DISAPPEARANCE OF HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS & POLITICAL ACTIVISTS LALITH KUMAR WEERARAJ AND KUGAN MURUGAN ON 9TH DECEMBER 2011
Two Sri Lankan human rights defenders and political activists disappeared in Jaffna in the North of Sri Lank on 9th December 2011. There is still no credible news of their whereabouts and human rights groups have voiced serious concerns about their safety. Mr. Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Mr. Kugan Muruganandan were last seen by relatives, leaving Mr. Muruganandan’s house at Avarangal Jaffna, at 5 pm on 9th December. They have not been seen since.
Shortly before their disappearance Mr. Weeraraj and Mr. Muruganandan had been organizing a press conference to be held in Jaffna on 10th December, international human rights day. On 10th December, a group of HRDs from the South who were travelling to Jaffna to attend a peaceful protest to mark human rights day were stopped for several hours by the police and prevented from attending the protest. (Detailed report available at http://groundviews.org/2011/12/14/42-political-activists-and-hrds-detained-and-prevented-from-participating-in-peaceful-protest-in-jaffna-town-on-human-rights-day/)
Background of the Two HRDs
Mr. Lalith Kumar Weeraraj is a political activist and human rights defender who has worked extensively in the North and East of Sri Lanka. He is the Jaffna Coordinator of the Movement for People’s Struggle (MPS) (Jana Aragala Wiyapaaraya) launched by a dissident faction of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), a mainstream opposition party in Sri Lanka represented in Parliament. The movement aims at mobilizing people against state repression, human rights violations against the Tamil minority and the problems faced by IDPs in the North. MPS launched their campaign at a meeting at the Hyde Park grounds in Colombo on 13th December 2011, where they also held a protest calling for the immediate release of the missing activists.
Mr. Weeraraj is also an Executive Committee member of ‘We Are Sri Lankans’ (WESL), a university student based organization aimed promoting and protecting the rights of the Tamil people in order to build national harmony and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Mr. Weeraraj has campaigned for the release of Tamil political prisoners and detainees and against human rights violations and repression of HRDs and civilians in the North. He also worked closely with IDPs calling for better infrastructure and livelihood opportunities for resettled or relocated IDPs in the North.
Mr. Weeraraj has worked extensively on the issue of disappearences in the North and East. He helped set up committees of Families of the Disappeared in the Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya, Killinochchi and Jaffna Districts. He was the main organizer of the protest campaigns with families of the disappeared in Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Killinochchi, Colombo and Jaffna between May and November 2011. The last protest in Jaffna was held on 29th November 2011. Mr. Weeraraja has recently visited several places of detention including the Bossa Detention Center in the South and the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) Head Quarters in Colombo, the Welikada Prison in the Colombo district and military camps in search of disappeared persons. Through his efforts he was able to locate two persons who were being held at the Boossa Detention Center and the TID Head Quarters.
Mr. Muruganandan is a close associate of Mr. Weeraraj and has been involved in organizing several protests and campaigns against human rights violations including events with the families of the disappeared. Mr. Muruganandan assisted Mr. Weeraraj in his work for the Movement for People’s Struggle and the WESL. He assisted in their work on disappearances and against unlawful detentions and contributed through his own resources and local contacts towards the movements activities in Jaffna. Both men were organizing a press conference on 10th December 2011 to publicize the protest by the Movement for People’s Struggle in Colombo on 13th December 2011, when they disappeared.
Previous Threats and Attacks
Mr. Weeraraj has faced repeated threats, intimidation and attacks by the military and police in the North due to his human rights work and campaigns. He has been warned on several occasions to stop doing human rights work in the North, particularly work on enforced disappearences and arbitrary detention, which the military considered to be anti-government or political activities.
On 25th March 2011, Mr. Weeraraj was putting up posters in Mannar town, calling on the Government to provide information on disappeared persons, when he was abducted by a group of men who claimed to be army officers. Mr. Weeraraj was blindfolded and held overnight, believed to be in an army barrack. The men threatened Mr. Weeraraj and questioned him about his work. The following morning, Mr. Weeraraj was blindfolded and brought back to Pesalai Junction in Mannar and released. Although he tried to lodge a complaint with the Mannar police regarding the abduction, the police refused to record his complaint on the ground he was unable to identify the persons responsible.
On around 10th April 2011, Mr. Weeraraj and a friend were arrested by the Vavuniya Police while they were putting up posters in Vavuniya about disappearences in the North. The police tore the posters and threatened to shoot Mr. Weeraraj if he tried to put up posters in Vavuniya again.
On 23rd June 2011, Mr. Weeraraj had travelled to Killinochchi to organize a protest for WESL when he and a friend were abducted by officers from the Killinochchi (Depo Junction) Army Camp and held in an abandoned ice-cream factory, behind the army camp, and interrogated for around 6 hours before being released. The military forcibly took a photograph of Mr. Weeraraj before releasing him.
