Centre for Policy Alternatives on 18 March, 2014

Statement on arbitrary detention of Human Rights Defenders

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18th March 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is deeply concerned by the arrest and detention last week of several individuals in the North and East, including Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). CPA condemns these attempts by the Government of Sri Lanka to silence critics and supress legitimate civil society activity. We call for the immediate release of all activists including Balendran Jeyakumari, Ruki Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan.

Balendran Jeyakumari was arrested in Kilinochchi on 13th March 2014, allegedly for aiding and abetting an ex-LTTE cadre who was fleeing after shooting a police officer in Kilinochchi. Ms. Jeyakumari’s 13 year old daughter was also detained although the police media spokesperson later stated that she was handed over to the department of child-care and probation. Ms. Jeyakumari, is reported to be detained in the Boossa detention centre, which is located hundreds of miles away from her family, especially her young daughter. Ms. Jeyakumari has lost two sons to the war and is in search of her third son who allegedly surrendered to the Government forces at the end of the war in 2009. Five years on, she continues her search at the forefront of a large number of families searching for their disappeared family members. CPA is also concerned about the recent detention of several others involved in the search for disappeared family members.

On 16th March 2014, two prominent HRDs were arrested in Kilinochchi. Although the police initially denied arresting Mr Ruki Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan, it was later reported that a special team fromthe Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) had made the arrest. It is also reported that both Mr Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan are now being held at the Colombo office of the TID. CPA is deeply concerned for their safety.

CPA has had a long-standing association with both Ruki Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan. They are peaceful individuals deeply committed to the cause of protecting the basic human rights of vulnerable individuals. CPA is shocked by accusations levelled against them of “terrorists” and of attempting to “incite violence amongst communities”. As recently as last week, an extremist religious group publicly stated that they would organise themselves as an “army” if their demands were not met. Surprisingly, none of these individuals or organisations are being called into question, let alone arrested on charges of causing communal discontent; HRDs on the other hand, continue to be threatened and intimidated through the use of unconscionable anti-terrorism legislation.

These detained activists are prominent campaigners against the large number of past and continuing cases of disappearances in Sri Lanka. In a context where Sri Lankan civil society organisations have challenged the credibility and independence of the investigations being conducted by the recently appointed Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into missing persons in the Northern and Eastern provinces, and where civil society organisations have taken an active role to hold the CoI accountable in order to ensure that it delivers on the promise of justice to victims, attempts to intimidate HRDs working on these issues clearly illustrates the Government’s unwillingness to ensure credible and transparent investigations into serious human rights violations.

These acts are part of a continued effort to stifle criticism of the Government of Sri Lanka and to suppress the flow of information in respect of past and continuing human rights violations. Despite repeated requests by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the harassment, intimidation and detention of HRDs continue unabated. In this instance, it is noteworthy that the harassment and detentions continue during the on-going 25th Session of the UNHRC, and further by immediate and disproportionate recourse to the anti-terrorism law rather than the ordinary law and order processes.

CPA has repeatedly called on the Government to repeal, if not amend the PTA so as to bring its provisions in line with Sri Lanka’s own constitutional standards of fundamental rights as well as its international obligations, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The PTA gives wide discretionary powers to law enforcement authorities on matters relating to detention and admission of confessions, providing little or no safeguards against abuses of power. It also provides for vague and loosely defined offences with heavy penalties that are inconsistent with general principles of criminal liability. The Act was initially conceived as a temporary measure to respond to extraordinary security challenges faced by the State in 1979. However, the draconian provisions of the Act have been regularised over time and have often been used to punish perceived opponents of the Government in power. Furthermore, the PTA’s continued existence in post-war Sri Lanka runs contrary to the narrative of peace and stability the Government projects both within and outside Sri Lanka.

In the context of growing international pressure on its human rights record, we call on the Government to act responsibly and engage with the international community in order to ensure the protection and guarantee of human rights ofall citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion, or political belief. It is also paramount that the Government adheres to its international and national obligations including to the obligations provided by its own National Human Rights Action Plan. Most pressingly, we reiterate our call for the immediate release of the three HRDs currently in detention without charge.

Download this press release as a PDF here. Download it in Tamil or Sinhala.