Thousands of Tamil people were arrested, several disappeared - AI

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Amnesty
| Date: 19980600

Thousands of Tamil people were arrested, including scores of possible prisoners of conscience. Torture and ill-treatment in army and police custody were widespread. Approximately 80 Tamil civilians were reported to have “disappeared”. There were several reports of alleged extrajudicial executions. Three detainees were killed in prison. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed opposition group, was responsible for grave human rights abuses, including the killing of two members of parliament.

Armed conflict between the LTTE and the government continued. Hundreds of combatants died in heavy fighting during an army offensive started in May to open a land supply route to the northern peninsula of Jaffna through the “Vanni”, an area largely controlled by the LTTE. Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the fighting.

In July the state of emergency, which had been in force throughout the country, was confined to the north and east, and to the capital, Colombo, and surrounding areas. In August, September and October, it was further extended to several areas bordering the north and east.

In March members of the newly-created Human Rights Commission (HRC) were appointed. The functions of the Human Rights Task Force (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 to 1997) were transferred to the HRC from July onwards.

In October Sri Lanka ratified the (first) Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions visited the country, including the north and east, in September.

The three commissions of inquiry established in late 1994 to look into past human rights violations, particularly “disappearances”, (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 to 1997) presented their final reports to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in September. They had reportedly found evidence of 16,742 “disappearances” since 1 January 1988. The government announced it would make the reports public and initiate legal proceedings in those cases where the commissions found prima facie evidence against members of the security forces.

A Board of Investigation, set up in late 1996 within the Ministry of Defence to investigate “disappearances” reported in Jaffna, received complaints concerning 760 people. Of these, 180 were found to be in detention or to have been released; the others remained unaccounted for at the end of the year.

In July the President reissued directives, initially introduced in 1995, aimed at safeguarding the welfare of detainees. Among the provisions were requirements to issue “arrest receipts” and to report all arrests and detentions to the HRC within 48 hours (see Amnesty International Reports 1996 and 1997).

Thousands of Tamil people, including scores of possible prisoners of conscience, were arrested during security operations in all parts of the country. According to official figures, 8,652 people were arrested in Colombo alone between July 1996 and July 1997. After an attack on the World Trade Centre in Colombo in October, apparently by the LTTE, 965 Tamil people were arrested, including 139 women. Approximately 50 of them were detained for further investigation. At the end of the year, an estimated 1,200 people were detained without charge or trial under the Emergency Regulations or Prevention of Terrorism Act, of whom 400 had been held for more than two years. The security forces also held relatives of LTTE members as hostages in order to put pressure on LTTE suspects to give themselves up. Sinnathamby Kanmany, whose daughter was suspected of being an LTTE member, was arrested in March in Vavuniya and held without charge or trial for four months by the Crime Detection Bureau in Colombo. She was finally released in July on the order of the Supreme Court.

Full implementation of safeguards for the welfare of detainees remained a concern. There were reports of the use of unauthorized places of detention, particularly in the north and east but also in Colombo. Some of them were run by Tamil armed groups fighting alongside the security forces.

Torture and ill-treatment in army and police custody were widespread. Kumaru Selvaratnam was arrested in March on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE. During the first eight days of his detention at Slave Island police station in Colombo, he was assaulted with a broomstick. He suffered injury to the testicles as a result of which they had to be surgically removed. In Jaffna, torture was widespread. Methods included near-suffocation with plastic bags filled with petrol; beatings with wire and plastic pipes; electric shocks; and suspension by the thumbs or ankles. The Supreme Court awarded compensation to a 14-year-old girl who had been tortured by police in Hungama in 1995. No prosecutions were initiated under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act (see Amnesty International Report 1995).

There were several allegations of rape by members of the security forces, particularly in the north and east. In March Velan Rasamma, a widow, and her sister, Velan Vasantha, were reportedly raped by four soldiers in Mayilampaveli Colony, Batticaloa district. The soldiers allegedly involved were arrested, but later released after the women failed to identify them at an identification parade, apparently because of fear of reprisals.

Approximately 80 Tamil civilians reportedly “disappeared” after arrest by the army, most in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Mannar and Killinochchi. Further evidence emerged about approximately 600 “disappearances” reported in Jaffna in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997). As many as 190 “disappearances” were reported in July 1996 alone, apparently in reprisal for attacks by the LTTE at the beginning of that month. Among those who “disappeared” during 1997 in Batticaloa were Somanadan Dharmalingam, a village headman, and Perinpam Prabaharan, who were last seen talking to soldiers at the Sittandy army camp in September. Despite appeals to the Deputy Minister of Defence, their fate and whereabouts remained unknown at the end of the year.

