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Human Rights Developments
Little progress was made in 1998 towards a political settlement of the government’s fifteen-year conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and as abuses by all parties to the conflict continued, so did political battles over government proposals for constitutional reform. Efforts to identify, redress and prosecute war-related rights violations moved slowly. In January, the government made good its promise to release reports of inquiries into more than 16,000 “disappearances” dating back as far as 1988, but thousands more remain to be investigated. The year also saw the first severe punishment of government personnel for human rights violations in the course of the conflict (a gang rape, “disappearance” and multiple murder that resulted in the death penalty). But the vast majority of outstanding cases—many involving extrajudicial killings by security forces—remained unresolved, and new violations continued.

Rancorous disputes over approaches to ending the ongoing conflict with the LTTE dominated political news in Sri Lanka. Debate focused on acceptable terms for negotiating with the LTTE and administrative arrangements for ethnic power sharing. A ruling People’s Alliance (PA) proposal to devolve greater political power to regional councils, including a Tamil-administered one, was opposed by the main opposition United National Party (UNP), Sinhala nationalists and influential Buddhist clergy who favored a unitary state with strong central authority. The government made clear its position that a political consensus among “the entire Sinhala polity” was a prerequisite for negotiations with the LTTE. President Kumaratunga also declared negotiations to be conditional on the LTTE giving up its key demand for a separate state and rejected its calls for third-party mediation. In September Kumaratunge accused the UNP of conspiring to overthrow the government after the party called for unconditional talks with the LTTE and she learned that a UNP member of parliament had met with LTTE leaders.

Amid these political battles, the army continued its campaign in the northern Vanni region for control of a key highway that would give it land access to the former LTTE stronghold of Jaffna. The operation, code named Jaya Sikuru or “Sure Victory,” was launched in mid-May 1997 and has been the longest in the history of the conflict. Censorship of war reporting and restricted access to conflict areas made independent monitoring of abuses difficult, but reports continued of civilians killed and wounded in aerial bombardment, shelling and gunfire. After attacks in June when at least twenty were reported killed and fifty injured, hundreds of demonstrators petitioned government authorities in the Vanni to protect civilian lives. Shortages of food and essential supplies were reported in conflict areas. Hundreds of thousands remained internally displaced mid-year; hundreds sought safety in India, others died in the attempt.

Hundreds of deaths and injuries of civilians were also reported during army operations in the east, which received much less international attention. As in the north, both security personnel stationed there and ex-militant paramilitary forces working alongside them were accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, and illegal and arbitrary detentions of persons suspected of LTTE links. In one of the few cases where official action was taken, on February 1 in Thambalagamam, Trincomalee district, officers from the Bharathipuram police post and local home guards reportedly arrested and killed eight young men in retaliation for an attack by the LTTE on police in the area the night before. Police arrested forty-two, thirty-nine of whom had been released on bail by mid-June.

Tamil politicians and human rights organizations protested the security forces’ continued use of homeguards and armed ex-militant Tamil groups to aid in security operations, as “spotters” to identify suspected LTTE members, and to detain and interrogate suspects. They have been accused of murder, abduction, extortion, assault, illegal detention, torture, and forced conscription.

Large-scale arbitrary arrests of Tamils based almost solely on their ethnicity continued in many parts of the country, particularly after major attacks attributed to the LTTE. In the north and east, residents complained of beatings, torture, and public humiliation of persons detained during searches, and of arrested youths being used for forced labor. In Colombo, where thousands of mostly short-term arrests occurred, protests by Tamil politicians in April after a midnight roundup of more than 1,200 people led the government to propose improved procedures for registration of Tamil arrivals in the city and the establishment of government-run guest houses—suggestions that concerned human rights defenders, who feared their potential abuse. In July, complaints over a number of roundups conducted prior to the SAARC (South Asian Area Regional Cooperation) summit convinced President Kumaratunge to appoint a special presidential committee to deal with complaints of harassment of Tamil civilians.

The LTTE was blamed for many deaths of noncombatants in 1998, in bombings, assassinations, and at least one public execution. On January 26, the Sri Lankan government banned the LTTE after blaming it for the truck bombing the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, an important Buddhist shrine. The attack damaged the entrance to the temple and killed seventeen people. In three separate incidents in February, March, and August bombings attributed to the LTTE killed nearly fifty people and wounded more than 270.

A number of political assassinations in Jaffna in 1998 were also attributed to the LTTE. Army Brig. Larry Wijeratne was killed by a suicide bomber on May 14, 1998. On May 17, Sarojini Yogeswaran, mayor of Jaffna city, was killed by an unidentified gunman. On September 11, her successor, Pon Sivapalan, died from wounds sustained in the explosion of a powerful mine hidden in the Jaffna municipal council. Also killed was Jaffna’s top army officer, Brig. Susantha Mendis, along with six army and police officers and several civilians.

