Activists threatened and attacked while families of the disappeared protest hearings

More than nine years after the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war in 2009, little progress has been made in obtaining justice for crimes committed during the conflict. During the civil war, both the Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed countless human rights abuses. In particular, the Sri Lankan security forces gained notoriety for their widespread use of arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. There is also credible evidence to suggest that Sri Lankan authorities continue to routinely torture detainees in their custody. 

Since 2015, two separate resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council have passed with Sri Lanka’s consent. These affirm a commitment by the government of Sri Lanka to adhere to four transitional justice mechanisms: a special court for alleged war crimes, a reparations tribunal to provide victims and survivors potential restitution, an office for missing persons to investigate disappeared persons, and a truth and reconciliation office.

As of 2018, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) is the only entity of the four that the government has established. However, many victims of human rights abuses and their families remain sceptical that the new body will help them find their missing relatives.

A report issued by the United Nations in July 2018 stated that Sri Lanka’s progress towards reform has “virtually ground to a halt” and the torture is still used with impunity. The report also raised concerns about the ongoing use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Civil society observers have drawn attention to the Sri Lankan authorities’ use of the PTA to hamper the work of human rights activists and legitimise the persecution of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community.

The report further states that “none of the measures so far adopted to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress.”

There are also concerns about the return to politics of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defence Secretary, who has been implicated in war crimes at the end of the conflict.

Association

Threats against women human rights defender

In June 2018, Sandhya Eknaligoda, a distinguished campaigner against enforced disappearances and the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda was subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.

According to Amnesty International, in a series of menacing social media posts – which proliferated quickly, in a seemingly coordinated campaign – Sandhya Eknaligoda was smeared as a supporter of the proscribed group, the LTTE. Eknaligoda was also taunted with threats of disappearance, and even threatened with death and violence against her children.

In a statement Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International said:

“The threats against Sandhya Eknaligoda are extremely worrying. The Sri Lankan authorities must urgently and effectively take appropriate action against those who seek to cause her harm.”

The threats against Sandhya Eknaligoda have escalated ever since the Homagama Magistrate’s Court convicted prominent Buddhist nationalist monk, Galagodatte Gnanasara Thero, on 24th May 2018 for threatening her outside the court building in 2016.

Human rights activist attacked

On 6th July 2018, Amitha Priyanthi, a human rights activist from Janasansadaya, a human rights organisation was attacked by two men on motorbikes, wearing full-face helmets close to her home in Beruwela. According to Priyanthi, the two men had followed her on motorcycles from her workplace in Panadura, about 37 kilometres away. Janasansadaya where Priyanthi works, is a CSO which assists victims and families of victims of human rights violations including torture in their search for justice through the legal system.

Commenting on the attack, the activist said:

“They appeared suddenly as I was turning to the lane. The pillion rider got off and started assaulting me on the head. If a neighbour and my husband had not come out and tried to stop the assailant, it would have been worse. They grabbed my bag with all the important documents and the phone in it and fled.”

The activist subsequently filed a report at the Aluthgama Police. Despite this, six days after the incident, the police had failed to record statements from her neighbour and her husband, who had been eye-witnesses to the assault.

18 years ago, Priyanthi’s brother died in police custody as a result of injuries he had allegedly sustained at the hands of the Payagala Police in 2000. Legal action has been filed against the police and the case is currently being heard in the Supreme Court. The most recent hearing on the case had been three days before the brutal attack on Amitha.

Disappearances activist brutally attacked

On 15th July 2018, an activist working on disappearances in Vaddukoddai, Jaffna was brutally attacked. The 36 year-old victim had been riding her bike with her young son, when an unidentified man in his mid-30s came up from behind and hit her on the shoulders with an iron rod, before pushing her son out of the way and hitting her directly on the head.

The activist is currently serving as an assistant lawyer representing one of the families of disappeared’s petitioners in the Navatkuli Habeus Corpus case, which is currently being heard in the Jaffna courts. The case relates to the disappearance of over two dozen Tamil youths in 1996, who were disappeared after being detained by the Sri Lankan army.

She had previously been warned by an unidentified person not to get involved in the case. Others involved in probing the disappearances have also been subject to intimidation in the past few months.