There were several reports of alleged extrajudicial executions, particularly in Vavuniya and the “Vanni”, where internally displaced people trying to return to their homes were killed by the army. In September the bodies of the Reverend Arulpalan and two labourers, Joseph and his 16-year-old son Surendran, were found in Shalom Nagar, their home village, in the security zone around Killinochchi town. They had “disappeared” after they were seen being arrested by soldiers when they went to cut some palmyrah leaves in August. According to reports, the Reverend Arulpalan had been shot in the head and Surendran's head had reportedly been severed and placed between his legs. The army denied responsibility for the killings and blamed the LTTE. In Vavuniya members of the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, an armed Tamil group working alongside the security forces, were suspected of being responsible for the deliberate killing of several civilians, including internally displaced people. Murugesupillai Koneswary was killed when police officers attached to the Central Camp police station in Batticaloa district allegedly threw a grenade at her genitals. In September police officers from the Central Camp area, together with Home Guards, were accused of the deliberate killing of five civilians in reprisal for the killing of a constable by the LTTE the previous day.

One Muslim and two Tamil detainees were killed at Kalutara prison in December by a group of Sinhalese criminal prisoners in an apparently premeditated attack. There were reports that prison staff and army personnel failed to take measures to protect the detainees, and that some were actively involved in the attack. A presidential commission of inquiry was appointed to investigate the killings.

Police officers charged with murdering 12 prisoners in Nittambuwa, Gampaha district, in 1990 (see Amnesty International Reports 1991, 1992 and 1996) were acquitted in April owing to lack of evidence. The trial of nine soldiers charged with the rape and murder of Krishanthy Kumarasamy and the murder of her mother, brother and neighbour in 1996 started in November (see Amnesty International Report 1997). Little progress was reported in the inquiries into the deaths of people whose bodies were found during exhumations in 1994, or those found in lakes and rivers around Colombo in mid-1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1996). Three police officers were charged with the abduction and murder of Richard de Zoysa in February 1990 (see Amnesty International Reports 1991 and 1992).

The trial of a school principal and eight army personnel charged in connection with the “disappearance” of a group of young people at Embilipitiya in late 1989 and early 1990 continued throughout the year (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 to 1997).

The LTTE was responsible for grave human rights abuses, including the killing of two members of parliament _ Arunasalam Thangathurai of the Tamil United Liberation Front and Mohamed Maharoof of the United National Party _ in the Trincomalee area in July. At least nine civilians were killed in an attack on the World Trade Centre in Colombo in October. In Jaffna several people were detained and killed on suspicion of being army informants. In June Kugathasan Sritharan, a farmer from Udupiddy, Jaffna, was shot dead and a hand grenade was thrown at his body. A leaflet left on his body stated that he had been punished by the LTTE because he was an army informant.

The LTTE was also responsible for taking hostages. In July, 35 Muslim and four Sinhalese villagers from Irakkakandy, Trincomalee district, were abducted by members of the LTTE. When villagers made representations to the local LTTE leader, they were told to negotiate with the army for the release of five members of the LTTE who had been handed over to the army by local residents. All the villagers had been released by the end of November. Nine crew members of the passenger ferry Misen were taken prisoner in July off the coast of Mannar district. Two Indonesian nationals were released after a few days, but seven Sri Lankans remained held at the end of the year. They had not been given access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) nor had they been allowed to communicate with their relatives. The LTTE stated that they were being held because the ship was “trespassing within Tamil Eelam's maritime limits”. The fate of several prisoners of conscience and Tamil and Muslim prisoners held for several years remained unclarified.

In August an Amnesty International delegation visited the country, including Jaffna, and met with government officials. This was the first visit to Jaffna by the organization since 1982. An Amnesty International delegation met President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, in October.

In November Amnesty International published a report, Sri Lanka: Government's response to the widespread “disappearances” in Jaffna during 1996. It acknowledged the action taken by the government to curb “disappearances” in Jaffna but pointed to the need to address underlying structures and practices in the security forces. Throughout the year, Amnesty International called for a halt to “disappearances” and other human rights violations; for the prosecution of alleged perpetrators; and for a review of the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It also urged the government to establish an independent inquiry into the killing of three detainees at Kalutara prison.

Amnesty International appealed to the leadership of the LTTE for the unconditional release of hostages and for all prisoners to be given immediate access to the ICRC, to be treated humanely and to be given the opportunity to communicate with their relatives. The organization also appealed for a halt to deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians. In May, it asked for information about nine members of the security forces taken prisoner by the LTTE in the course of armed confrontations and feared to have been deliberately killed in custody. No response was received to a memorandum setting out longstanding concerns about human rights abuses by the LTTE submitted in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997).