VII. State Response to the Crisis of “Disappearances”

Failure to investigate and establish accountability

Despite the thousands of “disappearances” that have occurred all over Sri Lanka during the course of the last 20 years, just a handful of perpetrators have been brought to justice.247 Faced with a new crisis of “disappearances,” the Rajapaksa government has demonstrated an absolute lack of resolve to investigate and punish those responsible. Over 100 families of the “disappeared” interviewed by Human Rights Watch all talked about their failed efforts to get the authorities to act. The impunity enjoyed by violators is undoubtedly one of the main factors driving continued “disappearances.”

In cases where the security forces carried out arrests which then resulted in “disappearances,” there appears to be a concerted effort to disguise the identity of those responsible and to hamper future inquiries into the fate of the “disappeared.”

In blatant disregard of Sri Lankan law and presidential directives, the security forces have repeatedly failed to provide the families with arrest receipts, to identify themselves, or to inform the families of either the reasons for arrest or the location where the detainee was being taken. A number of family members told Human Rights Watch that when they tried to ask the security officials where they were taking their relatives, the security force personnel never responded. Instead, they threatened the family members with guns and kept them inside to prevent them from seeing the vehicles that took their relatives away.

For example, in August 2007, Ramakrishnan Rajkumar was taken away from a Colombo lodge by uniformed policemen accompanied by some men in civilian clothes. His wife told Human Rights Watch:

I asked where they were taking him. The person in civilian clothes showed me a pistol. I asked where they were taking him again and he showed me the pistol again and then they took him away.248

The wife of Thilipkumar Ranjithakumar saw the military put her husband in their vehicle when he came to retrieve his ID card after a cordon-and-search operation in their village, in Valvettiturai in Jaffna, in December 2006. She told Human Rights Watch:

It all happened in front of my eyes—I stood with the kids some 10 meters away. I ran there, screaming, “Where are you taking him? Please, let him go!” In response, one of the soldiers unfastened a strap from his gun and lashed me, saying, “Go away, he is not here; if you lost your husband, go and ask the police.”249

In Jaffna, where the military was the suspected perpetrator in most of the cases reported to Human Rights Watch, families usually tried to search for their “disappeared” relatives in nearby military camps. In all of these cases, however, the military denied holding the detainees and apparently did nothing to check the families’ allegations of the military’s involvement. This happened even where families had sufficient information to suspect that their relatives had been taken away by the military unit from a particular camp.

In the above-cited case of the “disappearance” of Thavaruban Kanapathipillai and Shangar Santhivarseharam, military officials at Kodikamam camp first asked Santhivarseharam’s relatives questions that suggested they knew about the two men. Kanapathipillai’s family also went to the camp and his father told Human Rights Watch:

When we came to the camp, I saw my nephew’s bicycle parked there. They left on this bike the day they went missing. It was parked near the camp, in the military-controlled area. When we asked the military, they denied arresting them, and when I said we had seen the bike, they got very angry, and started yelling, “Who told you to go and look there?! We’ll shoot you if you ever approach that place again!”

We asked the GS [village official] and the police to get the bike back, but they couldn’t. Eventually, the commander in the camp returned the bike to us. He said that the people who had arrested our men were no longer there, so we should just take the bike and go.250

In some cases, military officials took statements from the family members yet never followed-up. One family member told Human Rights Watch that a military official recorded her statement about the “disappearance” of her husband in Sinhala, a language she cannot read. She did not want to sign it, but the official forced her to.251

The wives of Thilipkumar Ranjithkumar and Ganesh Suventhiran wrote down the license plate numbers of the military vehicles that took their husbands away. However, when they tried to present this information to the military at the Point Pedro camp the officials there dismissed it as irrelevant. Suventhiran’s wife said:

We gave them the vehicle numbers we wrote down, but they said, “We have hundreds of vehicles with the same numbers, so it is childish of you to expect us to find them by these numbers.” The next day, when we came back, we saw both vehicles leaving the camp and coming back.

We told the policeman and also talked to a female military officer who wrote something down. Then a commander—he had stars on his epaulets and a red band on his arm—came. He talked to us and to the female officer, but never returned to us. They said they did not know anything and sent us to the Valvettiturai police station.252

The regional office of the Human Rights Commission in Jaffna said that it meticulously records every complaint of abduction or “disappearance” and in every case informs the Jaffna district military commander and the assistant superintendent of police. The commission staff also often makes inquiries in particular military camps on families’ behalf, yet usually receives nothing but denials.

In the majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch across Sri Lanka, the families also registered the “disappearances” or abductions of their relatives with the local police and received a case number. In none of these cases, however, has the investigation produced any tangible results.

Accounts from family members indicate that the police failed to take even the most basic investigative actions to search for the victim or identify the perpetrators. They did not visit the place of the abduction, did not question eyewitnesses, and did not follow the leads provided by the families.

In response to Human Rights Watch’s inquiry, the national police stated that once a complaint of an abduction or “disappearance” is launched with the police, “the formal prosecution focused investigative steps required by the law will be taken.”253 The police did not provide any further details.

While the authorities often claim that they do not have sufficient information to identify the perpetrators and locate the victims, in many cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the family members provided sufficient details at least to start an investigation: family members knew the license plate numbers of the vehicles—white vans, police jeeps, or military vehicles—that took their relatives away; the phone numbers from which the calls with ransom demands were made; the numbers of bank accounts to which the abductors instructed them to transfer the ransom money; and in some cases the names of the people or military units involved in the abductions. Whether this information was provided to the authorities or not, it seemed to make no difference whatsoever, as the police routinely failed to inform the families of progress in the investigations for many months, if ever.

