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Still no closure, a decade later

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Mothers took to the streets last week in Jaffna, demanding justice for sons, daughters and other relatives who disappeared after being arrested by the Sri Lankan security forces in the northern peninsula in 1996-97.

Parents and guardians of those who went missing in military custody demanded that Sri Lanka’s government either reveal the fate of their loved ones or compensate the bereaved families for their deaths. They marched through the town’s streets to hand a letter to Mr. K. Ganesh, the top government official in Jaffna district, calling for attention to their ongoing suffering.

“We have been waiting for our sons to return for all these years. We demand that the government reveal what happened to them,” said Kamalanayagi Thuraisingham of the Missing Persons’ Guardian Association (MPGA).

Thuraisingham’s 19-year old son, Senthilnathan, disappeared after being arrested in 1996 when he was in high school. She condemned the government’s lack of response with hundreds of others in the MPGA.

At least 540 Tamils disappeared after the military wrested control of Jaffna from the Tamil Tigers in 1995, according to human rights group Amnesty International estimates.

The Sri Lankan government’s own Human Rights Commission confirmed in 2003 that 248 persons were killed or disappeared after they were arrested by the military on suspicion of being involved with the Tamil Tigers.

After the HRC report was released, MPGA members criticized the group for its inaction regarding this issue, distributing pamphlets at the Universal Human Rights Day events in Jaffna.

MPGA members also protested in Colombo that year outside Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Justice. Mothers carried signs with photographs and information about their missing loved ones, urging the government to offer some closure for their suffering.

The protesters submitted a memorandum which stated the disappearances were part of a “well planned plot” by the Sri Lankan Army “in conjunction” with a paramilitary group.

The peak of disappearances reported in Jaffna was in 1995-96, though Amnesty International reported Tamils missing even in 2003. Arrests were primarily on mere suspicion of involvement with the Tigers.

“Evidence gathered during an Amnesty International visit to Sri Lanka in March 1996 clearly indicates that the security forces have arbitrarily detained thousands of Tamil people and have been responsible for torture as well as dozens of disappearances and extrajudicial executions,” Amnesty said in a 1997 report titled ‘Sri Lanka: Wavering commitment to human rights.’

“It is now feared that nearly all of those who remain ‘disappeared’ after their arrest by the security forces about a year ago died under torture or were deliberately killed in detention,” the report stated.

“Many of the thousands of cases of ‘disappearances’ reported in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s concern detainees alleged to have died under torture in police or army custody whose bodies were subsequently disposed of in secret,” another Amnesty report in 1999 stated.

In 2000, reporting cases of young Tamil boys being detained by the army, Amnesty again urged President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government to investigate these cases. Kumaratunga ordered an internal inquiry to the disappearances, but little was done and certainly no arrests were made.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has repeatedly stated that impunity is likely the most significant factor in the continuing practice of “disappearances” by the security forces.

With the Sri Lankan government unmoved by their protests, relatives of the missing have pinned their hopes on international human rights groups.

“Amnesty International, please ask the President of Sri Lanka for our children” read a sign held by relatives of those missing at a meeting in Jaffna with the human rights group in August 1996.

Amnesty has repeatedly called upon Sri Lanka to hold accountable those responsible for these missing Tamils, pointing out in a 1997 report “the government has to take responsibility for failing to protect the lives of civilians under its jurisdiction.”

But no action has been taken, underscoring the limited influence even international organizations have on security related matters in Sri Lanka.

The organization protested that “by the time government authorities in Colombo acknowledged the reality of what was happening in Jaffna, approximately 600 people had been reported ‘disappeared.’”

Amnesty’s findings that many of the missing were murdered in military custody were supported by the confessions of soldiers being tried in 1998 for the rape and murder in 1996 of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, a Jaffna schoolgirl.

An accused Corporal revealed that the Army had buried murdered detainees amongst the graves at Chemmani, Jaffna. Sri Lankan newspapers claimed that the killings and burials occurred on the instructions of senior commanding officers in Jaffna.

Corporal Somaratne Rajapakse, who was found guilty of abducting, raping and killing Krishanthi, her mother, young brother and neighbor, said there were at least 300 to 400 other bodies buried in Chemmani.

“Almost every evening, dead bodies were brought there [to the Ariyalai SLA camp] and the soldiers were asked to bury them,” Rajapakse told courts – he denied taking part in the killings and claimed he only helped bury the victims.

He later pointed out the sites of ten mass graves in the region, whose excavations and body identification have since been stalled, with little enthusiasm by Sri Lanka’s government to follow through.

And ahead of investigations into the Chemmani graves, residents in areas nearby reported heavy military activity in the area and seeing columns of smoke rising from the location, leading to suspicions the bodies were being destroyed.

DNA evidence collected from the Chemmani graves has been ordered by an investigating court, but Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department has still not done so. The CID attributed its inaction to the Ministry of Defense’s failure to allocate funds to conduct the investigations properly.

Sri Lanka had the second highest number of disappearances in the world in 1999, according to a study by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

In 1999, the Sri Lanka government itself estimated that 17,000 citizens had disappeared due to military forces, though these figures refer mainly to thousands of Sinhala youths slaughtered in a crackdown against a Marxist insurgency in the south led by the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) in the late 80’s.

More than 680 cases of disappearances were reported in Jaffna between 1983 and 1987, according to a 1997 Amnesty report.

After 1990, Amnesty said “the number of those reported to have ‘disappeared’ or deliberately killed at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces, particularly in the east, reached thousands within months.”

Responding to a rationale occasionally fielded by the government, Amnesty’s 1999 report also “stresses that abuses by opposition groups or rising crime can never provide a justification for governments to disregard their obligations to respect human rights.”

As set out in Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - to which Sri Lanka acceded in 1980 - torture is not justified even ‘in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation’ Amnesty said.

Moreover Sri Lanka’s notorious Emergency Regulations (ER) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) “contributed to the prevalence of human rights violations, including ‘disappearances’ and torture in Sri Lanka,” Amnesty said.

The State of Emergency, lifted after the ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces, was reimposed in August following the assassination of Foreign Minister Laksman Kadirgamar. Parliament voted to extend it again last week.

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