30th August is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Tens of thousands have disappeared in Sri Lanka in last few decades. On this day, families of disappearances in Sri Lanka will gather in Vavuniya in the North, to once again publicly appeal to find their loved ones, at least know the truth of what happened to them, and hold those accountable to justice.
From the day their loved ones had disappeared, family members have been physically going to various military camps, complaining to the Police, National Human Rights Commission, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and various Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the government. Some have filed habeas corpus cases. Some have sent complaints to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. They share their stories with NGOs, lawyers, researchers, journalists, clergy, diplomats, politicians etc. They join protests, seminars and other such events. But todate, vast majority have no answers.
I have got to know some families closely, accompanied some physically in their search and been trying to help their struggles in various ways, especially in helping them to tell their stories to others who we thought may care. I have seen first-hand, their pain, frustration and fear, even as I admired their perseverance and courage to pursue truth and justice. It has also been a frustrating and painful journey even for me, often ending up feeling helpless and powerless and not knowing what to say when confronted with their questions, pain and tears.
Sadly, I have seen very little empathy and support for families of disappeared from the Sri Lankan government and vast majority of Sri Lankan people. Instead, what these families have got is threats, intimidations, obstructions and insults. The few lawyers, clergy, diplomats, human rights defenders, journalists that have been supporting them have also been subjected to threats, intimidation and insults, and I have also not been spared.
Disrupting a “listening and sharing” meeting of families of disappeared (August 2014)
On 4th August, I was at the Centre for Society & Religion (CSR), along with some other human rights defenders, lawyers, clergy and diplomats. CSR is located in the premises of a Catholic church in the heart of Colombo. We had gathered for a “listening and sharing” meeting with some families of Tamil disappeared persons. It was a small, invitation only, private gathering. Just when some families had started to share their pains and struggles, a mob including some Buddhist Monks broke into CSR and tried to enter the meeting room where we were having the meeting. Some of us from Colombo tried to stop the mob from getting inside the meeting room and pleaded with them to leave. I saw the families of disappeared – children – men – women, had left the chairs and were sitting on the ground, cowering in fear, with some crying and some clinging on to diplomats and Catholic sisters who were present. The Police rejected our appeals to provide protection to the meeting and families of disappeared persons and disperse the invaders. Instead, the Police asked the meeting to be stopped and families of disappeared to be sent back home. We insisted that the Police should disperse the mob which had invaded a private property and a private meeting, but the Police was only willing to do that after more than an hour later.
This unfortunately is not an isolated incident, rather, it’s pattern for the last several years, which appear to have intensified since the last International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
Intimidation before the meeting (August 2014)
Before the meeting at CSR, some of the participants from the North had received intimidating calls from persons claiming to be from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Police. One of the North based organisers of the event was asked by an anonymous caller whether he is taking families of disappeared to Colombo. A fax was sent around by a person falsely claiming to be the main organiser with misleading information about the event. The fax falsely claimed the meeting was to discuss how to send information to the UN investigation into allegations of war crimes and asked media to give coverage to the event when it was actually an invitation only, closed door meeting. Police officers had also visited another Christian institution in which the families were to be accommodated on 4th August night and had asked to be informed once the families arrive. Later in the day, after the families of disappeared had left the venue of the meeting, the venue was visited by the Police to check whether any families had remained.
False accusations, discrediting families of disappeared persons and anti-disappearance activists (August 2014)
The day after the CSR incident, one of the leaders of the mob made a series of false accusations against families of disappeared persons and anti-disappearance campaigners in Sri Lanka. My photo was shown and I was falsely accused of having provided shelter to those reviving the LTTE. Rev. Fr. Sathivel, a long time supporter of families of disappeared persons, was accused of having being chased away from the Church and having no place to stay, an accusation his Bishop denied publicly. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, who has made a detailed submission on disappearances to the Lessons Learnt & Reconcilliation Commission (LLRC), long time anti disapperances advocates Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando were all branded as LTTE supporters and traitors. Families of disappeared persons who had attended the meeting were falsely accused of all being from families of LTTE members who had been killed.
