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(New York) - The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo on Friday highlights Sri Lanka’s spiraling crisis of political killings, Human Rights Watch said today.

Kadirgamar is the latest and most prominent victim of political violence that has continued in Sri Lanka since the 2002 ceasefire between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since the ceasefire, more than 200 people, mostly Tamils, have been killed for political reasons. Most of the murders have been attributed to the LTTE. The rate of attacks has escalated since April 2005, with credible reports estimating the rate of killings at one a day by June 2005.

“The murder of Lakshman Kadirgamar is the latest act of political brutality in Sri Lanka. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “Real action is needed by all sides to get the killings to stop.”

Responsibility for the murder of Kadirgamar, a Tamil politician who had long been critical of the LTTE, has not been determined. As Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister from 1994 to 2001, and again since 2004, he was instrumental in having the LTTE declared a terrorist organization in several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Sri Lankan authorities have blamed the LTTE for the murder, but the investigation is continuing. The LTTE denied any role in the murder, blaming forces opposed to the cease-fire agreement. The LTTE has issued similar denials even in other cases of political assassinations where they were clearly involved.

In addition to Kadirgamar, Friday night marked the murder of Relanghai Selvarajah, a Tamil producer of a popular radio program that was very critical of the LTTE.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about possible reprisals against Tamils living in government-controlled areas. The police have deployed 1,000 officers to find Kadirgamar’s assassins. The government also declared a state of emergency nationwide, giving security forces sweeping powers to deploy troops, arrest persons without charge, and search and demolish buildings.

Human Rights Watch reminded the government that even under a state of emergency it cannot violate basic international human rights such as the right to life; freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Arbitrary deprivations of liberty or deviations from the fundamental principles of a fair trial, including the presumption of innocence, are not permitted. Human Rights Watch urged the Sri Lankan government to publicly issue instructions to the army, police, intelligence services and other state institutions to this effect.

“At this critical hour, the government needs to exercise restraint, and make sure the security and investigative forces follow internationally accepted norms,” said Zarifi. “Many innocent Tamils have suffered unjustly in the past when the government has ignored their basic rights. The government must vigilantly safeguard the rights of the minority communities.”

Human Rights Watch also called on the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the Norwegian-led body responsible for enforcing the terms of the Cease Fire Agreement, to inquire into and hold accountable those responsible for the growing crisis of political killings.

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