(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should end its indefinite arbitrary detention of more than 11,000 people held in so-called rehabilitation centers and release those not being prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 30-page report, "Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE Suspects in Sri Lanka," is based on interviews with the detainees' relatives, humanitarian workers, and human rights advocates, among others. The Sri Lankan government has routinely violated the fundamental rights of the detainees, Human Rights Watch found. The government contends that the 11,000 detainees are former fighters or supporters of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"The government has been keeping 11,000 people in a legal limbo for months," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It's time to identify who presents a genuine security threat and to release the rest."
The government has denied detainees the right to be informed of specific reasons for their arrest, to challenge the lawfulness of the detention before an independent judicial authority, and to have access to legal counsel and family members, Human Rights Watch said. It is unclear whether any have been formally charged with crimes or what acts they are accused of committing that led the government to detain them.
While the government has the right and responsibility to protect public safety, it also has to do so in a lawful manner that respects basics rights, Human Rights Watch said.
During the final months of the 26-year-long conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, which ended with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, the government confined nearly 300,000 people displaced by the conflict in what the government called "welfare camps" in the north. Since early 2008 virtually all civilians fleeing the fighting had been confined in these camps. At checkpoints and in the camps, the authorities separated the more than 11,000 individuals with suspected ties to the LTTE and sent them to "rehabilitation centers." More than 550 children were among those transferred to these centers.
While the government contends that many of those being held have surrendered to rehabilitation voluntarily, the lack of access to the detainees by humanitarian agencies and other independent monitors makes it difficult to know how many surrendered, how many of this group did so voluntarily, and how many were arrested.
The lack of transparency in the process and of information about the fate and whereabouts of some of the detainees raises concerns about possible torture or mistreatment in custody, and the possibility that some may have been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said. As documented by Human Rights Watch in a 2008 report, "Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for 'Disappearances' and Abductions in Sri Lanka," enforced disappearances have been a longstanding problem in Sri Lanka, and thousands of people remain unaccounted for.
In an illustrative case, the army detained 32-year-old Jeganathan on May 15, 2009, after he crossed into government-controlled areas with his wife, Aanathi, and their one-year-old son. The military insisted that Aanathi continue to the camp and she heard nothing about her husband for several weeks. "I lost all hope," Aanathi told Human Rights Watch. "I thought that I would never see him again."
A relative of Aanathi eventually located Jeganathan in one of the rehabilitation centers, and Aanathi has been able to visit him on occasion. Months after he was detained, the government has not informed him how long he is supposed to stay in the center. He has not had access to a lawyer and he has not been able to contest his detention before a court. During Aanathi's last visit to see her husband he told her that the authorities continue to interrogate him and that they had started beating some of the other "surrendees."
The Sri Lankan government has asked international donors to provide financial support for the "rehabilitation centers." Human Rights Watch said that donors should not support the centers unless and until the rights of the detainees are fully respected.
"In the absence of due process guarantees, support for these centers is support for the government's illegal detention policy," said Adams. "No donor should be associated with that."