Arrest of mother of disappeared Tamil boy (March 2014)
On 13th March 2014, Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari, was arrested at her house in the Kilinochchi district, Northern Sri Lanka by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) of the Police and is presently being held at the Boosa Detention Centre. She and her daughter has been participating in campaigns to find out truth about disappeared persons, including Jeyakumari’s son, and both the mother and daughter had received much publicity in second half of 2013, due to their participation in an event with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 30th August 2013 and later in November, when they participated in a public protest with other families of disappeared persons, in Jaffna, when the British Prime Minister visited Jaffna. Jeyakumari claims that her son disappeared after she had surrendered him to the Army in 2009 and that the son’s photo was included in a photo published in media, of a government detention facility. She has filed a fundamental rights petition against the arrest. The government had claimed that she was harbouring and supporting a person alleged to have been reviving the LTTE. Jeyakumari has denied the charges and the government more than five months after the arrest, the government has not charged her. When I and a friend went to see what has happened to her and her daughter, we were arrested and detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) for two days. I can’t say much about this beyond what’s reported, as investigations against me are still continuing and the TID has obtained a Court Order prohibiting me from saying anything about this after my release.
Disruption of a human rights festival focusing on disappearances during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo (November 2013)
On 14th November 2013, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist extremist group, disrupted a human rights festival organised in parallel to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) by the main opposition party of Sri Lanka, United National Party (UNP) and civil society organisations.
Police gets court order against vigil with families of disappeared persons in Colombo during CHOGM (November 2013)
On 14th November, the police obtained a court order against any type of a protest in the Colombo city on 14th and 15th November 2013, preventing a vigil that was planned with the participation of families of disappeared persons.
Obstructions against families of disappeared traveling to Colombo to participate in a human rights festival during the CHOGM (November 2013)
Before the human rights festival began, on 13th November 2013, family members of the disappeared from the North were prevented from traveling to Colombo to participate in the human rights festival mentioned above.
Obstruction of a protest by family members of the disappeared in Jaffna (November 2013)
Police beat, pushed and insulted families of disappeared persons, Christian clergy, politicians and activists during a peaceful protest held to draw attention to disappearances, during the visit of the British Prime Minister to the Northern city of Jaffna.
Obstruction of a protest on disappearances in the North (June 2014)
A protest was reported to have been held on 5th June 2014 by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) with the participation of families of the disappeared to pressure the government to expedite legal processes. Organisers claimed that people who took part in their protest were threatened by the military and told not to join the protest.
Delays in court cases related to disappearances
There have been numerous delays in habeas corpus cases filed by family members of disappeared persons especially due to: the State not filing objections in time; Police officers and Ministers summoned not appearing before courts; State Counsel not turning up; Magistrate not being present; and more recently, due to a decision by the Judicial Services Commission to appoint a special Magistrate to hear some cases.
Misinformation on disappearances and damaging allegations against anti-disappearance campaigners on State Media (February 2014)
When a community based activist in a low income area in Colombo area was abducted and released due to protests by his community, the state owned and controlled Independent Television Network (ITN) portrayed it as a case where the abductee had routinely returned home, alleging that claims of abduction were attempts to mislead the people by those who are part of an international conspiracy to spread propaganda against Sri Lanka.
Preventing families of disappeared person from attending religious services (May 2014)
Mrs. Ananthi Sasitharan, Northern Provincial Councilor from the Tamil National Alliance and the wife of an L.T.T.E leader who has been missing since his surrender to the Sri Lankan Army on 18th May 2009, has not been allowed by the military to enter the Hindu temple in Keerimalai to conduct rituals and remember relatives killed in the war and her disappeared husband.
Obstructions and harassment of those testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into disappearances
Families of disappeared persons have alleged that the government had obstructed, misled and harassed them during hearings held in Northern towns such as Killinochchi and Mannar by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into disappearances. It has been reported that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inquiries into disappearances after many years of waiting, had been scheduled at the same date, time and place that the Presidential of Commission of Inquiry into disappearances was being held. Military personnel alleging to represent the Commission had gathered data from family members of disappeared, registered them, and requested them to sign English forms, which they had done, despite not understanding the content of the document. Officials who identified themselves as representatives of the Ministry of Defence had prevented officers of the Legal Aid Commission from observing the process from 19thJanuary 2014 onwards. Interpretation had been incomplete, inaccurate and not comprehensive. Observers have reported having seen interpreters pre-empt answers to questions and that they even argued with complainants and were often hostile with testifying family members. Transcription of Tamil testimonies to English prevents the families checking the information recorded from them. When the hearings of the Commission was being held in Killinochchi in January 2014, family members of disappeared persons from Kilinochchi district were visited in their homes by officials alleging to represent the Commission. They had requested and recorded the personal information of their disappearances’ cases and later summoned the families to the military run “Harmony Centre”, to meet representatives of the various Ministries and government officials, who informed that they would be offered compensation for disappeared relatives and requested to fill in another form. Human rights defenders who had observed the Commission sittings had reported that only nine families accepted compensation along with a death certificate and that on the same day, they were taken to attend a ceremony officiated by the son of the President, Member of Parliament for the Hambanthota District Namal Rajapakse. More recently, Commission sittings held in a government office very close to a military camp in Puthukkudiyiruppu saw the lowest attendance of families of the disappeared.