The convener of the Civil Monitoring Commission and a Member of Parliament, Mano Ganesan, said that his organization’s efforts to motivate the police to act largely proved futile. He told Human Rights Watch:

The government initially complained that they never get leads. So, in one of the abduction cases we arranged with the local police and the family to get the perpetrator arrested. Another woman identified the same man as the abductor. The police then was under pressure to release him—we intervened and he remained in custody, but it was in September [2006] and until now we have not heard of any progress in the case.254

In another case, the victim was abducted in the south and taken to the east, and kept in one of Karuna’s camps. The family immediately informed the police, but they took no steps—they could have tapped the phone to locate the abductors, but they didn’t.255e He

Beyond failing to act, in a number of high-profile cases the police seemed also to actively obstruct the judicial process in order to shield government forces from accountability. Such allegations appeared in the media as well as in reports by local and international rights groups regarding the case of 10 Muslim laborers killed in Pottuvil;256 the case of the killing of five students in Trincomalee, allegedly by the STF;257 and the execution-style murder of 17 ACF aid workers in Mutur.258

Throughout 2007, the Rajapaksa government made a number of statements calling on the police to adequately respond to the wave of violent crimes, including abductions. In March, President Rajapaksa said he expected “a more responsible intervention from the police to prevent the current wave of crime, the violence, extortion, human rights violations.”259

In a media briefing on June 28, 2007, the chairman of the Presidential Commission on abductions, disappearances, and killings, Judge Tillekeratne, said that he recommended the government take strong action against policemen who had failed to investigate complaints of abductions and “disappearances.”260

In the absence of any real effort to hold the police accountable, however, these statements remain mere declarations and have not prompted a more effective response to the ongoing abuses. For example, in August 2007, University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) reported that the police were still failing to take any action in cases of extrajudicial killings and abduction. In a report describing “disappearances” and killings in the Mutur area, the group noted that “witnesses in Mutur identified to the local magistrate most of the perpetrators of more than 20 incidents of murder and abduction,” yet “the police in Mutur arrested no one.”261

Government promises to address abuses by the Karuna group also remain unfulfilled. In response to international criticism, the government repeatedly claimed it would investigate the allegations against the Karuna group and announced in May 2007 that anyone found carrying guns would be arrested and dealt with according to the law.262

However, as mentioned above, the SLMM weekly reports from June to December 2007 contain numerous references to continued abductions allegedly perpetrated by the Karuna faction, and state that armed Karuna cadre continued to operate freely in the east, moving through government checkpoints unhindered.263

Statistics on accountability of the security forces released by the government are inconclusive and hardly convincing. On March 6, 2007, Police Inspector General Victor Perera announced that the police had arrested a “large number” of police officers and troops on charges of abduction and extortion. He said that among the 433 people arrested since September 2006, a large number were either police, soldiers, or deserters from the police and armed forces, but did not provide any details on those arrests.264

Two days later, the government’s cabinet spokesman on defense, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, announced that of the 452 persons in detention under the Emergency Regulations, there were 15 soldiers, five policemen, and one former policeman, but he also did not give any specifics about the acts for which they were being held or what charges, if any, were pending against them.265

As mentioned above, in response to Human Rights Watch’s attempts to clarify these figures, the police mentioned the arrest of 31 police officers since 2004 without providing further details. It did not provide any information on the overall number of individuals arrested in 2006-2007 on charges of abductions, extortion, and involvement in enforced disappearances. The police said that the response to this inquiry will be provided upon receipt of information from police divisions across the island.266

In June 2007, the authorities finally revealed the details of at least one arrest. After allegations made by a member of parliament, police arrested former Air Force Squadron Leader Nishantha Gajanayake—“the mastermind behind the spate of abductions, ransom demands and killings.”267 During the investigation, Gajanayake reportedly revealed his involvement in the abductions of businessmen for ransom as well as the connections of his gang to the CID and an “anti-Tamil Tiger armed group.”268

In July 2007, defense spokesman Rambukwella promised that “the suspects will be brought before the courts soon.”269 It is unclear, however, how much progress has been made in the investigation since then. In October 2007, an article in the Sri Lankan newspaper Daily Mirror noted:

Investigations into the abductions and killings have also not yielded results with no one being brought to book over the abductions drama that haunted Colombo as well a few months back. Little have been heard of the investigations following the arrest of former Air force officer Nishantha Gajanayake and several others in connection with the abductions and disappearances.270

On January 2, 2008, in response to Human Rights Watch’s inquiry regarding the status of this case, the national police provided the names of four policemen and an air force sergeant arrested in the Gajanayake case. The police mentioned that at the moment “investigations are being continued and action will be taken to consult the Attorney General on completion of investigations to file indictments.”271

According to some media reports, in January 2008, Gajanayake and three other suspects in the case were released on bail.272 It is unclear whether the charges against the suspects have been dropped.

Official figures on accountability provided to Human Rights Watch by the Sri Lankan government in a three-page document in October 2007 demonstrate how little has been done to bring the perpetrators of serious abuses to justice.273

The document shows that since 2004, 29 police and military personnel have been arrested in seven cases of human rights violations—murder, torture, conspiracy to commit murder, and criminal trespass. It also mentions the Gajanayake case, adding that in June 2007 two other policemen and an air force sergeant were arrested for abductions, yet does not provide any details regarding the current state of the investigations.

According to the document, in the 10 years from 1998 to 2007, 27 police, military personnel, and civil administrative staff were convicted for abductions and “wrongful confinement,” and another 52 police and military personnel were indicted since 2004 (14 were acquitted and other cases are pending in courts).

