Sri Lanka: Activists petition parliament on Day of the Disappeared

As Sri Lanka marks its national Day for the Disappeared on 27 October 2014, activists will petitioned parliamentarians to bring justice for the tens of thousands of disappeared in the country.

Sandhya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared political cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, together with other mothers of the disappeared today met with parliamentarians to present a poster calling for an end to enforced disappearances. They asked the Government of Sri Lanka to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and invite the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to visit the country.

“The number of disappeared people in Sri Lanka since the 1980s is second only to Iraq globally. The government’s efforts to address this issue – including to investigate cases of enforced disappearances, to provide redress to their families, to hold those responsible to account and to memorialize those missing appropriately – have been wholly inadequate. It is time for the government’s orchestrated lies and broken promises to be replaced with a genuine commitment to the truth,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director.

“Prageeth Eknaligoda’s case is emblematic of the almost complete impunity that surrounds disappearances in Sri Lanka. Parliament must take note of her Sandya and other families search for truth”.

Amnesty International is concerned that families of missing persons protesting against enforced disappearances and the organizers of those demonstrations have been harassed and assaulted in recent months.

Human rights activists and families seeking accountability often risk reprisals for communication with international organizations. As recently as 26 October posters smearing the organizers of a commemoration event for the disappeared to be held in Seeduwa were posted near the organisers’ house. The Government of Sri Lanka should support commemoration such as this and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. 

More information

In November, Amnesty International launch “In the future”, a campaign to highlight persistent human rights violations in Sri Lanka. You can join the conversation on social media through the hashtag #OURFUTURE 

Background

In Sri Lanka, some 12,000 complaints of enforced disappearances have been submitted to the UN since the 1980s – making it second only to Iraq. But the actual number of disappeared is much higher (as family members often face reprisals for communication their cases to international organisations)with at least 30,000 cases alleged up to 1994 and many thousands reported after that.

In August 2013, the government established a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to look into enforced disappearances from the final years the conflict in Sri Lanka (June 1990-May 2009).  That body has received some 20,000 complaints since its inception, including about 5,000 cases of missing Sri Lankan military personnel, but it has begun inquiries into less than 5 percent of these cases – some potentially over a decade old, which it says it is analyzing for further investigation.

Human rights defenders observing the proceedings have noted a number of shortcomings, including poor quality translation that substantively changed the meaning of witness testimony; lack of witness and victim protection to ensure the safety of those who appear before the Commission; and apparent bias in lines of questioning by Commissioners that demonstrated the commission’s lack of independence. 

Similar commissions appointed in the past have accomplished very little and, like this body, have had close ties to the authorities, undermining their independence. There have been ten commissions on disappearances since the early 1990s, but their recommendations have largely been ignored, and few of the many alleged perpetrators they identified have been brought to justice.

Despite the Commission’s weaknesses, in July President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced he was expanding the Disappearance Commission’s mandate to investigate other alleged crimes under international law and had engaged a panel of international lawyers to advise the government, a move that threatens to distract from the Commission’s ability to deliver on its primary responsibility: assisting families to determine the whereabouts of missing loved ones.

During the final bloody months of the armed conflict in 2009, thousands of people disappeared after their arrest or capture by the Sri Lankan security forces or abduction by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Very few of those cases have been resolved. In addition there has been blatant intimidation reported against families and others seeking to take remedial action.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act gives the security forces wide powers to arrest suspected opponents of the government and detain them incommunicado and without charge or trial for long periods – conditions which provide a ready context for deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture.

Victims and their relatives have faced enormous difficulties in seeking redress. Hundreds of relatives have filed habeas corpus petitions in an attempt to trace ‘disappeared’ prisoners but the procedure has proved slow and ineffective.

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