Groundviews

9 years after disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown & Mr. Vimalathas

9 years ago, on 20th August 2006, Fr. Jim Brown and Mr. Vimalathas disappeared after having been last seen at a Navy checkpoint in Allaipiddy, Jaffna[1]. Few days before, Fr. Jim Brown had been threatened by a Navy officer. There had also been tension between him and the Navy, as the Catholic Priest had pleaded with the Navy to allow injured civilians leave Allaipiddy, during the fighting between the government military and the LTTE. Earlier on, many civilians were killed and injured on an attack on the Allapiddy Church, to which Fr. Jim Brown had welcomed desperate civilians seeking a place of refuge from the fighting.

The first time I went to Allapiddy was when the people displaced in this fighting started to go back, sometime after the disappearance. I was warned by friends not to talk about Fr. Jim Brown and I didn’t. But even today, I remember people telling me that they were alive because of Fr. Jim Brown. I remember also the shelled out church. Not many Catholic Priests would have invited people to take shelter in a Church knowing it was likely to get hit and people – and even he – maybe killed. I had gone with another Catholic Priest, who had negotiated a “one hour visa” from the Navy at a time no outsiders were allowed to go there. We were both very scared because we were followed and under strict surveillance of Navy officers – whom we knew were hostile and were from the same check point that Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas were last seen, and we had no possibility to contact anyone else, as there was no mobile signal. We managed to return in one hour. But Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas, who had gone on a humanitarian mission to the same place, had not returned for 9 years.

Fr. Jim Brown’s mother passed away few years ago, without being able to know what happened to her son. His elderly father lives alone and still keeps a photo of Fr. Jim Brown in the sparsely furnished basic house in Puthukkudiyiruppu. Whenever I visit him, he shows that photo to my friends and colleagues. Vimalathas’s five children have grown up, the eldest being 24 and youngest 10, and they his wife also await some information about their beloved father and husband. Even last year, they had made a complaint to the latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry. Despite numerous complaints, appeals by the families as well as Church leaders and human rights defenders, the families have not heard any updates from anyone, even in 2015 under the Sirisena – Ranil led government.

The only thing I and concerned persons have been able to do for them is to accompany them in their struggles and organize religious services, write about their stories to remember them. There will be a service at Puthukkudiyiruppu, today morning.

Their disappearance was amongst the 16 cases a high profile Presidential Commission of Inquiry (the Udalagama Commission), monitored by “International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) took up from 2006 onwards. Todate, the report has not been shared with the families. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also heard submissions about the case. Again, no response – except that another Catholic Priest who made a submission got a threatening call the next day asking whether he wanted to suffer the same fate as Fr. Jim Brown.

Fr. Jim Brown is not the only Tamil Catholic Priest who disappeared, there is a habeas corpus case pending on the disappearance of Fr. Francis Joseph, who disappeared in May 2009 after surrendering to the Army at the end of the war, in front of many witnesses. Many other journalists, humanitarian workers, and civilians, majority of them Tamil in the last decade, have disappeared without trace. The latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry has reported receiving 16.826 and 5,000 complaints each from civilians and military[2].

Their families have been clamoring for truth and justice in Sri Lanka and beyond. They have become a powerful moral conscience to those who are sensitive to their cries and struggles. The previous government and some others have sought to dismiss their struggles as attempts to promote political agendas. Like Fr. Jim Brown’s family, they have been threatened, intimidated, obstructed and ridiculed for struggling to find the truth about their loves ones. They were stopped from coming from Colombo to the North and a meeting we had with some of them in a Church run institute in Colombo was broken into by Buddhist Monk led group. Balendran Jeyakumary, a prominent Tamil mother whose son had disappeared after surrendering to the military, was arrested and detained for 362 days without charges and still faces investigation and various restrictions.

We got a new President, new Prime Minister and new parliament in 2015. How high up on the agenda is giving answers to families of disappeared is not clear. As a minimum and first step, President Sirisena has the power to share the Udalagama Commission report with Fr. Jim Brown’s and Vimalathas’s family and publish it. Will he do so? Will the new UNP led government request him to do so? Will the CID or relevant agencies re-open the investigation, examining available evidence, the way it has done on few other cases? Will it commit to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non occurrence, without compelling families of disappeared to trade one off for another?

In addition to the Police, Human Rights Commission and Courts, families of disappeared have appeared before multiple domestic Commissions of Inquiries. After having worked with many families of disappeared persons for several years, I don’t think they have had much success in finding disappeared persons or what happened to him / her.

But given the large number of families of disappeared persons waiting for answers, we may need dedicated special mechanisms, including but not limited to special courts, prosecutors and investigators, set up under special laws. But any new mechanism the government may set up must have the involvement of the families of disappeared in the setting up process itself and have their confidence. It should be seen as independent and effective, not yet another “eye wash”. It should have wide ranging powers, including subpoenaing, searching, seizing and obtaining information and materials from any person or institution, including the military. It should also be able to access information on any progress of investigations and inquiries made todate by Police and any other such bodies, share updates with families and take follow up actions. It is important not to further traumatize families by compelling them to complaint yet again. No persons associated with a new mechanism should be perceived or suspected to have been involved with disappearances. A strong and substantial international involvement, that goes beyond mere advice, monitoring, financial and training, would facilitate confidence of families of disappeared. Mechanisms to solicit information from persons who may know about individual cases or overall trends may also be helpful to trace disappeared persons.

Fr. Jim Brown’s and Vimalathas’s disappearance was amongst the earliest in a new wave of complaints made to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances since 2006 from Sri Lanka. Since then, Sri Lanka has accounted for the largest number of complaints to the UN Working Group, totaling 608, with the nearest other country being Mexico with 154 complaints[3]. In it’s 35 years of work, Sri Lanka has the second largest number of complaints[4]. The Working Group was due to visit in August, but the government had requested for a postponement due to elections. It is hoped that the new government will renew the invitation for them visit soon, and cooperate with them to give answers to families of disappeared persons.

A lot will depend on the genuine political will of the new Sri Lankan government. The support of the international community will also be important, particularly countries that have experience in dealing with large case disappearances, such as Argentina and other Latin American countries. But perhaps the most crucial element will be how much outrage there will be from Sri Lankan citizens against unwillingness and inability of our government to give answers to our fellow citizens whose loved ones have disappeared and how much sympathy and support families of disappeared persons will receive from their fellow citizens. What can we offer Fr. Jim Brown’s father and Vimalathas’s children and wife, and many others like them, will be a determining factor in our ability to have co-existence and lasting peace.

[1] For more background, see here.

[2] http://www.pcicmp.lk/

[3] Statistics according to the latest report of the Working Group, dated 4th August 2014, ref. A-HRC-27-47

[4] Ibid