All of these indictments and convictions seem to be for abuses committed before 2005, as the same document mentions that there are only two pending cases against army personnel for human rights violations committed in 2005-2006. The document states that “indictments were recently served on the persons, including army personnel, suspected in the killing of 5 students in Vavuniya,” yet it does not provide any dates or further details of the case.274

The document mentions that the National Police Commission received 1,216 complaints from the public against police officers between January and June 2007. According to the document, however, only in four cases the suspects were formally charged with crimes, and seven policemen were given warnings.275

The document refers to three specific incidents—the “disappearance” of Father Jim Brown, the killing of 12 civilians in Kayts, and the killing of six persons in Pesalai. Reports by human rights groups and the media strongly suggest that navy personnel were involved in all of these cases. Without further explanation, the document maintains, however, that the Navy Inquiry Board “concluded that there is no direct or indirect involvement of naval personnel in any of these incidents.”276

It is unclear how the figures in the document provided by the government correspond with the above-cited statements by the police chief and the defense spokesperson regarding the number of policemen and soldiers arrested over the last year. They do show, however, that the response of the law enforcement agencies to hundreds of cases of abductions and “disappearances” has been completely inadequate.

The failure of the Sri Lankan authorities to properly investigate serious human rights violations has been harshly criticized by various UN experts.

In 2006, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, noted in his report that “the criminal justice system, police investigations, prosecutions, and trials have utterly failed to provide accountability,” and that it is “an enduring scandal that convictions of government officials for killing Tamils are virtually non-existent.”277

Allan Rock, a United Nations advisor on children and armed conflict faulted the police in November 2006 for their failure to investigate and prevent abductions of children by the Karuna group.278

Following her visit to Sri Lanka in October 2007, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted the “prevalence of impunity” in the country. Raising her deep concerns about the large number of reported killings, abductions, and “disappearances” which remain unresolved, Arbour said:

There has yet to be an adequate and credible public accounting for the vast majority of these incidents.  In the absence of more vigorous investigations, prosecutions and convictions, it is hard to see how this will come to an end.279

Inadequacy of national mechanisms

Rather than making a diligent effort to investigate and prosecute the abuses, various Sri Lankan governments over the years have responded to international criticism by setting up different mechanisms ostensibly intended to address human rights violations.

These mechanisms have demonstrated differing degrees of independence, power, resources, and capacity to conduct effective investigations that could hold the perpetrators accountable. The creation of these mechanisms allowed the government to claim it is taking action, while in reality, to date, all of them have failed to halt the crisis of “disappearances.”

Human Rights Commission

Sri Lanka’s national Human Rights Commission (HRC), established in 1997, is granted significant powers to conduct public inquiries into gross violations of human rights; inquire and resolve complaints brought by the public concerning alleged human rights violations; initiate litigation when investigations disclose an infringement of fundamental rights; recommend other corrective action for individual rights violations; and make recommendations for the improvement of human rights within the country.280

In practice, throughout the commission’s existence, it has rarely used these powers due to lack of resources, obstruction by the security forces, and insufficient support from the government.281

There was some optimism that the HRC’s performance might improve after the appointment in 2003 of the first commissioners nominated by the Constitutional Council, an independent and non-partisan body.282

However, after the HRC members’ terms of office expired in April 2006, the president appointed the new members directly, explaining his decision by the non-functioning status of the Constitutional Council.283 Without the independence provided for under the constitution, the current commission has been less effective in raising human rights concerns than its predecessor.

Characteristic in this regard is the above-mentioned decision of the HRC to drop investigations into 2,127 complaints of past allegations of “disappearances” which remained uninvestigated by the All Island Commission of Inquiry.284 Referring to this decision, the UN Working Group noted in its report that the board of the commission had reportedly “completely abdicated” from its responsibility to “inquire into infringement of fundamental rights and to make appropriate redress, including the granting of compensation to the victims.”285

Despite the spiraling human rights crisis in the country and hundreds of “disappearances” reported to the commission over the last two years, the HRC has issued no public reports on the matter.

In November 2007, Human Rights Watch submitted a detailed letter of inquiry to the HRC asking for statistics on cases reported to the commission, the existing procedures for investigating such reports, action taken by the HRC upon receipt of the complaints, and other related matters. In an e-mail response to Human Rights Watch the chairman of the commission refused to provide any information, saying that “no information is given to those media or NGO's who consider us as not
lawfully appointed by H.E. President.”286

Regarding the investigation into 2,127 complaints of past “disappearances,” the HRC chairman stated that a “Committee appointed by this Commission has completed investigation into said complaints and submitted the report to this Commission, which report is now being studied by the Commission.”287

The International Crisis Group (ICG) in its June 2007 report said that, according to staff at the HRC Colombo head office, “the Commission statistics on complaints of abductions, disappearances and political killings will no longer be provided to NGOs,” while staff based in the HRC’s 10 regional offices said they had been instructed not to provide such information without written approval from the head office. ICG’s requests for statistics from regional offices were denied, with the exception of March 2007.288

Human Rights Watch is aware that staff in some regional HRC offices do effective and courageous work, trying to assist the families of the “disappeared” and making inquiries with the security forces. Their work, however, gets little support from Colombo. Moreover, recent media reports suggest that in October 2007, the HRC Head Office in Colombo sent specific instructions to its Jaffna office ordering it to refrain from releasing information on human rights violations to the media and other public interest groups.289

In response to Human Rights Watch’s inquiry, the chairman of the commission confirmed this policy, saying that “in view of incorrect and conflicting data furnished by the regions it is now decided to furnish any information by the Head Office only.”290

HRC staff told Human Rights Watch that security personnel frequently fail to cooperate with the commission and have often denied commission staff access to detention facilities. As a result, the commission’s ability to investigate the allegations of “disappearances” is significantly hindered.

Even more worrisome are HRC statements aimed at downplaying the scale of the crisis. According to the International Crisis Group, HRC staff have argued that in the majority of cases “disappeared” persons have returned, and that media reports are “highly exaggerated, unfounded, and malicious” and are “being made to tarnish the image of the country.”291

Such statements reinforce the allegations that the HRC is more interested in supporting the government’s line than in conducting independent and thorough investigations.

In October 2007, following her visit to Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour was sharply critical of the HRC:

[T]he failure to resolve the controversy over the appointment of commissioners has created a crisis of confidence in the HRC both locally and internationally. The HRC’s failure to systematically conduct public inquiries and issue timely public reports has further undermined confidence in its efficacy and independence.292

The high commissioner warned that the continued failure of the HRC to perform duties in accordance with its mandate may cause the HRCto  loss of its accreditation to the international body governing these institutions.

