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Sri Lanka: Deliver justice, truth and reparation to families of the disappeared

Following the announcement of the release of a list of complaints and information received by the Office on Missing Persons regarding people who were disappeared during Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts, the country’s authorities must now deliver justice, truth and reparation to the families, Amnesty International said today.

On 26 November 2020, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) released a list of “missing persons” to its offices. The list includes those who are unaccounted for either in connection with the conflict in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, due to civil or political unrest,  have been subject to enforced disappearance, or personnel of the armed forces, or police who have been identified as Missing In Action. The OMP has a mandate to collate data related to “missing persons” obtained by various past processes and to receive any new complaints.

“The long overdue release of this list is an important first step for the families that have waited years to learn of the fate of relatives they have not seen or heard from since the conflict. The Sri Lankan authorities must now initiate investigations into the circumstances of their disappearance, identify anyone suspected of criminal responsibility for their fate, and, where there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute them in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts and without recourse to death penalty,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

Relief payments

The release of the list comes as families of the disappeared have been petitioning the new Sri Lankan government – elected last year – to extend relief payments to them. Under the OMP’s recommendations, families had begun to receive LKR 6,000 (approximately 27 EUR) per month as a living allowance to ease the straitened circumstances they have endured with the disappearance of their relatives, including many individuals who were the sole income earners within those families. But the payments, which are just one of the several forms of reparation, were only reaching a limited number of affected families before being stopped altogether by the current government. Earlier this month, Amnesty International called on the government to commit funds in the 2021 budget to support the transitional justice process for victims of conflict.

“The Sri Lankan government should commit funds to resume and extend relief payments to all families that have been affected by the disappearance of a relative, as they have been calling for. A disappearance of the main income earner can often mean financial ruin for a family. They have also spent considerable sums of money that they cannot afford to in their years-long search for answers. For all that they have suffered, a modest monthly stipend is the least that they are owed,” said David Griffiths.

Threats, harassment and intimidation

In their search for justice, truth and reparation, families of the disappeared and lawyers acting on their behalf continue to face threats and harassment from the authorities and from non-state actors.

Human rights lawyer Kumaravadivel Guruparan was forced from his position as a senior lecturer and head of the University of Jaffna’s Law Department after pressure was brought to bear on the University authorities by the Sri Lankan military. The Adalaylam Centre for Policy Research, a human rights organization founded by Gurupuran, has been subject to multiple visits from officials inquiring about its staff and funding. Guruparan has been representing the families of 24 Tamil youths who have not been seen or heard from since they were taken into military custody in 1996.

Achala Senevirathna, a lawyer, who is appearing in court on behalf of the relatives of 11  youths who were allegedly forcibly disappeared by a group of officers of the Sri Lankan Navy in 2008-2009, has been subject to a torrent of threatening abuse online and offline. Among the abuse Senevirathna has been subject to, she has received threatening phone calls and text messages from the accused naval officers and people believed to be close to them, using obscene language. Her Facebook profile has been targeted by people distorting her photos, and making threats of rape and murder. She says these threats have had impacts on her personal life and her career. Despite her complaining about these threats, the authorities have taken no action so far.

The need for protection

The Sri Lankan authorities must guarantee that the families of the disappeared, activists campaigning with them, and lawyers acting on their behalf are protected. The victims have a right to justice, truth, and reparation, including guarantees of non-recurrence. Any attempt to interfere with the pursuit of these rights must be investigated.

“Where justice is denied and impunity is guaranteed, recurrence is almost inevitable. It is only through justice, truth, and reparation that the wounds suffered by these families can begin to heal. They have every right to pursue accountability using all means available to them, freely and without fear,” said David Griffiths.