Jaffna’s displaced residents, challenge HSZ in Supreme Court

By: J. S. Tissainayagam - Human rights

In what portends to be a landmark case in the annals of Sri Lankan judicial history, three petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s right to forbid residents from reoccupying their lands and homes in the high security zone (HSZ) in North Valikamam, Jaffna.

When the fundamental rights petitions came up in court on 19 January, Chief Justice Sarath N. Sila said, “The army should at least allow cultivation even if no permanent structures come up.” He ordered the attorney general, to furnish court with all relevant documentation on the HSZ.The petitioners are residents of villages encompassed by the HSZ. One is an ex-member of parliament of the dissolved parliament, Mavai Senathirajah, who represents the TNA, while the other two are farmers, Sinnappu Sivagnanasambanthar and Vallipuram Rajadurai.

The petitioners have cited head of state and commander-in-chief, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe, and army commander Major General Lionel Balagalle among the respondents. The petitioners accuse the army of preventing them from occupying their homes and of “arbitrarily, illegally, unlawfully and unreasonably,” debarring them from earning a living.

They have also submitted the army has violated of their right to “to equality, freedom to engage in a lawful occupation, freedom of movement and right to choose a residence in Sri Lanka.”

The HSZ is purportedly to defend the military’s biggest base in the Northeast – Palaly.

According to a submission made by the NGO Home for Human Rights in October 2002 to the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the Sri Lankan state created the HSZ by evicting through coercive means, 20,917 families.

The submission states the evictions were “without grounds permitted under international law,” and those evicted “have been subjected to gross human rights violations and continue to suffer from severe deprivation, hardship and discrimination as a consequence.”

The submission states the illegal evictions engineered by successive governments between 1983 and 1993 were “by constant shelling and air raids on the villages on all four sides of the camp, mostly during the night.”

In 1996, the government “declared the area comprising 30 villages within the (Valikamam North) Division to be part of a High Security Zone and thereby denied the inhabitants of these areas the right to return or to resettle in those villages.” The move was consolidated in June 1999 by the government acquiring under the Land Acquisition Act 397 allotments of land in the HSZ ‘‘for a public purpose.’’ “After the eviction was complete, the army moved in to occupy the deserted villages. They occupied the lands and premises, ransacked the houses, schools and places of worship and took over whatever they wanted and either destroyed or burned what remained,” the submission continues.

Petitioner Senathirajah’s first communication with the government requesting permission to resettle in his village was in September 1999 when he wrote to the chairman, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Authority of the North (RRAN). Though his letter was forwarded to the army commander, the officer did not even care to reply, says Senathirajah in his submissions.

The next episode was delayed till the ceasefire between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was signed in February 2002. Since the ceasefire, which was to restore normalcy in the erstwhile war-torn northeast of the country, Senathirajah wrote to the ministry of defence (MoD) in September that year requesting that he not be denied the right to live in his own village.

Army headquarters replied Senathirajah’s queries in a terse, ‘‘…the request made … cannot be accommodated since the house concerned is located within the Palaly High Security Zone.’’

Senathirajah contests the existence of any legally defined HSZ in the Valikamam area. In his affidavit he states that except a gazette notification of 8 July 2003 declaring President’s House in Colombo and its environs a HSZ, there is nothing else answering that description. “None of the said notifications relate to the Valikamam area…” he insists.

Senathirajah’s petition also states, “…the Army is preventing thousands of residents from resettling from the Valikamam area, which is easily the most fertile land for agriculture in the whole … Jaffna Peninsula.’’ “People of Valigamam are deprived of their right to food for years. This is on top of their displacement,” complains Francis Xavier, director, Home for Homan Rights.

Among the “people of Valigamam” are the other two petitioners. Sivagnanasambanthar’s petition states he was forcibly evicted from his land in 1992 due to air force and army operations. With the ceasefire he had visited his village within the HSZ after obtaining permission from the army. He found only the walls of his house remained and his farm had turned into a shrub jungle.

In his affidavit Sivagnanasambanthar says, “…while I was in the compound … about 4 or 5 army personnel came … and informed I could not clear the compound and ordered me to leave stating that nobody in the area will be permitted to resettle.”

Despite Sivagnanasambanthar writing a letter to the MoD requesting the army allows him to clean his land and live in his house, which was forwarded to the army commander, no reply has been received to date.

Sivagnanasambanthar is a good example of the displaced due to the HSZ. He and his family have lived in five different places as an internally displaced person after eviction in 1992. Since he had lost his livelihood he and his family live on government handouts worth Rs.1260 per month. He has no other house except that which lies in ruins in Valikamam.

When the petitions came up end January, the attorney general’s department was unable to provide documents stating the Valikamam area could be legally defined as a HSZ. The AG’s department however said the state would consent to the petitioners cultivating land that fell within the zone. Court on the other hand held the view that permitting cultivation was insufficient since the petitioners had asked they be allowed to live in their homes within the zone, which would also be practically necessary if they had to resume farming.

The verdict of the Supreme Court bench will determine if the future of the vast swathe of land will remain uninhabitable because the military believes it is required for the security of the Palaly base, or whether systematic resettlement could resume.

“The people of Valigamam expect justice even if it is late in coming,” says Xavier.

The determination could either lead to dismantling of the HSZ, or provide an avenue to seek the jurisdiction of an international organisation such as the UN, since all domestic remedies would have been exhausted.

(This is a slightly rewritten version of an article that appeared on IPS by the same author)

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