(New York) - As it prepares to allow the 130,000 internally displaced persons detained in camps to decide whether to stay or leave, the Sri Lankan government should ensure that no additional persons are subject to arbitrary detentions, Human Rights Watch said today.
On November 21 the government announced that the camps would be opened by December 1. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Sri Lankan government to release displaced civilians and to restore their full freedom of movement. Human Rights Watch said that the decision to release the people in the camps is a positive step, but also expressed concern that the authorities would step up the arbitrary detention of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suspects in violation of international law.
Human Rights Watch has learned that the authorities have been notifying some camp residents that they will be moved to other detention camps instead of being released. Additionally, the government currently detains without charge more than 11,000 persons on suspicion of LTTE involvement in so-called "rehabilitation centers." Human Rights Watch called upon the government to either bring charges against these security detainees or release them.
"The government's promise to release displaced civilians from camps is welcome, though long overdue," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government has been holding many Tamils for alleged involvement in the LTTE without providing them basic rights due under Sri Lankan and international law. The release of displaced persons should not be an excuse for another wave of arbitrary detentions."
According to information received by Human Rights Watch, the authorities have started notifying some people that they will not be able to leave the camps on December 1, but that they instead will be transferred to one of the Manik Farm detention camps, which will be designated as a "rehabilitation center."
The government has denied security detainees fundamental rights to challenge the lawfulness of their detention and to obtain legal counsel. In many cases, the government has failed to inform relatives of the whereabouts of detainees, raising fears of enforced disappearances and ill-treatment. It is unclear what criteria the government uses to determine who should be released, who should remain in "rehabilitation," and who should be prosecuted.
In an illustrative case, the authorities detained "Aanathan" together with dozens of others from a camp in Manik Farm on October 5. His wife told Human Rights Watch:
When they came to detain him on October 5, they did not tell me anything; they only said that he would be interrogated and then he would come back in a couple of days. When I did not hear anything from him, however, I went to the CID [police Criminal Investigation Department office in the camp]. I cried and I begged them to return him to me, but they only told me to leave.
Aanathan's wife only found out about her husband's whereabouts 15 days later, when she received a letter from him. By that time she had been released from Manik Farm camp and was able to visit him in the Pampaimadhu camp, where he was being held. She told Human Rights Watch:
He does not know how long he will have to stay there. They have not told him anything. When I went there the day before yesterday [mid-November, more than five weeks after his detention], he had still not been brought before a judge and he had not had access to a lawyer.
Human Rights Watch also called on the government to ensure that all displaced persons are able to return to their homes voluntarily, in safety and with dignity. People who are not able or willing to return to their home villages and towns should be able to resettle where they wish or remain in open camps.
Since August, the authorities have returned about 140,000 people to their home areas or to host families. But Human Rights Watch has received information that they often do not have any real choice in terms of where to go when they are released and at least some of the returns have been forced.
Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about continuing government restrictions on access to the return areas. While the government has granted UN agencies access to Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts, it has barred access for other international humanitarian organizations even though the infrastructure is shattered and there is a great need for basic support such as food, water, shelter and health facilities.
"By denying access of international aid organizations to those returning home, the government is putting the health and well-being of these people at additional risk," said Adams. "Donors funding reconstruction work should reject the government's attempt to isolate the returnees and insist on free access for independent observers."