The LTTE continued to detain Tamils with dissenting viewpoints as political prisoners. In August LTTE forces in Kilinnochchi arrested four Tamil members of the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party of Sri Lanka. Three were freed September 13 after almost a month and a half in captivity; a fourth was was released September 16 after being held for more than two weeks.

Independent press coverage of the war has been difficult since 1995, when the Defense Ministry introduced regulations barring journalists from the north except during infrequent visits organized under military escort. In June, the situation deteriorated further when, for the third time under the People’s Alliance (PA) government, strict censorship rules were imposed on war reporting,punishable under emergency regulations. This time the government also banned reporting on the conduct and transfer of security personnel. News services noted that background on the ethnic dynamics of the war was frequently censored.

On August 4, the Sri Lankan government reimposed a state of emergency throughout the country “for the preservation of public order.” The move permitted President Kumaratunga to cancel five provincial council elections, scheduled for August 28, in which critics expected the party to do poorly. The military claimed it would be difficult to provide security for candidates and polling booths. Members of the Free Media Movement (FMM) filed a case in the Supreme Court accusing the government of denying Sri Lankans the right to exercise their franchise.

Human rights and media organizations also protested a rash of politically motivated attacks on journalists in 1998. Two air force officers, a squadron leader and a flight lieutenant, were arrested for their February attempt to abduct senior military correspondent Iqbal Athas from his home and threaten his family. The men were directed to appear in court on October 14. Also in February, Pradeep Dhamaratne, a correspondent for the Sinhala language Dinamina , was hospitalized for injuries suffered when he was arrested and tortured after publishing a report linking local police to the illicit liquor trade. An inquiry led to the censure of an officer implicated in the incident, but Dhamaratne continued to receive death threats, and on March 4 his house was burned down. On July 17, unidentified attackers fired anti-tank bullets at the home of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge after his paper published allegations of government corruption.

On August 26, Thadshanamurthy Mathusoothanan, a columnist for Saranihar , the Tamil newspaper published by the human rights organization MIRJE (Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality) and editor of another Tamil bulletin, was abducted off a street in Colombo and held incommunicado for seventeen hours until journalist friends traced him to police custody, where he was detained under emergency regulations pending investigation. His father, who attempted to visit him in detention, was denied access; on August 28 his two younger brothers were also arrested.

Official efforts to account for tens of thousands of persons “disappeared” at the hands of the security forces continued. As it promised in 1997, the Sri Lankan government made public the reports of three regional commissions of inquiry into some 16,742 reported “disappearances” dating back to 1988. In July, a new commission with islandwide jurisdiction was appointed to investigate and report on about 11,000 complaints left uninvestigated by these earlier commissions. In July, the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka criticized the government’s failure to appoint a similar commission to investigate the 600 or more reported “disappearances” in the Jaffna area after government forces took control of the former LTTE stronghold in mid-1996 or to address the many “disappearances” of Tamils in eastern Sri Lanka from 1984-1988.

Prosecution of the crimes uncovered in these and other inquiries has been a halting process, although charges have been filed against a number of government personnel. In the first criminal prosecution of its type, on July 3 the Colombo High Court sentenced to death six soldiers and a reserve policeman found guilty of the September 1996 murders of Jaffna schoolgirl Krishanthy Kumarasamy and her mother, teenage brother and neighbor. Five of the accused were also convicted of the rape of Krishanty, and three were found guilty of abduction. Like many Tamil civilians “disappeared” in security force operations, Krishanthy was abducted from a military checkpoint; her family members and neighbor who attempted to find her were taken from the same checkpoint later that day.

In a related matter, in July after Rajapakse Jayasinghe, a soldier convicted in the Kumarasamy case, claimed that he knew the location of a mass grave containing up to 400 bodies killed and buried by the security forces, the Sri Lankan government ordered police investigations. Three months later, there had been little progress into this or other investigations into reported mass graves. Human rights defenders, concerned about impartiality, called on the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to undertake an independent investigation with the help of international forensic experts, but although an HRC official had planned to travel to Jaffna in October to begin recording testimony from families of the “disappeared,” his trip was postponed, and there were no exhumations. In several prominent human rights cases before the courts, security personnel accused of gross violations remained on active duty, including eight army officers charged in relation to the “disappearances”of at least twenty-five teenagers in Embilipitiya between August 1, 1989 and January 30, 1990.

No progress was made in reopening the notorious “Bolgoda Lake” case despite government vows in 1997 to expedite it. The case implicated twenty-two Special Task Force (STF) commandos in the 1995 murders of twenty-three Tamil youths whose bodies were found floating in bodies of water near Colombo. The suspects were released on bail in 1996 and resumed their duties.

In August, five senior police officers including a Deputy Inspector General were sent on compulsory leave after the report of a presidential commission established to investigate allegations of torture and extrajudicial executions at a government-run detention center at the Batalanda Housing Estate near Colombo implicated them in the torture and “disappearances” of a large number of youths in the late 1980s.





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