefore enjoyed complete impunity.16 For example, Mr. Sebastian Goodfellow, an ethnic Tamil and driver for the aid agency Norwegian Refugee Council, disappeared on May 15, 2008, and has not been seen since. It is feared he was abducted possibly by an armed group, with the acquiescence of State security forces.17 On November 27, Mr. A. Vigneswaran, a construction-supervisor also working for the Norwegian Refugee Council, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen after being pulled from his house in the eastern district of Batticaloa.18

Lawyers under attack

The legal profession, as well as the judiciary, was increasingly under threat in 2008. Lawyers acting for victims of human rights abuses all too often found themselves the victims of attacks. Those who represented suspected terrorists in particular were targeted as "traitors". The repression of lawyers was intended to reinforce the climate of fear and to intimidate and terrorise lawyers into ceasing to act for complainants. For instance, on September 27, 2008, Mr. J. C. Weliamuna, a human rights lawyer and Executive Director of the Sri Lanka chapter of Transparency International (TI) that campaigns against Government corruption, was the target of a grenade attack. Late in the evening, an unidentified gang threw two grenades at his home, damaging the property but fortunately not causing any physical harm to Mr. Weliamuna or his family. On September 23, 2008, TI had published a report which put Sri Lanka in 92nd place out of a list of 184 corrupt Governments in the world. Further, Mr. Weliamuna is known for his involvement in human rights and corruption cases, many of which involve Government officials and police officers and, on the very day of the attack, Mr. Weliamuna had proposed a motion at the Bar Association regarding a lawyer who had received death threats due to his appearance in the extrajudicial killing case of Mr. Sugath Nishantha Fernando, who had brought complaints of bribery and torture against the police, including senior police officials, in the Negombo area.19

On October 21, 2008, a letter was sent to a number of lawyers and court registrars by a group calling itself "Mahason Balakaya" ("Ghosts of Death Battalion"). This letter made death threats to lawyers representing suspected terrorists, accusing them of being "traitors to the Nation".20 As of the end of 2008, there had been no official investigation into these death threats. Then, in November 2008, the Ministry of Defence published a report referring to some lawyers as traitors, given that they had acted on behalf of alleged LTTE suspects in applications before the Supreme Court. Both the letter from "Mahason Balakaya" and the Ministry of Defence's report unjustly attack lawyers simply for carrying out their profession and undermine the legal profession as a whole.21 They may also incite further attacks against lawyers.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 200822

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Mr. Mano Ganesan and Mr. Thiyagarajah MaheswaranThreats / Extrajudicial killingUrgent Appeal LKA 001/0108/OBS 004January 14, 2008
Reverend Fr. M. X. KarunaratnamExtrajudicial killingUrgent Appeal LKA 002/0408/OBS 060April 22, 2008
Mr. J. C. WeliamunaAttack / ThreatsUrgent Appeal LKA 003/0908/OBS 157September 30, 2008
The Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM) and Mr. Fr. Sarath IddamalgadaThreats / HarassmentUrgent Appeal LKA 004/1008/OBS 165October 17, 2008

1 The international community expressed its regret and concern regarding this decision by the Government. See, for example, the Declaration of the European Union Presidency, January 8, 2008; UN Press Release, January 15, 2008; and Statement by the UN Secretary-General, January 3, 2008.

2 See ICRC Press Release, February 13, 2008.

3 See Joint Oral Statement by International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) to the ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council, September 17, 2008.

4 The LTTE has a pass system for those who wish to leave the area. However, requests for passes are frequently denied. Further, they are given only to individuals rather than families, which can result in families being split up and left behind. See Law and Society Trust.

5 See Forum-Asia Press Release, October 13, 2008.

6 See UN Document A/HRC/8/46, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Sri Lanka, June 5, 2008.

7 See NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council Press Release, May 21, 2008.

8 The current version was introduced in August 2006 after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshaman Kadirgama.

9 See Law and Society Trust.

10 Right to Life Human Rights Centre, Law and Society Trust, Civil Monitoring Commission and Janasansadaya.

11 His Co-Director Mr. N. Jasiharan and his wife, Ms. V. Valamathy, were also arrested.

12 See Joint Oral Statement by IMADR and FORUM-ASIA to the ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council, September 17, 2008. See also Law and Society Trust.

13 See Law and Society Trust.

14 Idem.

15 See Joint Oral Statement by IMADR and FORUM-ASIA to the ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council, September 17, 2008.

16 In June 2008, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) raised concerns that 22 disappearances had occurred in April-May, with 18 disappearances in the month of May alone and that both women and humanitarian aid workers were being targeted. The WGEID expressed concern that the number could be considerably higher given that disappearances may not have been reported due to fear of reprisals. See UN Press Release, June 11, 2008.

17 See Law and Society Trust and Norwegian Refugee Council Press Release, November 19, 2008.

18 See Norwegian Refugee Council Press Release, November 28, 2008, as well as UN Press Release, December 3, 2008, in which Mr. Neil Buhne, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka, condemned "the shooting death of A. Vigneswaran" and urged the authorities to "vigorously pursue" the perpetrators.

19 The international community condemned the attack, asking the Sri Lankan Government to conduct investigations, and has expressed concerns about threats to lawyers. See Press Release issued on October 15, 2008 by the Embassy of France in its capacity as the Local Presidency of the EU, which expressed concern over "the trend in attacks and threats on journalists, civil society organizations and now a lawyer". However, as of the end of 2008, there had been no serious investigation into the attack.

20 See Open Letter from the International Bar Association to the President of Sri Lanka and Law and Society Trust, November 6, 2008.

21 See Law and Society Trust.

22 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.


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