(New York) – The Sri Lankan authorities should immediately release or credibly charge four ethnic Tamil students from Jaffna University who have been detained since early December 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) arrested the students amid unrest in the northern city of Jaffna following a security crackdown in late November against attempts to commemorate dead leaders of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The four students – Sanmugam Solaman, Kanagasundram Jenamajenth, Paramalingam Tharshaanan, and V. Bhavananadam – were initially detained at the TID offices in Vavuniya. Around December 10 they were transferred to the Rehabilitation Centre in Welikanda, which holds an estimated 600 alleged former LTTE fighters. Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa reportedly told Jaffna University teachers on December 15 that the students would be released after they had been rehabilitated due to their involvement in terrorist activities.
“Arresting four students without charge and sending them off for ‘rehabilitation’ sends a dangerous message that any Tamil can be detained arbitrarily and indefinitely,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Sri Lankan authorities should realize that such actions generate legitimate grievances, not reconciliation.”
The students’ parents were initially denied access to their children, but were allowed to visit them at Welikanda on December 12. The parents said publicly that the students were being interrogated intensely, with efforts to intimidate them into providing information about other students.
The government has neither accounted for the arrests by specifying what terrorist activities the students have allegedly been involved in nor brought charges against the students. The students were told that they will be detained until they have completed a 3-month lecture series on the theme of “reconciliation,” the parents said.
The four students were among a larger group detained for attempting to mark the LTTE’s Heroes Day on November 27. Heroes Day falls one day after the birthday of the LTTE’s late leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who was responsible for numerous human rights abuses over several decades, including ordering suicide bombings against civilians, executions, torture, and other atrocities.
Since government forces defeated the LTTE in May 2009, Sri Lankan authorities have contended that celebrating LTTE Heroes Day is tantamount to supporting terrorism, while members of the Tamil minority have asserted that they have the right to commemorate their dead. This year, government security forces arrested at least 10 other Tamil activists and university students in relation to an alleged arson attack on November 28 supposedly linked to commemorations. Several students, on learning that their names were on a list of police suspects, surrendered to the National Human Rights Commission, a practice developed during the conflict to lessen the risk of being forcibly disappeared once in the custody of security forces. All but four named above have been released.
“The Sri Lankan government needs to recognize that engaging in peaceful activities that conflict with the government’s views is an exercise of basic rights, not a criminal offense,” Adams said. “The four students should be promptly released unless the government has evidence they violated the law and charges them.”