On 14th November 2011, Mr. Weeraraj, along with other activists, was severely beaten by a group of unidentified thugs at a protest with families of the disappeared in Jaffna, opposite the Jaffna town bus stand at around 11.00 am. The attack took place in full view of the police and the army who failed to intervene and stop the violence. Mr. Weeraj and several others ran into the house of former parliamentarian Ms. Padmini Sithambaranadan for their safety. The gang followed them into the house and locked Mr. Weeraraj in a room and beat him severely. Mr. Weeraja was badly injured in the attack. A complaint regarding the incident was filed with the Jaffna Police Station the same day. However no action has been taken to date.
Disappearance on 9th December 2011
Mr. Weeraraj travelled to Jaffna on 9th December to organize a press conference for the MPS in Jaffna the following day (international human rights day). Mr. Weeraraja and Mr. Muruganandan were last seen by relatives, leaving Mr. Muruganandan’s house at Avarangal Jaffna on Mr. Muruganandan’ motorbike (license no NP GT 7852) at around 5.00pm (Sri Lankan time) on 9th December. Both men have been missing since then and there is no information regarding their fate or whereabouts to date.
At around 11.00 pm on 9th December, Mr. Weeraraj’s father received a number of threatening phone calls on his mobile phone (no.+94711879124). The callers threatened to kill Mr. Weeraraja and warned that “either you remove your son from Jaffna or we will do it for you”. Mr. Weeraraj’s father filed a complaint regarding the threatening calls with the Kosgama Police Station (Colombo District) on 11th December 2011 (CIB 94/133).
Complaints/Action by Family and Civil Society Groups
Mr. Kugan Muruganadan’s family filed a complaint with the Achchuweli Police Station (Jaffna District) on 10th December 2011. They were not given a complaint number by the police. Mr. Weeraraj’s father filed a complaint with the Kosgama police station (Colombo District) regarding the disappearance on 11th December 2011 which was recorded under Complaint no: CIB 94/133. Mr. Weeraraj’s father also filed a complaint with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regarding the disappearance on 13th December 2011, recorded under Complaint no: LKC/432333.
Parliamentarian Mr Ajith Kumara submitted a written complaint regarding the disappearance to the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on 10th December 2011. Mr. Ajith Kumara also filed a complaint about the disappearance with the Jaffna police station on 10th December, recorded under Complaint no: CIB 232/79.
A complaint was filed with the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (NHRC) regarding the missing activists, by Mr. Ajith Kumara on 13th December (Complaint no: HRC/ 33852/ 2011). A further complaint was filed by Mr. Weeraraj’s father to the NHRC on 16th December 2011 (Complaint no: H.R.C.3934/11)
Local and international organizations including Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA37/018/2011/en/523cd9d9-a12b-4013-a31a-5e368272d22e/asa370182011en.pdf), the Asian Human Rights Commission , http://www.humanrights.asia/news/ahrc-news/AHRC-STM-200-2011, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Centre and the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), and the International network of Sri Lankan Diaspora http://www.srilankandiaspora.com/blog/?p=2138, have expressed shock and concern regarding the disappearences and concern over the safety of the two missing activists.
The Jaffna police told Mr. Ajith Kumara MP, on 10th December 2011, that that the two individuals were not in their custody. However no action appears to have been taken to date to investigate their disappearance. On 14th December, Mr. Ajith Kumara made a statement in parliament about the disappearance of the two activists.
On 15th December, Cabinet Spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told the media at a Cabinet briefing that ‘Mr. Weeraraj and Mr. Muruganandan have not been disappeared, they are there’. He also said that the two activists had not been detained unlawfully and if they were being held by the police or military they would be produced before a Magistrate and dealt with according to the law. This news item was carried on Sirasa TV News on 15th December at 7pm; http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/12/18/parent-seeks-hrc-intervention-to-find-whereabouts/; http://soundcloud.com/lanka-views/keheliya).
On 14th December, Mr. Muruganandans wife found the motorbike license no NP GT7852, in which Mr. Muruganandan and Mr. Weeraraj were last seen, parked inside the Atchchuveli Police Station. Mr. Muruganadan’s wife had visited the police station to collect a copy of her complaint regarding the disappearance. When she inquired about the motorbike, the police told her that the bike had been found by the Kopai Police on 13th December, parked near a Hindu temple in Kopai.
The families of both Mr. Weeraraj and Mr. Muruganandan and WESL and PSM, believe that the Sri Lanka Army is responsible for the disappearance. The Government has so far failed to provide them with any clear information regarding the two missing men and their whereabouts. The family has heard through unofficial sources that Mr. Weeraraj and Mr. Muruganandan are being held at an unidentified detention center in the Jaffna district but there has been no official confirmation of this fact.
Following the statement by Minister Keheliya Rambukwella to the media, that the two activists ‘have not been disappeared, they are there’, their family and colleagues believe that the two activists are currently in Government custody and home that they will be produced before a Magistrate. They call on the Government to provide credible information regarding the whereabouts of Mr. Weeraraj and Mr. Murugan and to treat them according to the law.