In December 2007, the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights—the international body that regulates national human rights institutions—reduced Sri Lanka’s NHRC to the status of an “observer”—the commission no longer has the right to vote in international meetings and is not eligible to stand for election to the international coordinating committee.

The international coordinating committee downgraded the Sri Lankan NHRC on two grounds: first, because of concerns that the appointment of its commissioners was not in compliance with Sri Lankan law, which meets international standards; and second, because of concerns that the commission’s practice was not “balanced, objective and non-political, particularly with regard to the discontinuation of follow-up to 2,000 cases of disappearances in July 2006.”293

Presidential Commission on Abductions, Disappearances, and Killings (Tillekeratne Commission)

Following the practice of previous Sri Lankan administrations, in September 2006, President Rajapaksa set up a Presidential Commission on Abductions, Disappearances, and Killings, headed by former Judge Mahanama Tillekeratne. Judge Tillekeratne submitted interim reports to the president on December 12, 2006, and March 23, 2007. The government has not made either report public.

Tillekeratne has been cited in the media downplaying the scope of the problem and the involvement of the security forces in “disappearances.”294

In May 2007, describing his visits to Jaffna and Batticaloa, Tillekeratne claimed that “some invisible hand” is responsible for abductions, and “no one said a single word against anyone in the army or police.”295 Given numerous accounts collected by Human Rights Watch and other organizations, it is surprising that Tillekeratne did not hear any allegations of the security forces’ involvement in abductions during his trip. Based on information Human Rights Watch obtained about his fact-finding in Batticaloa, the commission apparently took inadequate care to ensure that families of the “disappeared” felt safe providing information.

According to an international aid worker with knowledge of Tillekeratne’s visits to Batticaloa, families of the “disappeared” were informed about the commission’s arrival via the police. At times, police and soldiers from the area warned parents that they should say their sons were taken away by “unidentified groups.”296

In August 2007, Tillekeratne was again cited saying that “the incidents are not as bad as projected,” and referred to the existence of an “invisible hand” to discredit the Sri Lankan government through wide publicity to alleged rights abuses on the island.297

The greatest weakness of this commission, as with the presidential commissions established in the past, was that its findings are not public nor are they used as the basis for genuine investigations by the criminal justice system. Past experience does not provide for much optimism. The recommendations of the previous commissions remain largely unimplemented, and so far no government action following Tillekeratne’s findings have been reported.

Presidential Commission of Inquiry and International Group of Eminent Persons

Another step widely advertised by the Rajapaksa administration as proof of its commitment to accountability was the creation of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate serious cases of human rights violations since August 1, 2005. The CoI is purportedly assisted by an international group of observers, called the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), however, the IIGEP has not been permitted to play a significant role in the commission’s work.

In its previous report on Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch provided a detailed analysis of factors that render the CoI an inadequate tool for addressing the widespread human rights violations in the country.298 Since the publication of that report, the CoI has done nothing to contradict that analysis. Similar concerns have been echoed by several Sri Lankan and international organizations.299

The commission remains an advisory body that investigates cases and makes recommendations, but there is no guarantee that relevant government bodies will act on them. The involvement of government agencies such as the Attorney General’s office in the work of an ostensibly independent commission also raises serious concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Efforts to establish a witness protection program have been inadequate, significantly limiting the CoI’s ability to conduct investigations.

With respect to “disappearances” and abductions, it is unrealistic to expect that the CoI could ever address hundreds of reported cases. The only “disappearance” case that the commission decided to look into is that of Fr. Jim Brown and Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas. So far, however, there has been no progress in the investigation—which is true for most of the cases currently within the commission’s mandate.

In September 2007, the IIGEP noted in its interim report to the president that since the inception of the commission, “no substantial progress has been made into any of the mandated cases,” and that the CoI “is unlikely to have completed any case before the expiry of the commission’s mandate in early November 2007.”300

Addressing the Human Rights Council in December 2007, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted that “despite high expectations,” the CoI “has yet to complete any of its cases.”301

Families of the “disappeared” have criticized both the Tillekeratne Commission and the CoI. In April 2007, a group of relatives supported by the Civil Monitoring Commission petitioned the government, expressing despair at the government’s unwillingness to investigate “disappearances” and its rejection of efforts by the families, as well as local and international groups, who are trying to help the relatives.

On the ineffectiveness of the Tillekeratne Commission and limitations of the CoI and IIGEP mandate, the relatives complained that “none of these mechanisms have helped to bring back our loved ones and to know the fates of them. Setting up of these two commissions and group did not prevent disappearances.”302

National Police Commission and Special Police Unit

The creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) initially raised hopes that this body would address long-standing problems associated with the police force, including abuse and impunity.

The NPC was granted the power of appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control, and dismissal of police officers other than the inspector general of Police. It was also supposed to investigate public complaints against police officers and provide redress in accordance with the law.

Even during its first term, however, the NPC’s functioning has been hampered by lack of financial resources, inadequate investigative powers, and lack of cooperation from the police department. 303 According to a leading Sri Lankan lawyer, the commission “has been cribbed, cabined and confined in respect of many aspects of the fulfillment of its constitutional duty.”304

The situation has hardly improved since April 2006, when new commissioners were appointed directly by the president, and not by the Constitutional Council as required by the 17th amendment to the constitution. The independence of the current NPC, as well as its willingness to address numerous allegations of the police involvement in abductions and “disappearances” is highly questionable.

In response to Human Rights Watch’s inquiry, the NPC stated that it had received “several complaints” on abductions and “disappearances,” but “most of these abductions and disappearances are allegedly by paramilitary elements, Karuna group, the army or unidentified men or cases of missings.”305 The NPC maintained that “there are no specific allegations about police involvement” in these crimes. The NPC also mentioned that when the commission receives reports of police inaction in response to such complaints, it refers such cases to senior officers “concerned to expedite inquiries,” and monitors the progress in such cases.306 The NPC, however, did not provide any statistics or further details regarding such instances.

