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Rights group flays Sri Lanka on 'disappearances'
Vicky Nanjappa | March 06, 2008 11:40 IST
The Sri Lankan government is responsible for widespread abductions and 'disappearances' that are a national crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on Thursday.
Since major fighting between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam resumed in 2006, Sri Lankan security forces and pro-government armed groups have abducted hundreds of individuals, many of whom are feared dead.
The 241-page report, 'Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for Disappearances and Abductions in Sri Lanka [Images],' documents 99 of the several hundred cases reported, and examines the Sri Lankan government's response, which to date has been grossly inadequate.
Under international law, a State commits an enforced disappearance when it takes a person into custody and denies holding them or disclosing their whereabouts.
The vast majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch indicate the involvement of government security forces -- army, navy, or police. In some cases, relatives of the 'disappeared' identified specific military units that had detained their relatives and army camps where they had been taken.
Vairamuththu Varatharasan, a 40-year-old truck driver and father of five, was abducted from his home in Colombo on January 7, 2007, and has not been seen since. His wife told Human Rights Watch:
"A group of about 20 men -- some in police uniforms, some in civilian clothes surrounded the house. One policeman came inside and asked for our identity card. I went into one of the rooms to get the identity card. By the time I came out of the room, my husband was not there; neither was the policeman. I ran out and spotted a van parked in a dark place on the road. I ran to the road, but by the time I got there, the van started and left.'
Most of the victims are ethnic Tamils, although Muslims and Sinhalese have also been targeted. In many cases, the security forces 'disappeared' individuals because of their alleged affiliation with the LTTE.
Pro-government Tamil armed groups are also implicated in the abductions and 'disappearances' -- specifically the Karuna group and the Eelam People's Democratic Party -- acting either independently or in conjunction with the security forces.
The number of abductions perpetrated by the LTTE is comparatively low since targeted killings, rather than abductions, appear to be the LTTE's primary tactic. The LTTE has also been responsible for numerous other egregious abuses, including bombings against civilians, political assassinations, forced child recruitment, and the systematic repression of basic civil and political rights in areas under their control.
In the face of the crisis, the government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated an utter lack of resolve to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Not a single member of the security forces has been brought to justice for involvement in 'disappearances' or abductions.
"So long as soldiers and police can commit 'disappearances' with impunity, this horrific crime will continue," said Pearson.
The Rajapaksa government has set up an array of special bodies tasked with monitoring and investigating 'disappearances' and other human rights violations. None have yielded concrete results.
Human Rights Watch said this failure is unsurprising given that, at the highest levels, the Sri Lankan government continues to downplay the problem, denying the scale of the crisis and that its own security forces are involved.
"The government's mechanisms to address 'disappearances' will remain impotent so long as the president and top officials fail to send a clear signal to the security forces that these abuses will not be tolerated," said Pearson.
Sri Lanka's key international partners and the UN bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have raised serious concerns about the alarming number of "disappearances" and prevailing impunity.
Human Rights Watch deplored the Sri Lankan government's opposition to an international monitoring mission, given that such initiatives have proven effective elsewhere in dealing with 'disappearances'.
"The Sri Lankan government's rejection of a UN monitoring mission reflects badly on its commitment to human rights," said Pearson, adding, "While the government dawdles, many Sri Lankans will continue to pay the price."
Human Rights Watch called on the government of Sri Lanka to:
Human Rights Watch also called on Sri Lanka's international partners, in particular India and Japan [Images], to make further military and other non-humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka contingent on government efforts to halt the practice of 'disappearances', and to end impunity, including its acceptance of an international monitoring mission.
Testimonies from the report
"They started beating Thiyagarajah. They took his T-shirt off and stuffed it into his mouth. The neighbors came out to help, but they pushed them away. His wife was crying and shouting, and they hit her with a gun butt. She was nine months pregnant. They were accusing Thiyagarajah of having bombs in the house, and forced him to dig the ground around the house.
They searched the house, turning everything upside down, but did not find anything. They beat him so badly that he couldn't walk -- they had to carry him away. They took him away on a motorcycle."
"The villagers told me they saw Pathinather and Anton being interrogated by the military. The military held them at gunpoint. Then the military put them into the Powell (vehicle), and also loaded their bicycles into their vehicle. The villagers could not see much because the army ordered them to disperse, and now they are too afraid to talk to anybody about what they saw."
"When we got to the (Kodikamam) army camp, I saw my nephew's bicycle parked there. It was parked near the camp, in the military-controlled area. When we asked the soldiers, 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 this place again!' We asked the GS (local civilian 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."
"Two people came to our door, in uniforms. They were armed. Another man was dressed in an army T-shirt and jeans. I asked where they were taking my husband. The person in civilian clothes showed me a pistol. I asked where they were taking him again and he showed the pistol again, and then they took him out. I ran after them, and they had two vans, white and blue."