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Renewed fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) overshadowed other developments and generated serious abuses. Intensified battles for control of key territory in the northern part of the island claimed scores of civilian lives and displaced some 250,000 people, bringing the estimated number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) nationwide to more than one million. Emergency government powers, in place almost continuously since 1983 and enhanced from May to September by additional regulations, granted broad powers to security personnel to arrest and detain suspects, restricted freedom of association, and authorized media censorship. The LTTE was implicated in a series of suicide bombings that killed and injured hundreds of civilians. It continued to recruit and deploy child soldiers and to physically attack and intimidate critics in the Tamil community.

Although the government continued to press for constitutional changes aimed at a political resolution to the conflict, it failed to secure necessary parliamentary support. Political violence outside the war-zones increased in the run-up to parliamentary elections in October.

Human Rights Developments

On November 2, 1999, the LTTE launched operation "Unceasing Waves" to reclaim northern territory lost to government forces over the preceding four years. On November 22, artillery shells hit a Catholic shrine in the northern Vanni region that had long sheltered IDPs, killing forty-two and injuring sixty more. Each side blamed the other for the attack.

Intensified fighting in April 2000 near Jaffna town trapped thousands of civilians in conflict zones for several tense weeks. The LTTE called on the civilians to move south into the Vanni or into other parts of the Jaffna peninsula that they controlled. The army said civilians should stay in government-controlled territory closer to the town, moving north if necessary. By the end of July, a lull in fighting allowed many civilians to move to safer areas, and permitted the delivery of badly-needed medical supplies into the Vanni. On July 22, the two sides allowed International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers to evacuate residents of the Kaithady Elders' Home near Jaffna, where they had been trapped since May. Some thirty residents reportedly died during the two-month period, many as a result of shelling.

Civilian deaths and injuries on the Jaffna peninsula were reported in the hundreds, but casualty figures could not be confirmed because relief agencies and journalists were barred from the hardest hit areas. There and in eastern Sri Lanka, many conflict-related deaths were the result of errant shells and gunshots. On May 24, four adults and two children were killed in a village near Batticaloa when a shell fell on their house during a LTTE offensive against a nearby Sri Lankan army base. On August 10, army shelling injured three civilians, including a ten-year-old girl, near Muttur, in Trincomalee district. On September 12, mortar fire aimed at the LTTE damaged houses and injured four civilians in Kalkudah village, north of Batticaloa. Land mines and unexploded ordinance also continued to take a civilian toll. Four such injuries were treated by doctors in Mallavi in May; one victim was a ten-year-old child who lost both hands and eyes in the blast. Sri Lanka had still not signed the international treaty banning land mines due, the government said, to security concerns arising from the conflict with the LTTE.

Before the escalation in fighting in April, government-run welfare camps housed some 170,000 IDPs island-wide; some 600,000 other IDPs relied on friends or relatives for shelter. Although most received some government assistance, about 100,000 people in Sri Lanka's north and east were thought to be struggling for survival unassisted. By mid-September, another 250,000 people, almost all of them residents of Jaffna district, had reportedly been displaced.

Displaced persons and other Tamil civilians in the north and east also faced discrimination, restrictions on their freedom of movement, arbitrary arrest, and custodial abuse at the hands of government forces. Due to government restrictions, Tamil civilians were often unable to reach work sites to earn a living, attend schools, or seek urgent medical care. In eastern Sri Lanka, army and police units continued to impose forced labor, demanding that IDPs and other civilians work without pay building sentry posts, cutting wood, and cleaning military camps. In mid-July, villagers north of Batticaloa were reportedly forced to construct a sand bulwark around an army camp; some were beaten for refusing to comply.

Mass arrests of Tamils occurred after violent incidents attributed to the LTTE and were often accompanied by reports of "disappearances" and torture in custody. In one two-week period in January, more than five thousand people were detained for questioning in search operations in Colombo neighborhoods. The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, a government-appointed agency, said in July that it had been unable to trace seventeen people detained by security forces in Vavuniya since the beginning of the year, while Amnesty International reported a rash of "disappearances" in Vavuniya in August. A Vavuniya district judge in September criticized local doctors for failing to report torture-related injuries, and threatened legal action against practitioners who submitted false reports denying custodial abuse by the army or police.

On October 25, a mob in Bandarawela stormed a government-run rehabilitation camp housing, among others, suspected LTTE supporters and former LTTE child soldiers, killing over twenty-five. According to initial reports, those killed ranged in age from fourteen to twenty-five. After the attack, police briefly detained more than 250 suspects from the majority Sinhalese community. At this writing, President Kumaratunga had called for two "high-level probes" into the incident, while Tamil community leaders alleged police complicity.

