Police detains families of disappeared from Northern Sri Lanka and prevents peaceful protest and petition to the UN
[Editors note: See our earlier report, Police impeding the movement of Tamils.]
March 5th, 2013, Vavuniya
On March 5th, 2013, at about 8.30pm, the Police blocked about 600 persons, comprising families of the disappeared and civil society activists from the North, from traveling from Vavuniya to Colombo to attend a protest organized by the ‘Association of the Families Searching for the Disappeared Relatives’ the following day (6th). Following the protest at Viharamaha Devi Park, in Colombo, the families had planned to march to the UN office in Colombo and hand over a petition. This protest was meant to be part of a larger campaign organized by the families of the disappeared to know the truth about their loved ones, and to lobby the international community to intervene on their behalf by calling on the Sri Lankan Government to provide them with truth, justice and accountability. As a result of this obstruction however, the planned protest could not be held.
People had begun assembling at the Vavuniya Urban Council (UC) Grounds (the designated assembly point) from morning, and when the organizers arrived, men in civil (suspected to be intelligence officers) were questioning the people, asking them questions such as where they were from, why they had come, where they were going to, who the organizers were, where the funding was coming from etc., Thereafter, they had told the people that it was better if they could return to their homes.
The families of the disappeared (about 75% of whom were women), who were obstructed in Vavuniya yesterday, were from all parts of the North, such as Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, and Vavuniya districts. The Police had approached the 11 buses parked outside the UC Grounds in the evening at about 5.30pm, and registered details pertaining to the buses, drivers and conductors. Thereafter, the Police had permitted them to proceed as planned, later that day. No such registration or permission is needed for buses and private vehicles to travel from Vavuniya towards Colombo or any other destination, by law or even by practice. However, when at 8.30pm, the buses, loaded with people, started out from the UC Grounds, they were promptly stopped by the Police and told that they could not proceed, as the Police had received some news that a bus had been stoned between Vavuniya and Anuradhapura, and that therefore, they would not be able to ensure the safety of the passengers, if permitted to proceed. There is no independent information that such an incident had happened. This information had been confirmed by the Superintendent of Police, the Senior Superintendent of Police and Headquarters Inspector (HQI) of the Vavuniya Police, said Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian, E. Saravanabhavan. The Police had then proceeded to block the path in front of the buses, with their trucks. The military too had been standing by.
On hearing this, the people had become agitated and demanded that they be allowed to proceed to Colombo. Then the people had even begun to get out of the bus, with candles in their hands, hoping to convince the Police to allow them to proceed. This was followed by calls from political party leaders from the South, who intervened with the Police on behalf of the people. The Police had given an assurance to permit travel to Colombo the following morning (6th) after 4.30am. As it was raining heavily, many of the people who were seated on the road and on culverts, awaiting a decision to be taken, were drenched. It was not until between 12.30 and 1am that the families were taken to the UC Hall for the night. As there were only 4-5 toilets, and the Hall could not accommodate all the people, Christian clergy who had arrived from Mannar by about 9.30pm had negotiated with the Police, to move some of the people to a nearby church. Having agreed, the Police had instructed the priests to take the people to the church by foot, as they were not willing to permit buses to be moved. The priests had responded that the people were tired and therefore, could not walk, and as a last resort, even suggested to transport the people in a Police bus, if they were unwilling to release the buses that transported the people from the North. Having refused that too, the Police finally agreed to release one of the buses, with Police personnel on board to transport the people. The bus had to make two trips to and from the Grounds, as it needed to transport almost 100 people to the church.
March 6th, 2013, Vavuniya
Thereafter, the priests had negotiated with the Police to have the 11 buses park inside the UC premises. However, once inside, from about 1am onwards, each of the drivers had been called out by men in civil clothes to remove the buses from inside the compound. They had been threatened that if they do not leave, they would find it difficult to work in Vavuniya in the future. As a result, 9 of the 11 bus drivers moved their buses from inside the compound, outside. Thereafter, following more threats, such as the possibility of losing their Route Passes (which enables them to travel in the North) and of being harassed when running their normal routes, the 9 bus drivers drove their buses home, by 3.30am.
At about 2am, when the remaining two bus drivers were faced with intimidation by a person in civil, the priests from Mannar had questioned them as to who they were and what right they had to ask the buses to be removed from the premises, especially since the Police had already agreed for the buses to be parked inside the premises. When asked by the priests if they were Police, they had denied it. Then the priests had said that if they were not part of the Police to please leave the premises and not disturb the drivers. Yet another person in civil came later on and asked that the buses be moved out, and again, the priests had to intervene and get rid of them.
Meanwhile the two buses parked in Pampaimadu, close to Vavuniya town, which had transported the people from Mannar to Vavuniya too, had received similar threats via phone calls, and had also left for Mannar at about 1am. These two buses had been stopped at the Thalladi Army Camp (near the entrance to Mannar town) on their way back, and only released later in the morning.
