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Sri Lanka: Avoid a Postwar Witch Hunt

Government Threats, ‘Disappearances’ After Past Military Victories Are Cause for Concern

(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should ensure that military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam does not result in new "disappearances," unlawful killings or the jailing of government critics, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The Sri Lankan government appears from its statements to be preparing to take action against individuals and organizations that criticized it during the war, Human Rights Watch said. On June 3, 2009, the media minister, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana, said the Defense Ministry was preparing to bring charges against journalists, politicians, armed forces personnel and businessmen who have assisted the LTTE.

"The last thing Sri Lankans need right now is a witch hunt," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The country desperately needs healing. The government should make clear to everyone, especially Tamils, that it will respect their rights."

In addition to the media minister's statement, in late May, the Army commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, said in a televised interview that the government would take action against journalists whose reporting benefited the LTTE, saying that they would be prevented from leaving the country and prosecuted for treason. Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickremeratne accused unnamed Sinhalese media-freedom activists of being paid by the LTTE to generate false reporting intended to implicate the army in war crimes.

Sri Lankan security forces have long been implicated in enforced disappearances and unlawful killings following the capture of LTTE strongholds. In the 12 months after government forces captured the northern town of Jaffna from the LTTE in December 1995, more than 600 people, mostly young men suspected of having LTTE links, "disappeared." Although several mass graves have since been uncovered, the fate of most of them has never been determined, and successful prosecutions of security forces personnel have been few.

Enforced disappearances and killings of people suspected of being LTTE supporters also occurred in association with the government's taking of LTTE-controlled territory in eastern Sri Lanka in late 2006 and early 2007. Government security forces were implicated in the mafia-style killing of 17 humanitarian aid workers shortly after government forces retook the northeastern town of Mutur from the LTTE in August 2006. Human Rights Watch reported on numerous serious human rights violations in the east in late 2008.

"Disappearances" of ethnic Tamils in the north and east and in the capital, Colombo, allegedly by members of the security forces or Tamil armed groups remain a serious problem.

"The Sri Lankan government needs to ensure that the abuses that occurred when LTTE strongholds fell in the past don't recur," said Adams. "This is crucial for building trust between communities."

The government announced victory over the LTTE on May 18 after a devastating 25-year conflict. The last months of fighting came at a terrible cost in civilian lives, estimated at more than 7,000 civilian dead and 14,000 wounded. Human Rights Watch reported on serious violations of international humanitarian law by both sides. However, a full accounting of abuses is not yet possible because of government restrictions on access to the conflict zone by the media and human rights organizations.

Since 2008, virtually all civilians who managed to flee the fighting to government-controlled areas have been sent to government detention camps in northern Sri Lanka. Almost 300,000 persons, including entire families, are currently in these camps, where they are denied their liberty and freedom of movement, either for work or to move in with other families. 

In recent months, the government has also detained more than 9,000 alleged LTTE fighters and persons with suspected LTTE connections. The United Nations and other international agencies have had little or no access to the screening process, and the government has in many cases failed to provide families of the detained with any information. Many families still do not know the fate and whereabouts of their relatives.

Human Rights Watch urged the Sri Lankan government to take steps to ensure the safety of both civilians and LTTE fighters taken into custody. This includes registering and providing public information about all persons who have been in LTTE-controlled areas, and allowing international humanitarian agencies to participate in processing them. Those detained should have prompt access to family members and legal counsel.

The Sri Lankan government has rejected calls from opposition politicians to end Sri Lanka's state of emergency and to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been used to arrest and indefinitely detain suspected LTTE supporters and government critics. 

Human Rights Watch called upon the Sri Lankan government to treat internally displaced persons in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and respect their basic human rights. 

"The government should recognize that respecting the rights of all its citizens, including political opponents and critics, displaced civilians and captured combatants, will have important long-term implications for Sri Lanka's future," Adams said.

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