Relatives of the victims of abductions blamed on Sri Lankan authorities have called on David Cameron and other western leaders to meet them during the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo next month.
“Sri Lanka is not worthy of this summit but as it is happening I ask the leaders who come here to meet each other to meet us too, the relatives of the disappeared. It is the smallest thing they could do to help us,” Sandhya Eknaligoda, 50, said.
Eknaligoda’s husband, Prageeth, was picked up by unidentified men in an unmarked van from a street near the newspaper offices where he worked in January 2010. As a journalist, campaigner and cartoonist whose drawings mocked Sri Lankan politicians, Prageeth, 53, knew he had enemies. “He was afraid. Only a fool would not have been. But he believed in what he was doing,” Eknaligoda said.
Legal documents filed by the Sri Lankan government during habeas corpus hearings in Colombo describe Prageeth as having been “abducted by an organised group”. No official has yet been able to cast any light on the disappearance. A former attorney general who said the cartoonist had been spotted abroad in effect retracted his statement in court. “I think sadly he has lost his life,” said Dharmasiri Lankapeli, a media workers’ union leader in Colombo, the commercial and cultural capital of Sri Lanka.
Prageeth disappeared when he left his office to meet a friend in the Homagama district. Human rights activists in the city believe he is one of many critics of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his eighth year of power, abducted in recent years. “Nobody can give the numbers. Those who disappear are often not reported by their families. It is hundreds, not thousands. But we simply don’t know. Some are released and just keep very quiet,” said JC Weliamuna, a human rights lawyer in Colombo who acts for many alleged victims.
The Sri Lankan government denies any involvement in such kidnappings. In an interview in September with al‑Jazeera, Rajapaksa dismissed the charges against security agencies as “nonsense” and “propaganda”. However, senior officials privately admit there are problems, though they say these are “to be expected … in any developing country struggling to come to terms with the effects of a long conflict”.
“Violations are there … but we need to handle it ourselves, in our own time. We are a work in progress,” a senior official said.
The government has set up a commission to investigate forced disappearances, but only those occurring during the 25-year civil war, which ended in 2009. Few in Colombo doubt that the coming Commonwealth summit will bolster Rajapaksa, who, through a mix of folksy populism, nationalism, development projects and promises to make Sri Lankans “prosperous”, remains popular among the Sinhalese majority in the island nation. The president is still acclaimed by many Sri Lankans for ending the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces – though resentment simmers in the Tamil-dominated north.
“They will be able to say, ‘Look, we are not pariahs.’ That will help locally and internationally,” said Paikiasothy Savaranamuttu, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In interviews in Colombo and the northern town of Jaffna, opposition politicians, activists and media professionals described a series of incidents ranging from relatively mild intimidation to violent attacks. “I am under constant surveillance. They are tracking my movements, questioning my neighbours. Any person, they get threatened,” said one trade unionist. Another spoke of being repeatedly stopped by men on motorbikes who asked him to identify his home without removing helmets with full-face masks.
Many more have received “friendly advice” from friends or have been advised by government contacts that they are “angering powerful people”.
Journalists have been targets. Prageeth had been abducted and held by police overnight as “a warning” four months before he disappeared. Estimates of how many have been killed for their media activities differ, due to the difficulty of establishing the exact motive for a murder, but range from five to 14 since 2006.
In January 2009, the editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper that is often critical of the government, was shot dead while driving to his office. In a letter to be published in the event of his murder, he blamed his killing on the government. In recent months two other prominent editors at the newspaper have fled Sri Lanka, citing threats. In Colombo, one editor, who did not want to be named, described being run off the road by an unmarked white van – a typical vehicle used in abductions – three months ago. It was a “message”, the editor said.
Such acts have a long history in Sri Lanka. Forced disappearances were common during a Marxist rebellions in the 1970s and 1980s.
The United Nations working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances has recorded 5,671 reported cases during the civil war, a figure that does not include those during the bloody final phase of the war nor people “disappeared” since.
Separatist groups such as the LTTE were also guilty of many disappearances and murders.
Officials from the defence ministry, run by Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabhaya, have said many of the abductions since the end of the conflict were of “underworld characters involved in organised crime, drug trade, extortion, kidnapping and such antisocial activities”. The president has suggested that many cases of abduction involve eloping couples, seeking privacy while a 2012 government report claims at least half of the disappearances are resolved when an individual reappears or are “false allegations”. Many appear to be linked to criminal turf wars or power struggles between individuals and factions with top-level connections within the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance.
One case involved a senior police officer who had been close to the president. He is now in prison on charges connected to kidnaps and beatings. One of his victims was also close to senior officials in Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom party.
Weliamuna, the human rights lawyer, said that example showed that when the political will existed “law enforcement can work”.
In recent months, campaigners say, the number of abductions has fallen.
“The message has been sent and received. There is no need to keep making the point. No one knows when it will be their turn. People are frightened,” said Ruki Fernando, of the Rights Now Collective for Democracy.
Only the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, has said he will boycott the Commonwealth meeting, and there are fears of a rise in abuses when it is over. Cameron has said he will raise “those aspects of the human rights record in Sri Lanka that we are not happy with” and has insisted that such a message is best delivered “in person”.
“We will not be holding back and we want other global leaders to do the same,” a British official said. “People who have been in difficult situations will not be ignored.”
Fernando, the activist, described Cameron’s decision as “an insult to victims and their families”. “It is totally naive to think you can talk about human rights with the Sri Lankan government and change anything,” he said.
Since the war ended, Rajapaksa and his family have consolidated their hold on the machinery of government in Sri Lanka. Dozens of relatives of the president now hold government or elected offices and term limits for the presidency have been abolished. The controversial impeachment in January of the chief justice raised further questions about separation of powers and was criticised by Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner on human rights, who has expressed concerns “about the degree to which the rule of law and democratic institutions in Sri Lanka are being undermined and eroded”. Rajapaksa has rejected the charge and said Sri Lanka was a democratic country.
“It is not a dictatorial country where a dictator is there … The people can chase me out,” the president, 67, told al-Jazeera.
Pillay also criticised Sri Lanka for failing to fully investigate potential war crimes that may have occurred in the last days of the campaign to crush the LTTE and expressed concern over a recent surge of sectarian violence.
The UN has passed resolutions criticising Sri Lanka’s human rights records and threatening and international inquiry.
Senior Sri Lankan officials said such “public fingerwagging” was counterproductive.
“If Sri Lanka is embraced it will do much more good. Current naming and shaming is not helpful and allows extremist forces on all sides to vitiate the atmosphere. That is why we are grateful to Cameron,” one told the Guardian.
For the moment there is no obvious domestic political threat to Rajapaksa and growing links with Beijing can offset any deterioration of relations with the west.
Savanaramuttu, the analyst, believes that war crimes allegations make it impossible for the Rajapaksas to contemplate surrendering the impunity from prosecution that power and office brought.
“They have to live or die in power. There is no alternative. Where would they go?” he said. Though friends and associates of Prageeth fear the worst, his wife says she still hopes he will return. “It is a belief we have. Every day I say: ‘Tomorrow I will see him,'” she said. (The Guardian)