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ACPR expresses ‘grave concern’ over intimidation of Tamil disappearances activists

Tamil disappearances activists in the North-East have been facing increased surveillance, harassment and intimidation by Sri Lankan security forces said the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research (ACPR), as it called for the accountability of Sri Lankan intelligence structures as part of a larger security sector reform.

In a brief issued on Thursday, the Jaffna-based organisation said that Tamil families who began roadside protests calling for action on the issue of disappearances have “been under constant surveillance from Sri Lankan security forces and individuals suspected to be working alongside them”.

“In some instances it is blatantly apparent with uniformed police officers and military officers who take photographs and try to interrogate protestors,” said the brief. “The surveillance doesn’t stop with monitoring the protests from afar either but also extends to questioning women who participate in the protests. Every woman participating in the protest that ACPR has interviewed over the last two years has received at least one phone call from an intelligence officer in relation to their participation at the protests, though usually more, sometimes on a weekly basis.”

“The overall impact of this on-going surveillance has been multi-fold, but includes further marginalization of protesting families of the disappeared from their communities who fear any association to them could prompt surveillance, and high levels of distrust within the protests of newcomers and outsiders for fear they are working for intelligence.”

The intimidation does not just occur in the North-East and even extended to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, added the ACPR.

“In June 2018, a group of families of the disappeared from the North-East protests attended the UN Human Rights Council session and were subjected to intimidation by persons suspected to be linked to the Sri Lankan military during a side event who disturbed the event and began shouting at the women,” it said. “Upon their return, one of the women, a Tamil activist and wife of a disappeared, was reportedly interrogated by intelligence officers at her home.”

That activist was later attacked with an iron rod, just days after she had been questioned by Sri Lanka's Criminal Investigation Department on her return from Geneva.

Those working with the activists have also been subjected to intimidation and harassment said the ACPR, noting that “a number of civil society actors have had their phones tapped, and have had family members, and co-workers questioned about their activities”.

“Some civil society actors upon returning from the UN Human Rights Council sessions have themselves been directly questioned about their activities in relation to the families of the disappeared. Other journalists, have been stopped, harassed and intimidated on their way to cover protests of families of the disappeared.”

“The increase in security threat is parallel to the incumbent Government’s publicly articulated desire to give the security apparatus a free hand over matters of national security,” the brief concluded.

“The Sri Lankan state’s intelligence apparatus is a sophisticated machine that is capable of many different forms of intimidation and harassment of disappearances activists. It is clear that despite improvements in the functioning of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, there is still no credible domestic mechanism that can hold Sri Lankan intelligence structures accountable and prevent recurrence of violations.”

“It is imperative that the dismantling of Sri Lankan intelligence structures as part of a larger security sector reform project be made a necessary pre-condition for any type of engagement with Sri Lanka. Without holding accountable these shadowy and deep-seeded structures, a culture of impunity will continue to enable human rights violations to occur, including but not limited to against disappearances’ activists.”

Read the full text of the brief here.

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