Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

The abduction, assault, arrest and defamation of the Sudar Oli Editor: Questions for the Sri Lankan Government

The police informed courts they have no charges against Mr. Vithyatharan the Editor of both Sudar Oli and Uthayan news papers, after detaining him for two months. On 24th of April, he was acquitted by Courts. He was taken in for investigations by the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) in relation to the suicide air attacks by the two LTTE aircraft that flew into Colombo and was questioned on the telephone calls taken by him that night.

His family members told me, he was treated fairly well by the CCD police officers who took him into custody. They also believed he would be released in another day or two, as investigations were over within about a week from detaining. But the Defense Ministry issued a 90 day detention order and he was under custody without release.

On 25th February 2009, a group that included three police officers in uniform, attacked Vithayatharan and Saravanapavan the publisher of the Sudar Oli news paper while they were attending a family funeral and abducted Vithyatharan. The three in uniform intervened in the abduction when others in civvies could not effect the abduction. Till then they were in the vehicle. No notice of arrest was handed over to any of the family members, though it is required by law to do so.

Lies and cover-up
The Police Media spokesman who made a statement at that moment, accepted it was an abduction, but denied the police was involved. But with national and international pressure building up, the Police Media spokesman changed course and said Vithyatharan is under detention. He was with the CCD and he had been seriously assaulted. On 26th February, the Media Minister at a press briefing said, Vithyatharan had not been abducted, but had been legally arrested and detained.

Pro-Government media complicity and defamation
On the same day, a Sinhala news paper that supports the government on its war, noted in its editorial thus. “The editor of the Sudar-oli, S. Vithyatharan had been arrested. Earlier the news was that he was abducted. But later he was found in a police cell. Abductions are illegal and arrests are legal. A group that had come in a white van had abducted him, assaulted and dropped him off some where in Dematagoda. There seems to be no connection between this abduction and the arrest. The assault could be over a different issue. The arrest could be on a different issue.” It would be hugely fascinating know the basis on which this Editor came to such conclusion. One thing is clear. This editor is trying to save the police from charges of unlawful assault, without facts and evidence. Journalists with some interest on media ethics, should read this editorial.

Due process delayed and as an afterthought
After about three weeks from his arrest, the CCD produced Vithyatharan in Courts, on 18th March. They had an explanation as to how they arrested him. They told Courts he was found some where in Dematagoda, dropped off by some group that had abducted him. As they (CCD) were searching for him for questioning, he was detained (Not at all a joke, though the Court accepted that explanation).

The Police thus accepted there had been an abduction committed.

An omniscient and offensive Defense Secretary
Before the investigations were over and before Vithyatharan was produced in Courts, the Defense Secretary had this to say in a very agitated voice on international television. “Vithyatharan is a terrorist. If you try to safeguard him, you will have blood in your hands. He is the person who coordinated LTTE air attacks in Colombo.” (Interview with Australian SBS TV channel on February 26 2009)

Vithyatharan has filed a fundamental rights petition with the Supreme Courts against his detention. In that petition he pleads, “The suspicion was based on the phone calls I made to my sister and brother in law in France, on the day of the LTTE air attack. The Defense Secretary calling me a “terrorist” has defamed my character. As I was assaulted after arrest, I was treated at the national hospital.”

If the government respects democracy and public good, there are a few questions the government would have to answer now.

  • Does the government accept the explanation given by the police on the abduction of Sudar-oli editor Vithyatharan from Mt. Lavinia on 26th February around 10am? If so, how was that there were three persons in police uniform in that group?
  • The abduction was immediately brought to the notice of the police and the authorities in government. Yet the white van safely ran through all security checks in Colombo city to reach Dematagoda as told to Courts by the CCD. Would it have been possible for this white van to pass through all the security checks up to Dematagoda without State support?
  • What police reports were taken to consideration when the police media spokesman announced around 02.00 pm the same day that Vithyatharan was not abducted, but was arrested by the police ?
  • Is it because Vithyatharan was to be bumped off that those who abducted him did not provide a notice to the effect and he was assaulted without fear ? Wasn’t he saved because of national and international pressure ?
  • Isn’t it surprising that Vithyatharan was dropped off in Dematagoda, where the CCD is also located, which says they were going to question him ? Was it because there were some communication with those who abducted him ?
  • What was the evidence the Defense Secretary had to call Vithyatharan a terrorist when speaking to an international media? Isn’t it against law for the highest public officer in the defenses establishment to say so, even before investigations were over or begun as noted earlier in this article? (In fact, even before the issue whether V. was abducted or arrested was really cleared. The SBS journalist tells Gotabaya Rajapakse that he heard Vithyatharan was abducted on his way to the interview.)
  • Now that the police had told the Courts they have no charges against Vithyatharan, will the Defense Secretary retract his earlier statement ?

The abduction of Vithyatharan, assaulting him, the subsequent contradictory statements by the police Media Spokesman, the Media Minister’s statement, the Defense Secretary’s statement, the pro-government editorial on 28th February 2009 and finally the release of Vithyatharan without any charge is no comedy of errors but the reality of what those with independent views in the media have to face in Sri Lanka. There will be no investigations into any of those incidents. No investigation into his abduction, on assaults or defaming statements.

It is very evident the government has taken for granted that the Sinhala polity which is head over heals with its war, also provides a license to demolish democracy and human rights.

We are perhaps going through the hardest and the most savage crackdown faced by democratic and human rights movements in Sri Lanka and would ever face for a long time to come.