In addition to the existing National Police Commission, in September 2006 the government announced the creation of a “special police unit to investigate into the incidents of kidnappings, abductions, disappearances, and ransom demands,” in response to the wave of abductions in Colombo. 307

The government has not reported publicly on the activities of this unit, yet it is clear that the abductions in Colombo have continued since its creation—dozens of such cases were reported in late 2006 and early 2007. Moreover, the only arrests for these abductions were made only after the key suspect’s name had been mentioned in parliament (see above).

Judging by the accounts collected by Human Rights Watch, neither the NPC nor the newly established Special Unit seem to have made significant progress in supporting the families’ efforts to locate their missing relatives and identify the perpetrators.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the ineffectiveness of the two bodies is that in 2007 the government kept establishing additional mechanisms within the national police to address the same issue. In June 2007, government defense spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, said the government set up “two special operation cells to collect information and take immediate action on complaints of abductions and extortions take place in Colombo and suburbs.” The units, according to the minister, were “functioning round the clock” under the supervision of the Presidential Secretariat and the police.308

The round-the-clock functioning of these units apparently also failed to bring results, as on October 29, 2007, CID Chief D.W. Prathapasingha announced the opening of a “police information centre for disappeared persons” to accept complaints from the public regarding abductions and disappearances.309 Prathapasingha did not comment as to why the government believed there was a need for establishing yet another body in addition to other police mechanisms.

In response to Human Rights Watch questions regarding the functioning of these mechanisms, the national police mentioned that there are no “operational relations” between the information center and the Special Units “other than sharing and exchanging information.”310 The police added that as of January 2, 2008, the information center received 20 complaints of disappearances, “and investigations into these cases are being continued.”311

Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights

The Rajapaksa administration repeatedly portrays the establishment of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights in February 2006 as an indicator of the government’s serious approach to human rights. The ministry runs a Permanent Standing Committee on Human Rights and its implementing body, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Human Rights. According to the ministry, the latter holds meetings with key officials of the armed forces, the Defense Ministry, and the Police Department, and may, among other things, “direct relevant law enforcement authorities to investigate alleged violations of human rights and call for reports on such investigations.”312

The minister has also created an Advisory Board, consisting of civil society representatives, “to advise the minister on prevention, mitigation, and taking immediate action” in respect of human rights violations.313

On the eve of Louise Arbour’s visit to Sri Lanka the ministry announced the appointment of “a high level committee to inquire into allegations of Abduction and Recruitment of Children for use in Armed Conflict in 2007.”  The Committee is supposed to monitor investigations made in connection with the abduction and recruitment of children by the LTTE and the Karuna group, and monitor the released children and facilities to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration.314 It is too early to say whether this body has had any impact in preventing child abductions, but optimism is elusive when so many previous mechanisms have failed.

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights could play an important role within the administration to press the government to address key human rights concerns through the relevant ministries. However, its lack of assertiveness on key issues and with respect to other government agencies has meant that the results of its work in this sphere have been hardly visible. Instead of confronting abuse, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has increasingly sought to downplay allegations of government violations, including the extent of the problem of “disappearances,” and to dismiss criticism as the LTTE “propaganda strategy” used to “paint a bleak picture internationally to bring pressure on the government.”315

The ministry’s standing among Sri Lanka’s human rights community was best illustrated by the October 2007 resignation of four prominent members of its Advisory Board. The human rights activists on the board resigned to protest the government’s continued lack of willingness to address ongoing extrajudicial killings, abductions, and arbitrary arrests. They submitted their resignation after Minister Samarashinghe rejected a proposed UN monitoring mission supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.316

Monitoring Committee on Abductions and Disappearances

This committee appointed by the president oversees a “special center for gathering information on abductions allegedly happened in the Colombo and Suburbs.” According to Minister of Media Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, it commenced operations on June 28, 2007. Reportedly, the center “sits 6-7 hours a day at Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall” and accepts complaints from the public.317

At an October 9, 2007, media briefing, committee member and Minister for Building and Engineering Services Rajitha Senarathne announced that since the appointment of the committee “complaints of abductions are now nil in Colombo and in the Eastern Province,” and that “the government has looked into many of the cases and 141 cases are still to be looked into.”318 Given the scarcity of information it is hard to access the committee’s work, but the publicly available evidence gives no reason to accept the minister’s claims.

As mentioned above, Sri Lankan human rights groups and international organizations continue to document abductions and “disappearances” in Colombo and the east, as well as the continuing high levels in the north.319

Moreover, it is unclear what the minister meant when he said that the government “looked into” most of the cases. Since the arrest of Nishantha Gajanayake and several of his accomplices, there have been no reports of progress with “disappearances” investigations anywhere in the country.

Notably, the focus of the minister’s speech, delivered during Louise Arbour’s visit to the country, was indignation at the international community which “singles out” Sri Lanka with its “mere 1,200” cases of enforced disappearances instead of focusing on “violations in Kashmir or Iraq.”320

These defensive, misguided statements suggest that both the center and the committee, its supervising body, are focusing at least as much on rhetorically countering international pressure as on uncovering the truth, holding perpetrators accountable, and providing information and, where appropriate, reparations to victims and their families.

Official denials

The failure of the authorities to establish accountability and stop the abuses is not surprising given that at the highest levels the Sri Lankan government continues to deny the continuing crisis of “disappearances” and the involvement of its security forces in these violations.

