DIMUTHU ATTYGALLE was abducted on April 6th. A leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a small Sri Lankan opposition group, she had attacked the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa on its grim human-rights record. Four days later she stumbled into a press conference held by the party, dishevelled and with a disturbing story to tell. Burly men with weapons, who drove a white van, had grabbed her from a suburb of Colombo, the capital. She had since been kept blindfolded, manacled and shackled. She was also gagged, except when being grilled about her about political work, the party and its members.
Elsewhere in the city, another FSP leader went missing. Early on April 7th a colleague found Premakumar Gunaratnam gone from his home amid signs of struggle. He was also freed after a few days, but “not out of the kindness of his abductors’ hearts”, says a party member. He (and presumably Ms Attygalle) got away because he has Australian citizenship and his wife had alerted authorities in Canberra. Robyn Mudie, Australia’s high commissioner in Colombo, then asked Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa—the widely-feared brother of the president—to help find the missing Australian. As pressure grew, Mr Gunaratnam was dumped on a roadside, then deported.
Their fates might have been worse. Two others from the group, who were snatched in December, remain missing. A terrifying spate of abductions (as reported by The Economist) of critics of the government continues unchecked. It is “mindboggling how brazen and frequent” the disappearances have become, says a rights activist who dares not be named. Groundviews, a citizen journalism website, counts 29 abductions reported by local media in February and March. It tallies 56 abductions in the past six months. These have taken place even as Sri Lanka fought a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for it to “credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances”. The resolution passed with a clear majority on March 22nd.
No one has offered proof of a government role in the abductions, but circumstantial evidence suggests it. The high number of cases, use of weapons, the daring of the perpetrators and police inaction all point to a degree of official direction. Nor is it clear who else could possibly wish to kidnap human-rights activists. The main opposition United National Party says that country’s image as is being tarnished as the government lets abductions go on.
Others are more direct. The Lawyers for Democracy, another activist group, says it is reasonable to infer that the defence authorities, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s men, were involved in these abductions. Another case suggests so. Last month Sagara Senaratne, a politician and businessman, was snatched at a busy roundabout by men in a white van. Mr Senaratne, from the ruling party, is the brother-in-law of a minister. His friends told the authorities and he was released. He says that intervention by the president, the defence secretary and his in-law saved his life. But rights groups naturally ask how such powerful men knew whom to contact to get him free. And precisely how, too, did Gotabaya Rajapaksa help with the Australian request to find Mr Gunaratnam? Such mysteries go unanswered—and worries grow about Sri Lankan democracy.