The LTTE committed numerous and gross abuses. Bombings of public places in the north and east, and suicide bombings in Colombo on December 18, 1999, January 5, 2000, March 10, June 7, September 15, and October 19 killed more than one hundred civilians and injured many more. Beginning in April, the LTTE engaged in increasingly aggressive recruitment drives in the Vanni, including recruitment of children as young as ten years old for combat. Schools and IDP camps were common targets for such drives. A July report by the Colombo-based University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) provided information on fifteen children recruited since April 1999, nine of whom had been killed in the fighting within a year of their recruitment. The LTTE imposed restrictions on civilians wishing to leave areas it controlled and forced all villagers in some areas to join its civilian defense units. LTTE attacks and intimidation against what it referred to as "quislings" within the Tamil community had a chilling effect on dissent. Particularly at risk were members of Tamil political parties holding positions in local government. Between January and May, three members of local administrative councils in Jaffna were killed by unidentified gunmen. The LTTE held a number of political prisoners and prisoners of war, but access to detainees and details of confinement were unavailable. On February 28, the LTTE released four soldiers they had captured more than six years earlier.

Freedom of the press was also under attack by the government. Intensified press censorship and denial of independent access to conflict areas frustrated accurate war reporting and civilian access to vital security information. On May 3, as the LTTE pushed towards Jaffna, the government issued new emergency regulations banning live television and radio coverage of the war, requiring government approval before such news could be transmitted outside the country, and empowering the authorities to detain journalists, block the distribution of newspapers,seize property, and shut down printing presses. On June 5, the government relaxed restrictions on the foreign media, but those relating to the local press remained in place.

From May 13 to July 4, government censors closed Jaffna's only local Tamil daily newspaper, Uthayan, after it reported that five civilians had died in a May 12 air force raid and that President Kumaratunga had wept during a meeting with the head of the Indian air force. On May 22, police seized the Leader Publications printing plant, blocking the publication of the independent Sunday Leader and its Sinhala-language counterpart, Irida Peramuna, for publishing reports on the war that the chief censor said "would have benefitted the enemy." At the end of June, the Supreme Court struck down the ban on Leader Publications on procedural grounds. Days later, the president invoked new emergency regulations intended to correct those procedural problems. The move reimposed restrictions on all reporting deemed by the government to be detrimental to national security, preservation of public order, or the maintenance of essential services.

In September, the government suspended key emergency regulations banning public meetings and some of the broader censorship provisions, but restrictions on military-related news remained in place. At this writing, a ban remained in effect covering "any matter pertaining to military operations in the Northern and Eastern Province . . . [and] any statement pertaining to the official conduct, morale, or the performance of the Head or of any member of the Armed Forces or the police force."

Individual journalists also came under fire. In April, Nellai Nadesan, a senior columnist for the Tamil language newspaper Veerakersari, narrowly escaped a grenade explosion at his home in Batticaloa. In June, journalists attending a media workshop in eastern Batticaloa received threats after the government-owned media accused them of links to the LTTE. In September, Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga received a two-year suspended sentence for an article he published in 1995 criticizing President Kumaratunga's performance during her first year in office. Jaffna-based journalist Maylwaganam Nimalarajan was shot and killed by a group of unidentified attackers on the night of October 19. The attack occurred at his home during curfew hours in a high security area of Jaffna, and may have been linked to his reporting on vote-rigging and intimidation during the October parliamentary elections.

With renewed fighting taking center stage, there was little progress in obtaining justice for past human rights abuses although the identities of many perpetrators were known. Examples included the stalled "Bolgoda Lake" case, in which Special Task Force commandos were believed responsible for the 1995 murder of twenty-three Tamil youths; an army massacre of more than 180 villagers near Batticaloa in September 1990; and the 1980s crackdown on members of the left-wing insurgent group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which resulted in tens of thousands of people being extrajudicially executed or "disappeared" by the authorities. On July 18, 2000, however, a court ordered retired Major General Ananda Weerasekera and two subordinates to stand trial on charges of murder and abduction. This was the first time that a high-ranking military officer had been ordered to stand trial in connection with the JVP "disappearances."

The government continued to press for constitutional revisions that would devolve more power to regional councils, thus increasing the autonomy of the Tamil-dominated north and east. The proposed revisions also would have granted citizenship to some 86,000 Tamils of Indian origin and their children, officially categorized as "Indian Tamils," who had been stateless for some forty years. The proposal was rejected both by the LTTE, as insufficient to satisfy its separatist demands, and by Sinhala hardliners, as a dilution of the unitary state and too accommodating of Tamil interests. On August 8, further consideration of the amendments was indefinitely postponed when it became clear that other political parties, including the main opposition United National Party, would not support the bill.

Political violence escalated in the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections in October. By October 10, the nongovernmental Centre For Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) had recorded seventy-one election-related murders, at least twenty-six attempted murders, and over one thousand injuries, assaults, acts of intimidation, and other abuses.

Prominent social critics faced particular dangers from non-state actors. On January 5, Tamil lawyer and politician G.G. Ponnambalam was killed in Colombo. An outspoken supporter of Tamil separatism, Ponnambalam had acted as legal councel in many important Tamil human rights cases. A group calling itself the National Front Against Tigers claimed responsibility for his murder, warning that it should be seen as a lesson by all those who supported the LTTE.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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