While hospital police recorded the incident as an assault, the Vaddukoddai police refused to accept the complaint saying she had fainted. 

No justice for killings of 17 aid workers in 2006

Twelve years after 17 aid workers with the French NGO Action Contre la Faim (ACF) were killed, no has been held accountable for the crimes against them. On 4th August 2006, Sri Lankan troops allegedly lined up and summarily executed 17 aid workers from ACF in Muttur. Sixteen of the aid workers were Tamil and one Muslim.

In 2013, ACF stated they had collected information revealing that the 17 humanitarian aid workers were likely assassinated by members of Sri Lankan security forces and the crime had been covered up by Sri Lankan top authorities

As staff marked twelve years since the massacre, the organisation said:

"Today all our thoughts are with the families of the victims… twelve years ago, men and women, humanitarian workers, were executed. We don't forget them. Nor do we forget that justice has still not been given…we demand always, justice for Muttur." 
Threatened Sri Lankan priest wins rights prize 

In June 2018, Father Nandana Manatunga was awarded the 2018 Gwangiu Prize for Human Rights by Korea's May 18 Memorial Foundation for his humanitarian efforts.

Father Manatunga Father Manatunga is the director of the Human Rights Office (HRO) in Kandy and has worked with families of political prisoners as well as victims of torture, rape and other abuses. He has visited police stations and army camps seeking justice for the families of ethnic Tamils who disappeared after being taken into military custody. He has also helped locate the remains of victims, including bodies that had been burned in public places. Because of his work he has faced threats from the police and others.

For 14 years, Father Manatunga pursued the case of Jesudasan Rita, who was abducted and raped in 2001 at the age of 17. She had been on her way home from church in Talawakela. Father Manatunga assisted Rita to secure an landmark judgment in 2016 when two men were each sentenced to 23 years' imprisonment.

Peaceful Assembly

500 days of protest by families of the disappeared

29th June 2018 marked 500 days since families of the disappeared from Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Maruthankerny, and Trincomalee began their campaign in February 2017 to obtain answers about the fate of their loved ones in the final stages of the civil war in 2009 and its aftermath. The protesting families, led largely by women, have endured considerable physical, emotional and financial difficulties since the protests began in February 2017, as well as intimidation at the hands of state security personnel.

Among the demands from the families include face-to-face meetings with Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, the investigation and release of a list of all secret detention centres, the publication of a list of all detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (since 1978), and the release of records of all those who had surrendered to the Sri Lankan armed forces at the end of the conflict. On 14th July, the families sent a letter to the President reiterating their demands.

Families protest outside meetings with Office for Missing Persons (OMP)

On 2nd June 2018, families of the disappeared from Mullaitivu boycotted a meeting with the Office for Missing Persons (OMP), and instead staged a protest outside the meeting which was held at the Mullaitivu District Secretariat.

Officers of the OMP who spoke to the families, failed to convince them to abandon the protest and join the meeting. The protestors said they had no faith in the OMP and that they believed it would not achieve anything such as several Sri Lankan commissions at which they had testified before.

In order to gain their trust, the protestors challenged the OMP officers to produce the list of surrendered detainees from the end of the war, which had previously been promised by President Sirisena, but never materialised.

On 13th and 14th June 2018, families of the disappeared also protested at the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) hearing in Jaffna saying they have no faith in the commission. A significant presence of intelligence officers was reported at the protest and meeting. Reports allege Sri Lankan intelligence operatives were seen taking photographs and noting down information about the protesters.

On 15th June 2018, there were similar protests outside the Office on Missing Persons in Kilinochchi as families of the disappeared demanded an international investigation into the whereabouts of their missing loved ones. Mothers cried in front of OMP officials as they held out photographs of their missing children. "We have no trust in this mechanism," one mother cried. 

On 5th August 2018, it was reported the Office of Missing Persons would to step in to fund the excavations of a suspected mass grave site in Mannar “as long as necessary." The move would be the first major step by the permanent office to investigate and trace disappeared people in Sri Lanka in accordance with its mandate. The site has so far revealed the skeletal remains of 62 people.