A further 30 passenger buses (not related to the protest), traveling from the North to Colombo, had also been stopped at Omanthai last night (5th), and only permitted to proceed to Colombo this morning.
Although the Police had told the organizers that they could leave for Colombo by 4.30am, when the organizers went to meet the Police HQI at 5am, he said that they could only leave after 5.30am. However, the Police had instructed all bus drivers in Vavuniya not to take this crowd to Colombo, threatening them that if they did, they would get into trouble. Even the Private Bus Owners Association was afraid of transporting the group. Left with only 2 of the 13 buses, to transport more than 750 (inclusive of those from Mannar) people to Colombo, the organizers abandoned the idea of attending the protest in Colombo.
Instead, the organizers met with the people at the UC Grounds and at about 10am and decided to carry out a silent march to the Government Agent’s (GA) office to hand over a Memorandum to the GA. “Heavily armed security forces in riot gear and Police with water cannons were stationed in the Vavuniya town to prevent these people from going in procession to the office of the Government Agent (GA), to hand over a memo,” stated Mano Ganesan, Convener of the Civil Monitoring Commission and leader of the Democratic People’s Front.
Having left the Grounds at about 12pm, the people were stopped by the Police at the office entrance and not permitted to enter. They were told that a maximum of 8 persons could enter the premises to meet with the GA. The people however, wanted to either enter the premises or have the GA to come out and meet them in person. Initially, TNA MP Saravanabhavan first went inside the GA’s office to convince the GA to come outside and meet the people. As the GA still refused to come outside, TNA Parliamentarians, Saravanabavan and Sivasakthi Aananthan, a Christian Priest and a representative of the Mannar Citizen’s Committee went once again to meet the GA and convince him to come outside and accept the Memorandum. The GA had responded by saying that his doors were always open for anyone to meet with him, and that representatives from the protestors outside could come and meet him, and hand over the Memorandum, but that he would not come outside.
When they returned and told the people what the GA had said, the crowd started shouting in protest, and sat down across the main A9 road in protest. Finally, at approximately 1.45pm, the Additional Government Agent (AGA) came outside and accepted the Memorandum from the people. The people then moved off the main road and allowed for the normal flow of traffic. The Memorandum was addressed to the President of Sri Lanka and called for (amongst other things,) the release or disclosure of names of those abducted and detained. Having got no response from the GA as at 4pm today, the crowd finally dispersed and left for their homes.
March 6th, 2013, Colombo
According those who had gone to Viharamaha Devi Park in Colombo (the original venue for the protest), there had been a crowd of people comprising, the media, embassy representatives, members of the civil society, political leaders, clergy and families of the disappeared persons assembled in front of the Town Hall, Colombo 7 (opposite Viharamaha Devi Park) at about 9.45am this morning. A few civil society activists, politicians and members of the clergy addressed the crowd, and said that the planned protest (Sathyagraha) could not be held due to the deliberate obstruction by the Government of hundreds of people in Vavuniya. and as such, they were assembling to protest the obstruction to these families’ freedom of assembly, movement, expression and to engage in peaceful activities to find their relatives and hand over a petition to the UN. Activists had also appealed to the media to support their “struggle” to bring about justice and accountability to the families of the disappeared and call for the freedom of assembly in Sri Lanka. Police personnel were deployed at the venue throughout the protest.
When contacted, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Deputy Inspector of General (DIG) said that they had no knowledge of these incidents.
A delegation, comprising Opposition Party members and civil society activists met with the IGP at 2pm today, to report this incident and find out more about what caused this obstruction.
Separately, about one thousand five hundred (1500) members of the ‘Dead and Missing Person’s Parents Front’, a group comprising family members of disappeared Sri Lankan armed forces and of those forcibly recruited by the LTTE, were however allowed to stage a protest in Colombo today, and hand over a letter allegedly with over 3000 disappeared persons names, to the UN office without any obstruction or disturbance. The letter was calling for the UN Human Rights Council to investigate into the activities conducted by the LTTE and the TNA in providing justice to missing family members.
The US embassy in Colombo said they were alarmed and concerned about reports of the detention of peaceful protesters and that hundreds of Sri Lankan family members of the disappeared were blocked in Vavuniya by Sri Lankan authorities while traveling to Colombo and called on the Sri Lankan government to allow free movement of these citizens.
In the meantime, Network for Rights (NfR) issued a Press Release calling on members of the UN Human Rights Council to consider this undemocratic behavior of the Sri Lankan Government as a direct challenge to the Council and to act accordingly. NfR also called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to take up this issue of blocking the family members of the disappeared coming to the UN office in Sri Lanka expecting some kind of redress – with all relevant authorities, including the representatives of the Sri Lankan government, and for the international human rights community to show their solidarity with these families of the disappeared and to make a representation to the Government of Sri Lanka in the strongest possible terms.
* This report is based on testimonies of those who were stopped by the Police, participated in the protests in Vavuniya and Colombo and those who tried to intervene to resolve the problems, i.e. priests, human rights activists and politicians. Photographs were taken by participants at the protest.