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Tamil families of the disappeared face increasing harassment from Sri Lanka - ACPR

Tamil families of the disappeared are under “increasing verbal, physical, and serious psychological harassment” from the Sri Lankan security forces, said the Jaffna-based Adayaalam Centre for Policy and Research (ACPR) in a new briefing released today.

The ACPR’s briefing provides an update on the security situation in the North-East and the “increasingly severe threats and harassment that are intended to deter and silence existing and future activism of Tamil families of the disappeared”.  Drawing on interviews with the families themselves, the briefing outlines the threats and harassment they face as part of state efforts to nullify their protests. 

State surveillance

Tamil families of the disappeared began their protests across the North-East 5 years ago, and have faced pressure from the state ever since they began. The families have been subject to house visits, phone calls from government intelligence agents, frequent inquiries and continuous government surveillance during protests. 

This treatment continued through pandemic related lockdowns, during which leaders of the protests were visited by intelligence agents. On a number of occasions, leaders were called on to attend investigations at the head office for the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) Colombo during the pandemic despite being older and at an increased risk of both contracting COVID-19, and suffering severely.  

Pressure from international attention appears to have caused somewhat of a shift in the Sri Lankan state's handling of the families of the disappeared. One protester reported that in the past, intelligence agents had attempted to prevent her from attending meetings with the UN. However, recently, she was informed by intelligence officers that they would not prevent her from attending, instead they wanted her to disclose what she planned to address at the meeting. She interprets the shift as an attempt to placate the international community. 

There have also been reports of intelligence officers utilising intimidation tactics during protests. For instance, intelligence agents approached protestors during events, and asked for their personal details after displaying photos of them or revealing that their names are known to the department; intimating that their involvement with the protests will make them targets of the state.

Harassment and violence directed at protests

On the 26th of January 2022, some of the mothers of the disappeared joined a protest against former justice minister, Ali Sabry, in Vavuniya. They were met with violence by police officers, who are reported to have been aware of the identities of the mothers.

Protests taking place in the South, whether organised by political parties or not, were given police protection until very recently. However, as one protestor mentioned, protests organised or attended by the families of the disappeared are always met with state-ordered violence. 

A journalist covering this protest expressed his sense of disgust at the treatment of these families. Stating that the violence enacted against protesting families was different to what he had witnessed at other protests that he had covered. 

Threats to family members of protest leaders 

The state has extended its campaign of intimidation and threat of violence to the families of protest leaders. 

For instance, recently the son of a leader had his trishaw illegally removed by the police because he had been seen dropping his mother off with a group of protestors. His trishaw was only returned to him when local media broadcasted the illegal confiscation. 

A former protest leader was informed by members of their community that they were visited by intelligence officers who questioned them about her family. The agents showed particular interest in the former leader’s daughter, who is currently a university student. The former leader was warned that future involvement in events relating to the disappearances would put her daughter in danger. 

The ACPR stated that most of the women they have interviewed have now removed themselves from public involvement, stepped down from leadership positions or desisted entirely. Many of the women involved in these campaigns are accustomed to constant and varied aggression by the state. However, understandably, they are unwilling to risk the safety and wellbeing of their remaining family. 

Social isolation

The majority of the families of the disappeared contacted by ACPR reported that their neighbours had been visited by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The CID maintains extensive and detailed records on the families of the disappeared, therefore the families believe that this tactic is being used to scare community members into disclosing more information, apply pressure on the protestors and undermine their support networks in their communities. 

There have also been reports of intelligence agents recruiting informants. These concerns have been substantiated by a Tamil human rights defender (with over 20 years of experience) who spoke to ACPR. From his work with informants and the families of victims, he has been able to ascertain that; informants are compensated generously for achieving a monthly target of case reports. 

“Whenever we try to do something to demand justice or address our rightful concerns about the state of human rights, the police and intelligence try their best to get close to us to extract information. The moment they have the information they need, they come with a court order. If we inform journalists about even one thing, the intelligence finds out in no time. Now, we must inform journalists only hours beforehand in order to keep the police off our backs.”

Impact on leading protestors

The systematic pressure and intimidation of those connected to protestors has had the desired effect. Families of the disappeared are losing support networks, and are increasingly isolated from their extended families, friends and neighbours who fear that association with the families will make them a target of the state. 

“I see all of these as attempts to weaken us psychologically, so we step away from the protests and make it easy for them to make up false stories about disappearances. If we ever stop doing this, they will just tell everyone everything is fine, and no one disappeared, and we will never find our families or justice. Taking pictures of us at protests, meetings and public gatherings has never stopped but singling out people and posing challenges psychologically has been happening a lot to many of our members recently.”

A pretence of transitional justice

The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) in Sri Lanka has been widely criticised by the families and Tamil civil society from its inception in 2018. The department has been criticised for failing to deliver on its promises to the families of the disappeared as well as lacking transparency and impartiality. 

Families who attempted to engage with the OMP were left disillusioned and frustrated by the lack of progress made by the department with regards to accountability for their forcibly disappeared family members. The OMP lost what little credibility it had left when numerous war criminals were appointed to high ranking positions in the OMP, since the beginning of the Rajapaksa Presidency. 

The ACPR calls on “the Government of Sri Lanka and its security forces to cease all surveillance, harassment and intimidation of families of the disappeared, and take concrete steps to respond to their demands for answers and accountability for their loved ones.”

Addressing international organisations, the ACPR requests “international stakeholders including the UN, foreign governments, and international NGOs, to unequivocally recognize the failure of domestic transitional justice mechanisms to support truth and justice for the families of the disappeared. We urge them to make express reference to the need to advance justice for families of the disappeared in any bilateral or multilateral negotiations on assistance or trade.” 

Referring to previous briefs released by the ACPR, the organisation stood by “previous recommendations that any formal or informal cooperation with Sri Lankan security forces and police must be ended on grounds of avoiding complicity in grave human rights violations, including the repression of the freedom of expression of families of the disappeared. International actors should impose conditions that any resumption of assistance could only take place after a credible accountability process involving judicial prosecutions of security forces accused of crimes during and after the war, Including enforced disappearances.”

The ACPR urges “international stakeholders to dedicate more resources to closely monitor the situation of the families of the disappeared and engage with them directly, regularly, and publicly. Close monitoring and reporting will not only give a sense of safety and assurance to the families but will also ensure the international community is well-informed about security incidents that are no longer being reported due to the current political climate.”

Read the full brief here.

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