On December 10th 2011, a group of 42 HRDs and political activists from the South of Sri Lanka were detained by police in the Northern town of Jaffna and prevented from attending a protest to mark international human rights day in Jaffna. Events to mark Human Rights Day including protests in other parts of Sri Lanka such as in Colombo, Kandy and Kurunegela were allowed to take place without disruption. However in Jaffna the police detained HRDs travelling to the protest and also attempted to disperse those gathered at the main protest venue in Jaffna town.
This is the second major protest organized in Jaffna in recent years following the protest organized by the Free Media Movement against the attack on Uthayan News Editor G. Kuganathan in August 2011. This protest was also held amid tight security controls and the police attempted to disrupt the protest.
The protest on December 10th 2011 was organized by a collective of civil society groups and activists including Right to Life, International Movement against Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), Committee to Investigate Disappearances (CID), families of the disappeared and political parties including the Tamil National Alliance, Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), the Socialist Party, and Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Maoist) to highlight key human rights issues and ongoing violations particularly in the North of Sri Lanka.
42 political activists and HRDs from the South, including NSSP party members, members of the Committee to Investigate Disappearences (CID), political activists from the Communist Party (Maoist), Socialist Party and journalists and members of the fisherman’s association travelled to Jaffna in a bus from Colombo and other parts of the country to join the protest.
Mr. Sivajilingam a former Member of Parliament representing the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which won about 2/3rd of the vote from the North and East during the local authority elections in March 2011, said that on the day of the protest there was unusually heavy security and military presence in Jaffna town. He explained that all buses entering Jaffna town were being checked by police, riot police were seen on the streets and army officers were seen inside the Jaffna police station. For around a week before the protest, several local newspapers in Jaffna including Uthayan and Thinakural publicized the protest organized by leading civil society groups and political parties to mark human rights day in Jaffna.
Bus carrying HRDs Stopped at Navathkuli
At around 9.00 am the bus carrying the HRDs was stopped at a police sentry point in Navathkuli, an entry point to Jaffna Town, around 8 km South of Jaffna on the A9 road.
A policeman entered the bus and seized a copy of Puthiya Samathanamam, a Tamil newspaper published by the NSSP. Although none of the police officers at the sentry point spoke Tamil and appeared not to be able to read Tamil, they claimed that the newspaper was illegal and contained anti-government material. NSSP members explained that the newspaper was a registered legal publication that had been published since 1996. Following a brief argument the police purchased a copy of the paper and allowed the bus to proceed at around 9.45 am. Mr. Janagan, treasurer of the CID and editor of Puthiya Samathanamam, believes that the police may have informed the authorities in Jaffna that the group was travelling to Jaffna.
HRDs Detained at Vembaddi Junction
The group reached Jaffna and after a brief rest proceeded to the Central Bus Stand where the main protest had been organized. At around 10.30 am the group was stopped by around 20 police officers led by a Sub Inspector at the Vembaddi Junction opposite the Nurses Training College (NTC) in Jaffna town.
Mr. Sundram Mahendran, Secretary of CID, states that the police ordered the group to get down from the bus and searched them. The police searched the bus and confiscated material worth around Rs.30000 including; 99 copies of Puthiya Samathanamam, around 500-600 leaflets calling for investigations into disappearences, several placards and posters including photographs of disappeared persons, and two banners of the NSSP and the CID. The materials were thrown out of the bus and later loaded into a police vehicle. No receipt was given for the material confiscated by the police.
The group was detained on the road opposite the NTC and surrounded by around 15 policemen. Later around 10 armed army officers joined the police cordon. No one was allowed to leave the place and the police refused to allow anyone to attend the protest despite pleas from leaders of the group and an appeal by TNA parliamentarian Mr. Mavai Senthathirajah, who arrived at the scene shortly after.
No reason or justification was given for this treatment. The police told the group that a protest could not take place in Jaffna without prior police permission. Members of the group argued that no police permission was required for a peaceful protest which did not harm or disturb the public. The police also said that any gathering of more than five people could not be held without police permission and that any member of the group who tried to leave the place they were being detained, would be remanded.
The group of HRDs was held on the road for over 2 ½ hours until they were released at 12.45 pm. They tied handkerchiefs over their mouths and sat on the road in protest against their unfair treatment. According to Mr. Ranath Kumarasinghe, politburo member of the NSSP, the main purpose of their detention was to prevent the HRDs from joining the protest at any cost.
The SI and an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) who was present at the scene, accused the HRDs of trying to provoke ethnic tensions and undoing what the military had achieved after years of struggle against terrorism. He said that they would be answerable to the nation for their actions.
Attack on Women Protesters
Despite the police cordon, Mr. Janagan, Mr. Mahendran and Mr. Ranath Kumarasinghe were able to escape the police and joined the protest at the central bus stand.
