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(New York) – The Sri Lankan government should either free a longtime newspaper editor arrested on February 27, 2009, or charge him with a credible offense, Human Rights Watch said today. N.Vithyatharan, editor of the Tamil daily newspapers Sudar Oli in Colombo and Uthayan in Jaffna, was arrested without a warrant and, family members said, severely beaten in custody.

A Sri Lankan defense ministry spokesman told the media that Vithyatharan was being held in connection with the February 20 attack on Colombo by two Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) airplanes, which killed three people and wounded 43. The spokesman said that Vithyatharan was being investigated for two reports published in Sudar Oli, on February 6 and 11, but provided no further information.

“Once again the government has arrested a Tamil journalist on allegations that border on the absurd,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “And, if the accounts of a beating are accurate, it shows the open contempt the government has for Sri Lanka’s independent media.”

Three uniformed police officers and three men in plain clothes arrested Vithyatharan at a family funeral in Colombo and bundled him away in a white van, family members said. No warrant was presented. A Colombo police spokesman, Ranjith Gunasekera, initially told the media that Vithyatharan had been abducted by an unidentified group in a white van. He later confirmed that the Colombo Crimes Division had arrested Vithyatharan under Sri Lanka’s emergency regulations, which are increasingly being used against government critics.

Vithyatharan is currently in detention at the Colombo Crimes Division headquarters. His brother-in-law, E.Sarwanapavan, told Human Rights Watch: “After he was taken away, Vithyatharan was blindfolded and beaten severely on the legs and head. [He was beaten] so much that the police had to take him to a hospital to get his head X-rayed. His wife and children have met him twice but have been very disturbed by his condition.”

Staff members of the popular Tamil dailies Uthayan and Sudar Oli, which have been critical of the government’s military offensive against the LTTE, have been repeatedly targeted. Six of the media group’s employees have been killed since 2005, and its offices in both Jaffna and Colombo have been attacked several times.

Vithyatharan’s arbitrary arrest and alleged mistreatment was just the latest in a series of attacks against journalists critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said.
Since 2006, the Sri Lankan government has increasingly tried to intimidate and silence the media, human rights groups, and others with dissenting views on government policies. According to the Sri Lankan media group, Free Media Movement, 12 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since August 2005, and 27 are currently in detention.

On January 8, unidentified armed men in close proximity to a security forces checkpoint killed Sunday Leader newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremetunga, a senior journalist acclaimed for his investigative reporting, during his morning drive to work. On January 6, a dozen heavily armed men badly damaged the studios of the private Maharaja Television station on the outskirts of Colombo by detonating an apparent Claymore landmine.

A prominent ethnic Tamil journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam and a Tamil publisher, N. Jasiharan, and his wife, V. Valamathy, were arbitrarily arrested in March 2008 and remain in jail. Their cases, currently before the criminal courts, have raised serious due process concerns.

“As the war in the north appears to be winding down, the government’s repression of the media has been increasing,” said Ross. “Sri Lanka’s reputation as an open and vibrant democracy is increasingly at risk.”

Vithyatharan has previously faced intimidation from government officials. After the Uthayan office in Jaffna was attacked in August 2006, the government provided Vithyatharan with two police guards at his Colombo home. On August 13, 2006, the security was unexpectedly withdrawn. Vithyatharan told Human Rights Watch in an interview in early 2007 that he raised the unexpected withdrawal with President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a breakfast meeting of 25 editors on August 16. Vithyatharan said that the president immediately lost his temper and started to shout. Vithyatharan told Human Rights Watch:

“President Rajapaksa suddenly started shouting at me in front of everybody. He said, ‘I have asked to withdraw your security! No one will come to your place to give you security! You go and ask [LTTE leader] Prabhakaran! You people are praising the law of the jungle! Policemen and security are scared to come to your place since you are LTTE!’
I told him that I am working under your umbrella – it is your duty to give me protection. He started shouting at me again. He said, ‘I am not like Chandrika [former President Chandrika Kumaratunga]! I am a different person! I will hammer you people and teach a lesson to your people in Jaffna!’”

Human Rights Watch reiterated its concerns about sweeping emergency regulations introduced in August 2006, after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgama. The regulations give the security forces expansive powers of search, arrest, detention, and seizure of property, including the authority to make warrantless arrests and to hold individuals in unacknowledged detention for up to 12 months. Most of those detained under the emergency regulations are young Tamil men deemed by the security forces to have LTTE ties. Increasingly, however, the regulations are being used against Muslims and Sinhalese who challenge or criticize the state.

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