The president, government ministers, and the government’s Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) have repeatedly attacked those who have raised concerns, whether domestically or internationally, dismissing the allegations of widespread “disappearances” and other abuses as LTTE propaganda aimed at marring the state’s image internally and abroad.321

A strongly worded statement by the SCOPP in March 2007 rejected all allegations and accusations against the government for complicity in abductions and “disappearances” as “unfounded.” It said that police investigations “substantiate the fact that neither the Security Forces, nor the Police, have been involved, directly or indirectly, in the alleged abductions and disappearances” and led “to the inescapable conclusion that much of the accusations were stage managed for mere propaganda purposes.” The statement further alleged that many of the reported “disappearance” cases “were clearly and intentionally manipulated, with the ulterior motive of gaining some personal advantage.”322

President Rajapaksa also stated on several occasions that the reports of numerous “disappearances” are inaccurate, citing cases where people reported missing later turned out to be abroad, or went into hiding to escape criminal charges.

In an October 4, 2007, interview, the president said that “these disappearance lists are all figures” since in many cases children have simply “gone [on] their honeymoon without the knowledge of their household.”323

Similar claims have been made by the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights324 and the director general of the government's Media Centre for National Security. The latter suggested that many of the “disappeared” are simply “girls going away with a boy.”325

Government officials have repeatedly claimed that most of the missing individuals have returned or have been found. One such allegation was made on October 29, 2007, by the CID Chief D.W. Prathapasingha who claimed that “many believed to have disappeared or were abducted by unidentified groups have been found.”326 Just like the president, the SCOPP, and the Tillekeratne Commission, the CID chief has not provided any facts to substantiate the claim.

The government also insists that Sri Lankan security forces are “a very disciplined force” that do not violate human rights, and the abductions are the doing of the LTTE. In an Al Jazeera interview on May 30, 2007, President Rajapaksa said, “Definitely, I don't refute the fact that the LTTE is abducting people. The LTTE has abducted people and killed them. The state forces do not have to abduct people, because we have a law.”327 In October 2007, the president said, “I do not say we have no incidents of disappearances and human rights violations, but I must categorically state that the government is not involved at all.”328

Even putting aside facts and figures collected by human rights organizations and widely publicized in the media, such statements do not correspond with other reports by the government and by various monitoring bodies it has set up. As mentioned above, Judge Tillekeratne and Minister Senarathne, both representatives of the bodies appointed by the president, cited the figure of over 1,000 “disappearances” and abductions, while the police chief and the defense spokesperson have said that large numbers of security force personnel have been arrested for their role in abductions and enforced disappearances.

It is also unclear why the government has felt the need to establish so many different commissions and committees if, as alleged by the president, the “disappearances” lists were merely unsubstantiated figures.

While these high-level statements are neither credible nor consistent, they send a message to members of security forces and bodies charged with investigating their conduct. In essence, the government’s rhetoric implies that the widely advertised measures to address the “disappearances” are not intended to genuinely address the issue. The security forces are in effect being told that they can continue to act with impunity, assured that the government will not take the allegations of their involvement in human rights abuses seriously.

247 The failure of the Sri Lankan authorities to establish accountability for “disappearances” that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s is discussed in Chapter II.

248 Human Rights Watch interview with the wife of Ramakrishnan Rajkumar, Colombo, March 4, 2007. For more information, see Appendix I, the “disappearance” of Ramakrishnan Rajkumar (case No 76).

249 Human Rights Watch interview with the wife of Thilipkumar Ranjithkumar, Jaffna, February 28, 2007. For more information, see Appendix I, “Disappearances” of Thilipkumar Ranjithkumar and Ganesh Suventhiran (case Nos 14-15).

250 Human Rights Watch interview with relatives of Thavaruban Kanapathipillai, Jaffna, February 28, 2007. Human Rights Watch interview with a relative of Shangar Santhivarseharam, February 28, 2007, Jaffna. For more information, see Appendix I, “disappearances” of Thavaruban Kanapathipillai and Shangar Santhivarseharam (case Nos 27-28).

251 Human Rights Watch interview with the wife of Thiyaganagalingam Sundaralingam, Jaffna, February 26, 2007. For more information, see Appendix I, the “disappearance” of Thiyaganagalingam Sundaralingam (case No 18).

252 Human Rights Watch interview with the wife of Ganesh Suventhiran, Jaffna, February 28, 2007. For more information, see Appendix I, “Disappearance” of Thilipkumar Ranjithkumar and Ganesh Suventhiran (case Nos 14-15).

253 Response of the national police to Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2008. Human Rights Watch’s letter of inquiry and the response from the police can be found in Appendix II to this report.

254 As of November 2007, the alleged perpetrator remains in custody but charges have yet to be filed against him.

255 Human Rights Watch interview with Mano Ganesan, Colombo, February 20, 2007.

256 See, e.g., “Summary of Issues Arising from the Killing of Ten Muslim Villagers at Radella in Pottuvil Police Area on 17th September 2006,” Report by Law and Society Trust, INFORM and Rights Now, May 2007.

257 University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), “Flight, Displacement and the Two-fold Reign of Terror,” Information Bulletin No. 40, June 15, 2006. See also D.B.S. Jeyaraj, “STF Suspects in Trinco Youth Murder to be Released,” May 3, 2006, (accessed September 15, 2007); D.B.S. Jeyaraj, “The terrible truth of the Trincomalee tragedy,” January 23, 2006, (accessed September 15, 2007).

258 See, e.g., “Sri Lanka: ICJ Calls for Justice as Inquest into Killing of 17 Aid Workers Concludes,” Statement by International Commission of Jurists, March 9, 2007; “Sri Lanka: ICJ Inquest Observer Finds Flaws in Investigation into Killing of ACF Aid Workers,” International Commission of Jurists press release, April 23, 2007, (accessed September 15, 2007). All three cases are also discussed in: International Crisis Group, “Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis,” Asia Report no 135, June 14, 2007.

259 “Sri Lanka President blasts police dept for handling of abductions and killings,” ColomboPage, March 11, 2007,, accessed May 15, 2007.

