Since 2009, many HRDs, including journalists and political activists have been threatened, attacked, intimidated, detained on false charges, disappeared or killed. In each case, they were selectively targeted because they dared to express dissenting opinions or because they encouraged others to do so. Political groups and opposition activists have also faced severe reprisals since 2010.
HRDs and journalists working in the North of Sri Lanka face particular threats and violent reprisals from the military and State-supported paramilitary groups. Many feel vulnerable and unable to access the same avenues for protection and support as HRDs operating in the rest of Sri Lanka, especially Colombo. HRDs who are perceived to have gathered information on human rights abuses, or have details of crimes against civilians during the war and who are believed to collaborate with international human rights groups or organizations including the UN have faced serious threats to their lives and are often unable to live safely in Sri Lanka.
On 9th December 2011, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Murugandan were abducted in Jaffna while organizing a press conference to be held in Jaffna on 10th December, International Human Rights day. Lalith is a HRD and political activist, who has worked extensively in the North and East of Sri Lanka. He has campaigned against arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances in the North and organized several campaigns and protests against disappearences in several cities in the North in 2010-11. Lalith has faced several threats and attacks from police and military in the North due to his work. In March 2011, he was abducted while organizing a protest in Mannar by persons who identified themselves as army officers, held in an abandoned factory and threatened before being released the following day. In November 2011, Lalith and several others were severely beaten by an armed group following a protest against disappearences in Jaffna town. To date there has been no information regarding their whereabouts and there appears to be no credible investigation into the abduction . On 15th December, cabinet spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told the media at a cabinet briefing that Lalith and Kugan had not been abducted and that ‘they were there’ . On 19th January 2012, Minster Nimal Siripala de Silva informed parliament that the police had made no progress in the investigations into the abduction” .
On 10th December 2011, a group of HRDs and political activists from the South who were travelling to Jaffna to attend a protest to mark human rights day in Jaffna town were detained by police in Jaffna and prevented from attending the protest. The group was accused of attempting to provoke ethnic tensions and undoing what the military had achieved after years of struggle against terrorism .
On 17th January 2012, a group of HRDs and activists from the South, who were travelling to Jaffna to attend a protest organized by platform of civil society groups against disappearences and abductions, were harassed, checked and finally stopped by police at Puliyankulam on the A9 road (Kandy-Jaffna road) and prevented from reaching Jaffna . At around 1.30 pm the same day, Thinakural Rest, a hotel in Jaffna where the group had planned a press conference, was attacked by a mob of armed thugs .
In January 2012, the military prevented a meeting of the Socialist Equity Party (SEP) in Jaffna after previously having detained two SEP members who were pasting posters at Gurunagar and demanded details of party members. The same soldiers had followed the party members after their release and organised a physical attack on them. The military has visited the homes of party members to further intimidate them.
Several HRDs who document human rights violations in the North and are believed to collaborate with or provide information to the international community including the UN, work under constant threat of violent reprisals by the military or state-supported paramilitary groups. Several other HRDs have been questioned by military and intelligence and beaten.
In January 2011, the names of a group of human rights defenders that participated in a human rights training in the North, were printed in a mainstream national Sinhalese newspaper, along with the organizers, portraying all as traitors. Previous articles published in the state media in October 2010, had accused the same group of being traitors/enemies of the State and also indicated that they were being investigated for furnishing false information to the international community. Following the article in January 2011, one HRD in the North who was named in the article, received serious threats and intimidation by the military. In September – October 2011, he was repeatedly called for questioning by the military/intelligence officers and severely beaten and tortured during interrogation. The HRD is currently seeking protection overseas due to the increased threats. At least one more HRD was questioned in relation to this.
Many HRDs and activists believed to be sending information to the international community are often stopped and harassed by state intelligence officers, at the international airport in Sri Lanka. One HRD from the North was stopped and questioned at the airport in December 2010 and another HRD from the North was questioned and slapped on arrival at the airport in September 2011. Two religious leaders attempting to do human rights work in Vanni were questioned by state authorities in January 2012.
While dissent by HRDs, journalists and civil society groups anywhere in Sri Lanka is likely to attract threats and violent reprisals by the State, the situation appears to be far worse in the North. Independent journalists believed to be ‘anti-government’ continue to suffer threats and attacks despite the end of the war. Journalists at the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna have been repeatedly targeted. On 28th May 2011 an Uthayan reporter was attacked by armed thugs while travelling to work. On 29th July 2011, Uthayan News Editor Mr. G. Kuhanathan was assaulted with iron rods in Jaffna and was in critical condition . Mr. Kuhanathan is currently receiving protection overseas. On 16th October 2011, a Jaffna University Student Union leader, who was also a well known as an outspoken civil rights activist, was brutally assaulted with iron rods . To date, there has been no credible police investigation into these attacks.
There are also severe restrictions on the freedom of assembly and association in the North. The military demand advance notification of any meetings and events including social events and attend such events without invitation. These requirements are not sanctioned by law. Events including religious events take place under strict surveillance and fear of disruption by the military/police. On 16th June 2011, a meeting of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), was attacked by the Army . On 1st April, a Catholic Priest who had spoken about problems facing Jaffna civilians at a meeting with the visiting Congress of Religions delegation, had cow dung thrown at him. Such incidents have also instilled fear amongst human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and anyone holding dissenting views with the government.
The report tabled in parliament by Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran, TNA Member of Parliament on 21st October 2011, expresses serious concern about attacks carried out with impunity in the North by several ‘unidentified groups’ including the attack on the Uthayan News Editor and Student Union leader of the Jaffna University. The report states that these attacks are widely seen as attempts to stifle dissent and freedom of expression in the North and East . The report also expresses concern regarding the culture of impunity in the North where allegations of violence or State brutality are largely uninvestigated.
Since late 2006, a large number of Sri Lankan HRDs have fled the country and unable to return due to a fear of persecution in Sri Lanka. Despite the end of the war, the Government continues to severely restrict and violate fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly in the North of Sri Lanka. HRDs and journalists are labeled as terrorists in the State media which is often a precursor to more violent reprisals. No credible investigation has been conducted into any of the threats, attacks, killings and disappearences of HRDs to date. The police have shown an unwillingness and inability to protect HRDs and their families. Against this backdrop of impunity and continuing insecurity, it is important to strengthen safeguards, protection and support for HRDs in Sri Lanka, particularly in the North. It is also important to ensure that same laws that apply to rest of the country are applied in the North.
24th February 2012