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Attacks on dissent in Sri Lanka, Part 1 –Incidents in 2012

2012 has seen a sustained campaign Sri Lankan against human rights defenders with a special focus on any engagement with UN processes, including the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council beginning in February in Geneva.

Press freedom activists and organizations, human rights defenders and political activists are being accused of helping the revival of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and of being part of a conspiracy against the motherland by bringing the on-going violations of human rights in the country to the attention of the international community.

Obstruction and threats in relation to “Black January” protest:

In January, the Alliance of Media Organizations in Sri Lanka, which is a broad front of 6 independent media organizations, organized a campaign  titled “Black January”, to commemorate killings and abductions of journalists that have taken place in January over the years, and to call for media freedom, the  freedom of expression and an end to impunity for attacks on press freedom. A demonstration was scheduled to take place on 25th January at 2 p.m. in front of the main railway station in Colombo, which is a popular venue for public protest actions. Wide publicity was given for this campaign. The Police tried to obstruct this by requesting a court order prohibiting the demonstration. Amongst those who expressed concern about this is well known constitutional and human rights lawyer Mr. J. C. Weliamuna, who referred to this as “unlawful restrain of lawful assemblies and meetings”.  After the court allowed the protest to go ahead with some restrictions, government supporters organized a counter-protest, bringing protesters armed with poles and sticks who chanted slogans against the Free Media Movement (FMM), which took the lead in organizing the campaign, and exiled press freedom activists  in particular. They occupied the space where the ‘Black January’ demonstration was supposed to take place, violating conditions of the court order, while Police watched by. The “Black January” protest was shifted to another venue to avoid any confrontation. 

Use of state media to threaten, intimidate and discredit press freedom activists:

On 10th January 2012, media reported the Government of accusing leaders of the FMM  of carrying out a campaign against the  GSP+ tariff concession granted to Sri Lanka by the EU by sending more than 700 petitions, of using FMM funds for this and of gathering information with opposition politicians.  The FMM denied this and asserted that they campaigned for retaining GSP+ and had urged the Sri Lanka government to respect human rights obligations.

Throughout January 2012, the state controlled Independent Television Network (ITN) repeatedly broadcasted visuals of press freedom activists (living in Sri Lanka and in exile) participating in protest campaigns in Sri Lanka and events during the September 2011 UN Human Rights Council sessions.  Accusations were made that implied that these activists were LTTE supporters and paid by other LTTE supporters. The tone and contents of these broadcasts appeared to make indirect death threats.

Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has been engaged in a sustained campaign of false and unsubstantiated accusations against press freedom activists and organizations, compelling Sunanda Deshapriya, a well known press freedom activist now in exile to write an open letter to the Minister insisting that he was not a terrorist.  Referring to statements broadcast on the “Athulanthaya” (Inside Story) program on ITN, Mr. Deshapriya questioned whether the Minister was taking information that would not stand scrutiny in a court of law into the public arena to build a hate campaign against him in the minds of the people.

On 26th January, Minister Rambukwella was quoted as saying that that some journalists who fled overseas are joining hands with NGOs and foreign media to tarnish the good image of the country and also sacrifice local journalists in exchange for “dollars and personal benefits”; he threatened that journalists who are unfaithful to the country and tarnish the country’s good image will not be forgiven by the country. 
On 27th January, Minister Rambukwella was quoted as saying that “certain journalists in the country are funded by the defeated LTTE and foreign Non-Governmental Organizations. The government did not have the necessary legal provision to take action against them. These journalists are working to tarnish the image of the country and I have a list of names of such journalists.”  On 26th January, the newspaper reported the Minister saying “We have a list of journalists and those who have been working against the state. But unfortunately there is no legal action we could take against them.”  The same news report quoted the Minister saying “their (organizers of Black January protest) actions have been suspect as to whose agendas they are trying to fulfill”. 
The state run Sinhalese daily “Dinamina” carried a news report on 3rd February 2012, accusing FMM and the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA)  of planning to discredit the Government by making allegations and reported that 6 members of the FMM and some members of the TNA had already gone to Geneva.  It reported that FMM members in Sri Lanka were collecting information to sling mud at the Government and that exiled journalists supportive of the LTTE would present this information in Geneva. The news report went so far as to  attack the wife of a press freedom activist. 

On 7th February, “Dinamina” carried a news item that reiterated the above allegations.  It didn’t carry the FMM’s strong denial of the above news item nor did it carry the “Dinamina” response to the challenge posed to prove accusations. 

On the same day “Dinamina” carried another news item accusing the FMM of sending photographs to an exhibition against the motherland organized by LTTE supporters in London that “misinterpret even actions carried out by the security forces of our country with good intentions”. 

