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(New York) - The Sri Lankan government is responsible for widespread abductions and “disappearances” that are a national crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch urged the government to reveal the whereabouts of the “disappeared,” immediately end the practice, and hold the perpetrators accountable.

Since major fighting between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resumed in 2006, Sri Lankan security forces and pro-government armed groups have “disappeared” or abducted hundreds of individuals, many of whom are feared dead.

The 241-page report, “Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for ‘Disappearances’ and Abductions in Sri Lanka,” documents 99 of the several hundred cases reported, and examines the Sri Lankan government’s response, which to date has been grossly inadequate. In 2006 and 2007, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances recorded more new “disappearance” cases from Sri Lanka than from any other country in the world.

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa, once a rights advocate, has now led his government to become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The end of the ceasefire means this crisis will continue until the government starts taking serious measures.”

Under international law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when it takes a person into custody and denies holding them or disclosing their whereabouts. “Disappeared” persons are commonly subjected to torture or extrajudicial execution, and cause family members continued suffering. An enforced disappearance is a continuing rights violation – it is ongoing until the fate or whereabouts of the person becomes known.

The vast majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch indicate the involvement of government security forces – army, navy, or police. In some cases, relatives of the “disappeared” identified specific military units that had detained their relatives and army camps where they had been taken. In other cases, they described uniformed policemen, especially members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), taking their relatives into custody before they “disappeared.”

Vairamuththu Varatharasan, a 40-year-old truck driver and father of five, was abducted from his home in Colombo on January 7, 2007, and has not been seen since. His wife told Human Rights Watch:

“A group of about 20 men – some in police uniforms, some in civilian clothes surrounded the house. One policeman came inside and asked for our identity card. I went into one of the rooms to get the identity card. By the time I came out of the room, my husband was not there; neither was the policeman. I ran out and spotted a van parked in a dark place on the road. I ran to the road, but by the time I got there, the van started and left.”

Most of the victims are ethnic Tamils, although Muslims and Sinhalese have also been targeted. In many cases, the security forces “disappeared” individuals because of their alleged affiliation with the LTTE. Clergy, educators, humanitarian aid workers, and journalists also were targeted – not only to remove them from the civil sphere, but also to warn others to avoid such activities.

Pro-government Tamil armed groups are also implicated in the abductions and “disappearances” – specifically the Karuna group and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) – acting either independently or in conjunction with the security forces.

The number of abductions perpetrated by the LTTE is comparatively low since targeted killings, rather than abductions, appear to be the LTTE’s primary tactic. The LTTE has also been responsible for numerous other egregious abuses, including bombings against civilians, political assassinations, forced child recruitment, and the systematic repression of basic civil and political rights in areas under their control.

In the face of the crisis, the government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated an utter lack of resolve to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Not a single member of the security forces has been brought to justice for involvement in “disappearances” or abductions. Human Rights Watch said that Sri Lanka’s emergency laws, which grant the security forces sweeping powers to arbitrarily arrest and detain people without being held to account, have facilitated enforced disappearances.

“So long as soldiers and police can commit ‘disappearances’ with impunity, this horrific crime will continue,” said Pearson.

The Rajapaksa government has set up an array of special bodies tasked with monitoring and investigating “disappearances” and other human rights violations. None have yielded concrete results.

Human Rights Watch said this failure is unsurprising given that, at the highest levels, the Sri Lankan government continues to downplay the problem, denying the scale of the crisis and that its own security forces are involved.

“The government’s mechanisms to address ‘disappearances’ will remain impotent so long as the president and top officials fail to send a clear signal to the security forces that these abuses will not be tolerated,” said Pearson.

Sri Lanka’s key international partners and the UN bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have raised serious concerns about the alarming number of “disappearances” and prevailing impunity. They have expressed growing support for the establishment of a UN human rights monitoring mission to investigate and report on abuses by government forces and the LTTE throughout the country.

Human Rights Watch deplored the Sri Lankan government’s opposition to an international monitoring mission, given that such initiatives have proven effective elsewhere in dealing with “disappearances.” With sufficient mandate and resources, the monitoring mission could achieve what the government and various national mechanisms have failed to do: establish the location of detainees through unimpeded visits to the detention facilities; request information regarding specific cases from all sides to the conflict; assist national law enforcement agencies and human rights mechanisms in investigating the cases and communicating with the families; and maintain credible records of reported cases.

“The Sri Lankan government’s rejection of a UN monitoring mission reflects badly on its commitment to human rights,” said Pearson. “While the government dawdles, many Sri Lankans will continue to pay the price.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Sri Lanka to:

  • Take immediate measures to end the practice of enforced disappearances, vigorously investigate all cases reported, and bring the perpetrators to account; and
  • Cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish and deploy an international monitoring team to report on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

Human Rights Watch also called on Sri Lanka’s international partners, in particular India and Japan, to make further military and other non-humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka contingent on government efforts to halt the practice of “disappearances,” and to end impunity, including its acceptance of an international monitoring mission.

Testimonies from the report

“They started beating Thiyagarajah. They took his T-shirt off and stuffed it into his mouth. The neighbors came out to help, but they pushed them away. His wife was crying and shouting, and they hit her with a gun butt. She was nine months pregnant. They were accusing Thiyagarajah of having bombs in the house, and forced him to dig the ground around the house. They searched the house, turning everything upside down, but didn’t find anything. They beat him so badly that he couldn’t walk – they had to carry him away. They took him away on a motorcycle.”
– A relative of 25-year-old Thiyagarajah Saran, “disappeared” on the night of February 20, 2007, from East Puttur, Jaffna

“The villagers told me they saw Pathinather and Anton being interrogated by the military. The military held them at gunpoint. Then the military put them into the Powell [vehicle], and also loaded their bicycles into their vehicle. The villagers could not see much because the army ordered them to disperse, and now they are too afraid to talk to anybody about what they saw.”
– A relative of 21-year-old Anton Prabananth, “disappeared” on February 17, 2007 together with 24-year-old Pathinather Prasanna, from Jaffna

“When we got to the [Kodikamam] army camp, I saw my nephew’s bicycle parked there. It was parked near the camp, in the military-controlled area. When we asked the soldiers, they denied arresting them, and when I said we had seen the bike, they got very angry, and started yelling, ‘Who told you to go and look there?! We’ll shoot you if you ever approach this place again!’ We asked the GS [local civilian official] and the police to get the bike back, but they couldn’t. Eventually, the commander in the camp returned the bike to us. He said that the people who had arrested our men were no longer there, so we should just take the bike and go.”
– A relative of 26-year-old Thavaruban Kanapathipillai, “disappeared” on August 16, 2006, together with 30-year-old Shangar Santhivarseharam from Kachai, Jaffna

“Two people came to our door, in uniforms. They were armed. Another man was dressed in an army T-shirt and jeans. I asked where they were taking my husband. The person in civilian clothes showed me a pistol. I asked where they were taking him again and he showed the pistol again, and then they took him out. I ran after them, and they had two vans, white and blue.”
– Wife of 21-year-old Ramakrishnan Rajkumar, “disappeared” on August 23, 2006, from Colombo

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