2013 August 30th to 2014 August 30th
Last year (2013), on 30th August, hundreds of families were joined by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay. She listened to the pain and struggles of families of disappeared persons, and embraced the women. She assured the families of her support, and went on to highlight what she had seen, heard during her visit to Sri Lanka. She echoed the cries of families of disappeared by insisting on the need for truth and accountability on every occasion. In her remarks at the press conference held the next day in Colombo, she quoted one of the women she shared the stage with on 30th August, who had said that “Even when we eat, we keep a portion for him.” Ms. Pillay said that she was extremely moved by the profound trauma and resilience of the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors. She had also met families of missing military personnel and highlighted their plight. She had recommended the new Commission of Inquiry on Disappearances appointed just before her visit to be more effective than previous ones and for it to cover disappearances all over the country. But this has not happened one year down the line. Neither has the government actually criminalized enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, despite promises to the High Commissioner. Government had also ignored her recommendations to ratify the International Convention on Disappearances and to invite the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to visit Sri Lanka, a request that has been pending for 8 years. The High Commissioner also reported about harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders – including a good friend of mine, a Priest, who has been supporting families of disappeared persons for a number of years. The High Commissioner herself was not spared of abuse during and after the visit, by various government officials, Ministers and pro-government mobs.
What does the future hold for those disappeared and their families?
It has been physically and emotionally draining for me to have become involved with families of disappeared persons, but I hope to continue to be part of their struggles. I’ve heard other anti-disappearances campaigners say the same. Irrespective of us, I know the families will continue the struggle to find their loved ones, and for truth and justice. But with threats, intimidation, restrictions, obstructions and insults increasing in regularity and intensity, it’s becoming more and more difficult to continue this struggle.
As the UN’s international investigation into allegations of war crimes has commenced, many families of disappeared are keen to give testimony. Like the other families of disappeared who had gone before the UN, the intention of these families is not to go against the country, but to seek truth and justice about their loved ones, as their previous efforts domestically has not yielded positive results. But as the Sri Lankan government and it’s supporters threatens action against those who give testimony to the UN, this might be much more dangerous and difficult. A major accusation (totally false) hurled when a Buddhist Monk led mob disrupted the meeting of families of disappeared at the CSR early this month was that the meeting was to send information to the UN investigation. It will be upto the Sri Lankan government, and the member states of the UN to support and protect those who go before the UN investigation.
Some other interim and short term measures may be of help for the families to continue their long term struggle. Such as the “temporary absence certificate” that that ICRC had proposed, which will not compel them to formally declare their loved ones dead, but will enable them to overcome administrative hurdles in issues such as land, pensions etc. Interim financial help to families of disappeared to continue their struggles and help them, particularly children survive, could also be important. Given that vast majority of those disappeared in recent past are from the North, the Northern Provincial Council could consider setting up a special voluntary fund for this, and follow up on the ICRC proposal of “temporary absence certificates”.
Acknowledgement is something the families of disappeared are desperately seeking, and symbolic events and monuments to remember the disappeared and serve as point of reference for continued struggle would be very valuable. This is more important in the present context where the government and many people in Sri Lanka deny disappearances. But it’s also more dangerous and difficult as the government doesn’t seem to allow any such monument and events for Tamils.
Sri Lanka will never have reconciliation or lasting peace, until and unless we know what’s happened to our disappeared brothers and sisters and those responsible are held accountable. This is not a task that should be left to families of disappeared and few of their supporters. Rather, it’s a task all Sri Lankans and all people who care about Sri Lanka should become involved and support.
[Image IRIN/Amantha:Relatives of missing persons from Sri Lanka’s 26-year long civil war hold their pictures during a meeting in Sri Lanka capital Colombo.]
This articlce was first published inthe Groundviews