260 Susistha R. Fernando, “Majority of ’Abductees’ Found to Have Returned,” Daily Mirror, June 29, 2007.

261 University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), “Can the East be Won through Human Culling?” Special report No 26, August 3, 2007.

262 Easwaran Rutnam, “Only Government Forces Can Carry Weapons: FM,” Daily Mirror, May 25, 2007.

263 In the weekly report  for October 8-14, 2007, SLMM monitors noted:

On 10 October SLMM monitors witnessed TMVP members passing check points unhindered. Close to Kappalthuray SLMM monitors saw a convoy of five vehicles – three white vans, one white pick-up and a sedan. At the back of the pick-up two boys, about 15/16 years old, in military-like clothing were lying, partially covered by a tarpaulin. Inside one of the vans there were up to eight armed civilians. The SLMM witnessed the convoy traveling through check points.

See Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Weekly Reports, (accessed January 28, 2007).

264 “Sri Lankan Police, Troops Involved in Abductions: Police Chief,” AFP, March 6, 2007; “Sri Lanka Police, Soldiers Arrested over Abductions,” Reuters, March 6, 2007.

265 International Crisis Group, “Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis,” Asia Report no 135, June 14, 2007, with a reference to INFORM and Law and Society Trust, “Sri Lanka Human Rights Update,” March 15, 2007.

266 Response of the national police to Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2008. Human Rights Watch’s letter of inquiry and the response from the police can be found in Appendix II to this report.

267 Sunil Jayasiri, “Ongoing Abductions Probe: Gajanayake Arrested,” Daily Mirror, June 22, 2007.

268 “Sri Lanka's Abduction Investigations Take a New Turn,” Colombo Page, June 23, 2007, (accessed October 16, 2007).

269 “Media is Commended for Highlighting HR Violations; Government Sets Up a Special Center to Avert Abductions,” Ministry of Defense news release, June 28, 2007, (accessed October 22, 2007).

270 Kesara Abeywardena, “Patriots and Traitors in a Shadow War,” Daily Mirror, October 10, 2007.

271 Response of the national police to Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2008. Human Rights Watch’s letter of inquiry and the response from the police can be found in Appendix II to this report.

272 “Main Suspect in Abductions and Extortions Released on Bail in Sri Lanka,” Colombo Page, January 19, 2008, (accessed January 28, 2008).

273 The three-page document with statistics was given to Human Rights Watch by Palitha Kohona, the foreign secretary who heads the inter-ministerial working group set up to address human rights abuses during a meeting in Washington, DC, in October 2007.

274 The reference here is apparently to the November 2006 arrests of a police officer and army soldier in relation to the killing of five students from the Thandikulam Agricultural College near Vavuniya. See Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, “Government to Prosecute Army and Police Personnel Indictment to Be Served on Thandikulam Killings,” July 5, 2007, (accessed October 18, 2007).

275 The document states that 382 or 31% of the complaints have been investigated by the Commission. It is unclear whether investigations will be carried out into the remaining 69% of the complaints.

276 Ibid.

277 UN Commission on Human Rights, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, Mission to Sri Lanka,” E/CN.4/2006/53/Add.5, 27 March 2006, (accessed April 16, 2007).

278 Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, “Allan Rock, the Special Advisor to the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict on Sri Lanka, has concluded his 10 day mission to the country,” statement, November 13, 2007, (accessed December 6, 2007).

279 “Press Statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights on Conclusion of Her Visit to Sri Lanka,” Colombo, October 13, 2007, (accessed October 20, 2007).

280 Human Rights Commission Act, No. 21, § 14 (1996). See also Mario Gomez, “Sri Lanka’s New Human Rights Commission,” Human Rights Quarterly 281, 284-5 (1998).

281 The HRC’s Annual Report 2003, the last one to have been made public, stated that “owing to the heavy cuts imposed on the HRC budget in terms of the government's budgetary policy, HRC was severely constrained during this period in carrying out its routine duties such as visiting police stations and this often hampered the Commission in performing this deterrent role as efficiently as it would have.” The HRC recommended that the Human Rights Commission Act of 1996 should be amended to make the recommendations of the Commission enforceable but no action was taken by the government. “Sri Lanka: Spectre of abductions by the security forces officially admitted,” Asian Center for Human Rights Weekly Review, 157/2007, March 7, 2007, (accessed April 20, 2007).

282 The Constitutional Council was created by the 17th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution passed in 2001. See the full text of the 17th amendment at (accessed October 20, 2007).

283 In March 2005 the terms of six of the 10 council members expired, and the Constitutional Council lost its necessary quorum. Months later, following the election of President Rajapaksa, the prime minister and leader of the main opposition party finally made their recommendations for appointment to the council. The president, however, argued that the council could not function without the tenth member, who had to be nominated by a majority vote of the smaller parties in parliament. To date, the smaller parties have been unable to decide on the name of their recommended appointee, ostensibly due to disagreement over the proper process of selection. Lawyers and human rights activists in Sri Lanka view the president’s decision as a way to keep the council from operating.

284 United Nations Human Right Council, Fourth session, Item 2 of the provisional agenda, “Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances,” A/HRC/4/41, January 25, 2007.

285 Namini Wijedasa, “No Investigations ’Without Special Directions from Government’ – HRC dumps 2,000 Uninquired Complaints,” Sunday Island, July 16, 2006. See also, Sri Lanka: The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Has Stopped Investigations into 2000 Disappearance Cases to Avoid Having to Pay Government Compensation to the Victims,” Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission, AS-169-2006, July 18, 2006.

286 Response to Human Rights Watch from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, by e-mail, January 24, 2008. The Human Rights Watch letter to the HRC and the Commission’s response can be found in the Appendix II to this report.

287 Ibid.

288 See International Crisis Group, “Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis,” Asia Report no 135, June 14, 2007.

289 Ranga Jayasuriya, “Jaffna Ordered to Blackout News,” Lakbima, October 21, 2007.

290 Response to Human Rights Watch from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, by e-mail, January 24, 2008. The Human Rights Watch letter to the HRC and the Commission’s response can be found in the Appendix II to this report.

