(New York) – The Sri Lankan government should take immediate steps to address the deteriorating human rights situation in the country’s Eastern Province, where there has been an increase in killings and abductions in recent weeks, Human Rights Watch said today.
Many abuses in the Eastern Province appear to have been carried out by armed elements of the Tamil Makkal Vidulthalai Pulikal (TMVP). The TMVP was originally the political wing of the armed faction earlier known as the Karuna group. It enjoys the strong backing of the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Karuna broke away from the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2004.
“The Sri Lankan government says that the ‘liberated’ East is an example of democracy in action and a model for areas recaptured from the LTTE,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But killings and abductions are rife, and there is total impunity for horrific abuses.”
Human Rights Watch investigations have found that there have been at least 30 extrajudicial killings in the Eastern Province since September. In one recent case, the bodies of two young Tamil men who had been detained by the police on October 3, 2008, during a security roundup in the town of Batticaloa were found on a beach six days later with their hands and legs tied to a concrete pole, and showing signs of severe torture.
The police claimed that the men, Kandasamy Kugathas, 18, and A. Gunaseelan, 26, were released on the morning of October 4. But a family member of one of the men saw them at the police station that evening. A Human Rights Watch investigation found that the two were taken from their cells at about midnight by men in civilian clothing who had demanded the two by name. Since the killings, the police have intimidated witnesses into changing their account of the killings and falsified important evidence.
On November 2, unidentified gunmen shot and killed five Tamil youth at Kalmunai beach in Ampara district. On October 20, three Sinhalese contractors working in Kokakaddichchoalai in Batticaloa district were shot dead. On October 16, four farmers, two of them Tamils and two Muslims, were shot dead near their land. The killings were in a restricted area near a Tamil Makkal base, accessible only with a police pass. In Trincomalee on September 21, Sivakururaja Kurukkal, chief priest of the Koneswaram Temple, was shot dead in broad daylight while riding his motorcycle in a high-security area near several government checkpoints.
In addition to the recent killings, Human Rights Watch has learned from credible sources of at least 30 abductions in Akkairappatu and Adalachennai divisions in Ampara district in September and October. Witnesses said the abductions were carried out by armed men in civilian clothes who spoke Tamil, suggesting they belonged to the TMVP or other paramilitary groups.
In a case investigated by Human Rights Watch in Ampara in October, a young man previously detained, beaten, and released by the group was reported missing soon after his release. As in a number of other cases, family members did not report the case to the authorities out of fear that harm would come to the victim.
Members of civil society organizations and journalists in the East have also been threatened and attacked. On October 29, Sankarapillai Shantha Kumar, a member of the NGO Consortium in Akkaraipattu, was abducted around midnight from his home. Although a complaint was filed, there has been no credible investigation and he is still missing.
On September 8, Radhika Thevakumar, a journalist with Thinakaran, who at the time was working for the Pillayan faction of the TMVP, was shot and severely wounded in Batticaloa. On September 10, K. Kunarasa, provincial correspondent for the Thinakaran Tamil-language daily in Ampara, received death threats that caused him to limit his reporting. These and other threats and attacks against journalists have caused the media to curtail reporting on the security situation in the East.
“Many in the East believe that the government has given its blessing for these abuses,” said Adams. “It is important for the government to take action against perpetrators to demonstrate that this is not the case.”
Reports of these killings and other abuses come at a time of deepening tensions and violent infighting within the TMVP, particularly between factions loyal to Karuna Amman, the founder, and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, known as Pillayan, who was appointed the chief minister of Eastern Province in May.
Karuna returned to Sri Lanka in July, after serving a six-month sentence for immigration fraud in the United Kingdom, and has reclaimed the leadership of the group. On October 7, the government appointed Karuna to Parliament. Both men have been implicated in serious human rights abuses, both while with the LTTE and after they left. The abuses included abducting large numbers of children and forcing them to serve as soldiers.
A clash between the two TMVP factions on October 28 in Chenkalady, in Batticaloa, resulted in the death of four members, including a 16-year-old who had been forcibly recruited by the group. Five others were reported missing after the incident, including another boy. On November 14, the president of the TMVP party and Pillayan’s private secretary, Kumaraswamy Nandagopan, known as Ragu, and his driver were shot dead in the capital, Colombo.
Human Rights Watch has recently documented several cases of forcible recruitment of children by the TMVP. There have been three recent escapes from the group’s Valachennai site in Batticaloa – a 15-year-old who had been held since April on October 31; a 15-year-old who was taken in 2006 from Kiran on November 3; and a 17-year-old held since October 2006 on November 10. Escapees often must go into hiding to prevent being abducted again. In some instances, their families have faced pressure to give a “replacement” child soldier to the group.
“Far from being a reformed and responsible party ready for government, the TMVP is still actively involved in serious human rights abuses,” said Adams. “Instead of holding the group accountable, the Rajapakse government has provided unqualified support. The government needs to open independent investigations into all serious human rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable.”