In its editorial on 8th February, “Dinamina” accused several organizations of obstructing freedom and democracy and placing barriers on progress and unitary nature of the country and of having as friends, organizations and individuals that support and encourage separatism and terrorism. It accuses the FMM of having been on the side of the “Tigers” during the war and having worked to support the LTTE and doing innumerable despicable things against the country. The concluding line that “The people will recognize the fraudsters whose actions are driven by this hatred and on that day Sunil Jayasekera and all the so-called media freedom groups will not have anything left to say” appears to be an open incitement for violent attacks against the FMM and it’s convener, Mr. Sunil Jayasekera. 

On 11th February, a news item in the “Dinamina” titled “information about the relationship between FMM and the LTTE is exposed” accused senior members of the FMM of having relationships with the LTTE and after the defeat of the LTTE, of still maintaining relationships with LTTE’s international network and working to bring the government into disrepute.  

Accusations of preparing for armed struggle

On 13th January, the “Island” English newspaper published a report portraying organizations campaigning on disappearances, arbitrary detention etc., linked with a faction of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as working against the government, including at the UN Human Rights Council.  They were accused of “relentlessly campaigning against the government” and “pushing for a political front against the government which could accommodate those supportive of the LTTE’s eelam project” and that “those engaged in the ongoing protests were planning to step up their campaign in the run-up to the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.”

In a meeting at the University of Jaffna, the Minister for Higher Education, S. B. Dissanayake was reported as accusing student groups of preparing to launch an armed struggle with youth who were formerly affiliated with the LTTE.

In the state run “Daily News” English newspaper of 11th January, Minister of Health, Maithripala Siripala accused a JVP faction of getting ready to launch another insurgency.  The “Daily News” also reported Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr. Sunil Jayantha Navarathna accusing a JVP faction of hampering the university system through strikes on advice of LTTE supporters, putting into practice LTTE’s hidden agenda and receiving LTTE funds in return for destroying and hampering the university system and having connections with LTTE supporters.

Attacks, threats and discrediting human rights defenders:

On 17 January 2012, a large group of activists travelling to Jaffna in 12 buses, to protest against disappearances in the North were repeatedly harassed and intimidated by police and military and prevented from proceeding to Jaffna.

On 20th January, the Daily News quoted President Mahinda Rajapakse as saying “Though we have created a peaceful atmosphere, there are certain elements, trying to ruin this peaceful situation”

On 23rd January, the office of Viliuthu, an NGO working primarily in North East was broken into. 

In early February, several people who met a visiting US government delegation while they were in the North of the country, as well as the priest who hosted the meeting, were questioned by the Police and Military.

On 9th February, a human rights defender in Kandy was questioned by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) and warned of further actions, after being accused of working to revive the LTTE in the hill country.

In a speech delivered by Defence Secretary (and brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse) Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the induction ceremony of the Organisation of Professional Associations, he was reported as saying “There are ex-LTTE cadre, pro-LTTE activists and LTTE sympathisers operating in various guises……Others claim to be rights activists…certain human rights organisations also seem to have been co-opted by radical elements.  The Defence Secretary was also quoted as saying “LTTE cadre, activists and sympathisers efforts to portray a bleak picture about Sri Lanka to discredit Sri Lanka’s progress are sometimes helped by individuals and groups within Sri Lanka”.

The perils of seeking legal redress for torture and lack of victim protection was amply demonstrated yet again on 11th February 2012, when Mr. Ramasamy Prabaharan was abducted, after having received threats to withdraw a fundamental rights case he had filed against senior Police officers in relation to severe torture suffered while in detention. 

On 16th February, a businessman who filed an anti-corruption complaint against the police, and who has faced threats and attacks since 2007, was abducted in a white van and severely beaten and threatened with death if he took any further action or mad any complaints against the police.

Several media activists who were attacked in the State media and organized the black January protest were followed on several occasions in January/February

Attacks on protests:

On 10th February, as the Movement for People’s Struggle (also known as People’s Struggle Movement) was conducting a leaflet campaign in Colombo, armed security personnel had warned them not to engage in distribute anti-government activities and photographed them. 

On 14th February, Police had beaten the family members and others protesting the abduction of a man near the main court complex in Colombo , prompting lawyers to launch a protest against the abduction and police beating .

On 15th February, a fisherman was killed and several others injured as the Special Task Forces fired at a protest against fuel price hike in Chilaw in the North Western Province.  The Police had imposed restrictions on the funeral of the slain fisherman, obtaining a court order to prevent any protests at the funeral.

On 16th February, in Maligawatte, a protest organized by an opposition party, The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was also subjected to tear gas attack by Police, and several people including a parliamentarian were reported as injured.

On 17th February, in Colombo, an opposition parliamentarian, several protesters and passersby were injured and affected by tear gas attack by Police on a protest organized by the main opposition party, the United National Party. 

On 17th February 2012, it was reported that “The security forces have started to uncover bombs, suicide kits and other explosives from various parts of the island soon after the opposition political parties have decided to commence an island wide anti-government protest campaign.”
24th Feb. 2012


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