291 See International Crisis Group, “Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis,” Asia Report no 135, June 14, 2007.

292 Press Statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights on Conclusion of Her Visit to Sri Lanka, Colombo, October 13, 2007, (accessed October 20, 2007).

293 For more information, see “Sri Lanka: Human Rights Commission Downgraded: UN Human Rights Monitoring Urgently Needed to Stem Violations,” Human Rights Watch press release, December 18, 2007.

294 See, e.g., Official website of the Government of Sri Lanka, “Majority of ‘Disappeared’ Had Returned—Commissioner,” June 29, 2007; Somini Sengupta, “Specter of kidnappings returns to torment Sri Lanka,” The International Herald Tribune, October 31, 2006, (accessed March17, 2007).

295 International Crisis Group, “Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis,” Asia Report no 135, June 14, 2007.

296 Human Rights Watch interview with international aid worker, Batticaloa, February 27, 2007.

297 “Disappearances, Abductions Recede: Sri Lankan Government,”, August 31, 2007, (accessed October 15, 2007).

298 For a detailed analysis of the inadequacy of the CoI, see Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka – Return to War: Human Rights under Siege, vol. 19, no. 11(c), August 2007.

299 See, e.g., Centre for Policy Alternatives, “Commission of Inquiry and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons: Commentary on Developments,” January-April 2007, CPA Policy Brief no. 2, 2007; International Crisis Group, “Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis,” Asia Report no 135, June 14, 2007; “Sri Lanka: Why a Presidential Commission Cannot Ensure Protection of Human Rights and Why Foreign Observers Cannot Play a Positive Role in Such a Commission? The Case for an International Monitoring Mission,” Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission, AS-233-2006, October 4, 2006; (accessed October 10, 2007).

300 “The IIGEP Reiterates Concerns over the Work of the Commission of Inquiry,” Statement by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, IGEP-PS-003-2007, September 19, 2007.

301 Address by Ms. Loiuse Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the occasion of the resumed 6th session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, December 11, 2007.

302 Petition by relatives of the disappeared persons adopted at the first meeting of the Civil Monitoring Commission. D.B.S. Jeyaraj, “Dear Ones of “Disappeared” in depths of Despair,”, April 12, 2007, (accessed September15, 2007).

303 “Sri Lanka: Spectre of abductions by the security forces officially admitted,” Asian Center for Human Rights Weekly Review, 157/2007, March 7, 2007, (accessed April 20, 2007).

304 Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, “The National Police Commission in Sri Lanka: Squandering a Golden Opportunity,” Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Newsletter, Vol.12, No 4, New Delhi, 2005.

305 “Report on the action taken by the National Police Commission on allegations of the police involvement in the abduction and enforced disappearances,” attached to the response of the national police to Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2008. Human Rights Watch’s letter of inquiry and the response from the police can be found in Appendix II to this report.

306 Ibid.

307 “Special Police Unit to Probe Incidents of Killing,” Office of the President media release, September 15, 2006, (accessed October 20, 2007).

308 “Media is Commended for Highlighting HR Violations; Government Sets Up a Special Center to Avert Abductions,” Ministry of Defense news release, June 28, 2007, (accessed October 22, 2007).

309 Supun Dias, “Many Abducted People Found: CID,” Daily Mirror, October 30, 2007.

310 Response of the national police to Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2008. Human Rights Watch’s letter of inquiry and the response from the police can be found in Appendix II to this report.

311 Ibid.

312 Information available on the website of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, (accessed October 22, 2007).

313 Ibid.

314 “Special Committee on Abduction and Violation of Child Rights,” The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka, October 8, 2007, (accessed October 20, 2007).

315 “You cannot expect everything to be normal,” Interview by Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, The Nation, March 18, 2007.

316 “Sri Lanka Rights Activists Quit Panel in Protest Over Killings,” AFP, October 15, 2007.

317 “Media is Commended for Highlighting HR Violations; Government Sets Up a Special Center to Avert Abductions,” Ministry of Defense news release, June 28, 2007, (accessed October 22, 2007).

318 See, e.g., “Sri Lanka Upholds the Value of Human Life,” The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka, October 9, 2007, (accessed October 20, 2007); SLMM weekly report for September and October 2007.

319 See, e.g., “Sri Lanka: Latest Report on ICRC Activities in the Field, July 7th to August 31st,”ICRC Bulletin No. 16, September 3, 2007, (accessed October 30, 2007). SLMM weekly report for December 3 – December 9, 2007, mentioned the abduction of 22 persons, seven of them children, in the Eastern region. See Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Weekly reports for December 2007, (accessed January 28, 2007).

320 Sandun A Jayasekera, “Abductions: Government Tells West to Heal Itself,” Daily Mirror, October 10, 2007.

321 See, e.g., “You cannot expect everything to be normal,” Interview by Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, The Nation, March 18, 2007.

322 “Baseless Allegations of Abductions and Disappearances,” SCOPP Report, March 8, 2007, (accessed April 17, 2007).

323 Daya Gamage, “Western Powers Despise My Non-Elitist Leadership in Sri Lanka - Mahinda Rajapakse,” Asian Tribune, October 4, 2007.

324 See, e.g., “An unwavering commitment to protect people's fundamental rights,” interview by Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Daily News, March 2, 2007.

325 Simon Gardner, “Halt Abductions, Sri Lanka and Tigers Urged,” Reuters, April 5, 2007.

326 Supun Dias, “Many Abducted People Found: CID,” Daily Mirror, October 30, 2007.

327 Teymoor Nabili, Interview with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, 101 East, Al Jazeera, May 30, 2007, for the transcript see (accessed October 20, 2007).

328 Daya Gamage, “Western Powers Despise My Non-Elitist Leadership in Sri Lanka - Mahinda Rajapakse,” Asian Tribune, October 4, 2007.