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Disappearances in Sri Lanka – Murky business

THE 2009 victory of the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil Tigers in the country’s long-running civil war may have brought peace, but it has been an uneasy one. Now people from all walks of life are disappearing. No-one knows why but some blame the government.

Colleagues of two political activists—Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Murugananthan—who went missing in Sri Lanka’s north on December 9th, fear the men are in grave danger.

On January 9th hundreds of clamouring demonstrators marched through the capital Colombo. They demanded that the government release the activists, put an end to abductions in the north and pull the military out of former conflict areas. In fact, the opposite is happening.

Mr Weeraraj and Mr Murugananthan spent much of the past few months campaigning on behalf of hundreds of missing Tamils, many of whom were last seen in the custody of the security forces. The two were intercepted in the northern city of Jaffna by men on motorcycles, bundled into a white van and taken away.

Udul Premaratne, another prominent campaigner, insists that the army—controversially still deployed in large numbers in Jaffna—is responsible. But despite several eyewitness accounts (the incident occurred just before nightfall), the police say they have do not have enough evidence to proceed with the case.

This pattern is now chillingly familiar. In December a government-appointed body, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), wrote in a report that it was alarmed by the large number of complaints of “abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detentions”.

It is rare for such a body to be so critical, appointed as it was by the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the government to victory against the Tigers. But the LLRC’s report deplored a breakdown of the law in Sri Lanka. It called on the government to get the law-enforcement authorities to investigate the allegations and bring wrongdoers to justice.

At first, many of the victims were Tamils from the north and east. But now Sinhalese and Muslims (who count as a separate ethnic group in Sri Lanka) are also being targeted. And some of the missing people are turning up dead.

On January 3rd Dinesh Buddhika Charitananda, a 25-year-old ethnic Sinhalese, was abducted at night. His body was found near a river in a Colombo suburb the following morning. In October Mohamed Niyas, a Muslim astrologer, was taken away in a white van by a group of gun-toting men. Three weeks later he, too, was found dead.

According to the Bangkok-based Asian Human Rights Commission, there is a “commonly held belief” that the abductions and murders are happening with “the direct or indirect knowledge of the police and often also with the tacit approval of political authorities”. A government spokesman denied any government involvement in the disappearances.

The bilingual Mr Weeraraj, who is of mixed Sinhala and Tamil parentage, had himself previously been taken away twice by men who his colleagues claim were soldiers. He was released in both instances. The third time, he was not so lucky.

The families of the two activists have now petitioned the United Nations and there are signs that wheels have been set in motion. A spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the UN, says the case of the abductions is being sent to the UN Human Rights Council for investigation. The families turned to an international body, explains Mr Premaratne, because they could not get action from the local authorities. “Oh, and keep a story ready about me,” he adds with wry humour. “I might be next.”

Jan 14th 2012 the Economist


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