When Mr. Mahendran reached the protest venue he saw that there was a scene of unrest and arguments between the protesters and the police who were trying to disperse the protest. He was told that several activists were forced to leave the venue by the police who threatened to hit those who remained. Mr. Mahendran and Mr. Janagan joined the protest and informed those present that the group of HRDs and activists from the South had been detained by the police at the Vembaddi Junction. They suggested that the protest be shifted to where the group was being held.
As Mr. Mahendran, Mr. Sivajilingam and former TNA MP Mr. S. Gajendran attempted to lead the group of protesters towards Vembaddi Junction, the police the group comprised mainly of mothers and families of the disappeared. Mr. Mahendran saw the police hit and push some women to the ground. The police formed a cordon around the women and prevented them from leaving the area. Following this, Mr. Mahendran and the TNA leaders were forced to return to the protest at the central bus stand. Mr. Janagan went back to where the HRDs were being held at Vembaddi Junction.
The protest at the central bus stand continued, despite police controls and attempts to disperse or disrupt the protest. TNA MPs Appapillai Vinayakamoorthi, Mavai Senthathirajah and former MP S. Gajendran and Mr. Sivajilingam and several HRDS and groups from the North including mothers and families of the disappeared attended the protest. They were crowded into a small space of around 20 yards by police who prevented the protest from expanding. They were determined to continue the protest until the HRDs were released and threatened to sleep on the road in protest if the HRDs were not released immediately.
Altercation with the Police
At the protest, Mr. Ranath Kumarasinghe and Mr. Sivajilingam informed the Head Quarters Inspector (HQI) of the Jaffna Police that a group of HRDs were being detained and prevented from attending the protest. The HQI asked for their identity cards and Mr. Kumarasinghe produced his media ID card. The HQI flung the card in his face. When Mr. Sivajilingam protested against his treatment of a senior journalist, the HQI scolded Mr. Sivajilingam and told him not to get involved in matters that don’t concern him. Following a heated argument with Mr. Sivajilingam the HQI later spoke to Mr. Kumarasinghe and promised to release the group. The HQI ordered a police sergeant to call the SI at the Vembaddi junction and ordered him to release the group of HRDs and allow them to join the protest in pairs.
Following this, Mr. Kumarasinghe was surrounded by media persons who wanted information on the incident. While Mr. Kumarasinshe was talking to the media, the HQI rushed up to him and shouted at him for talking to the press. He pushed Mr. Kumarasinghe and ordered him to leave the protest.
Mr. Kumarasinshe returned to Vembaddi Junction expecting the group to be released based on the HQI’s orders. However, the SI refused to release the group and claimed that he had not received any such orders. Although Mr. Kumarasinghe insisted that the HQI had given orders for the group to be released and that he had seen the sergeant making the call to the SI, the police refused to release the group.
Since the SI refused to release the group Mr. Kumarasinghe returned to the protest at the central bus stand in order to speak with the HQI. There was increased police presence the protest by this point and he was not permitted to rejoin the protest. Mr. Kumarasinghe noticed that there were a larger number of Tamil policemen present by this time. By the time he reached the protest he was told that the HQI had gone to Vembaddi Junction and that the HRDs would be released shortly.
The HRDs were released at around 12.45 pm by the HQI and allowed to join the protest in pairs. As they were leaving Vembaddi Junction, Mr. Gunasena Wijesinghe President of the CID, heard the ASP say in Sinhala that ‘Vawulage gedera avanang, elila inna onne’ meaning that when you come to our area you must behave in a manner that is suitable to us. He also told the group that ‘this is not Colombo, this is Jaffna’.
The HRDs joined the protest at around 1 pm and continued the protest for around 45 minutes. Following the protest they held a short meeting to discuss the incident and left Jaffna at around 2.30 pm and returned to Colombo the same night.
Shortly before they left Jaffna, Mr. Mahendran spoke to an Inspector of Police who was at the bus stand and asked him whether they could recover the materials that had been confiscated by the police in the morning. The Inspector scolded Mr. Mahendran and told him that they should consider themselves fortunate that had not been killed and asked him to get out of that place.
On 12th December 2011, civil society groups organized a protest in Colombo against the illegal detention and harassment and intimidation of the HRDs and political activists by police in Jaffna.
On 13th December 2011, Mr. Mahindran from the CID, Mr. Ajith Rupesignhe from the Communist Party (Maoist), Mr. Mahinda Devage from the Socialist Party and Janaka Silva, Mr. Janagan and Perumal Koominathanan from the NSSP filed a complaint with the Inspector General of Police against the treatment by the police and asked the IGP to conduct an inquiry into the incident and to return the confiscated materials, particularly the photographs of disappeared persons to the group. The Officer in Charge of the Special Investigation Unit recorded the complaint told the group that he had informed the IGP by telephone and obtained a special order from the IGP to the area Deputy Inspector General of Police to inquiry into the incident. The same group also plan to complaint to the National Human Rights Commission regarding the incident on 17th December 2011.