Groundviews

Court acquits Tamil mother after 15 years of detention under PTA

Image courtesy The Independent

Last week, Tamil children in the North of Sri Lanka reportedly took to the streets to demand the release of their parents detained for years[1] under anti-terror laws[2]. This was hardly reported in mainstream Sri Lankan media. But many Sri Lankan media reported that two suspects in the Town Hall bomb case of 1999 (injuring former President Kumaratunga and countless others and killing 26[3]) were sentenced to 290 and 300 years respectively.

15-16 years for a conviction / release of a suspect

The two suspects were remanded on 18th September 2000 (possibly arrested even before that) under the PTA[4]. One of them had told a lawyer of torture[5]. Earlier this year, an Army officer was sentenced to death, 15 years after a massacre of Tamil civilians in 2000[6]. It took 16 and 15 years respectively for convictions to happen in these two cases. If appeals are made, it could take another several years for cases to conclude.

15 years to be determined not guilty – the PTA and the innocent detainees

Mrs. Vasanthi Ragupathy Sharma, a Tamil mother of three, was remanded on 27th July 2000[7] (date of arrest likely to be earlier, exact date not known) also as a suspect for the Town Hall bomb case and indicted in 2002[8]. After 15 years the High Court has determined she is not guilty. She is not alone. In May 2015, Courts determined that Mrs. Anthony Chandra, also a Tamil mother of three, was not guilty of any crime, after being detained since August 2008[9].

Problems faced by those detained under the PTA

A recent report that I was involved in[10] indicated that as of early 2015, there were persons in detention for as long as 18-19 years under the PTA without having their cases concluded and that, in some cases, it has taken up to 15 years to even file charges.

In that report, we identified that the PTA and ER have resulted in arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charges, long drawn out court cases, multiple cases against one suspect, inhumane detention conditions, torture, forced confessions and that the mental and physical well-being of detainees has been severely affected due to long term detention, and in the case of many, also as a result of rigorous interrogation and torture. There have been many cases of forced/coerced confessions where the detainee had not even known he was signing a confession as he/she could not understand the language it was written in. Many detainees have spent most of their youth behind bars.

Post release harassment & problems

The stigma attached to having been a “terrorist suspect” lingers. Even after they are released by Courts, society still considers them guilty. After her release, Mrs. Sharma has been facing problems finding a place to stay. Mrs. Chandra was unable to get back her job. Both have had no compensation and struggle to survive, with no income. Mrs. Sharma’s jewelry, handed over to Prison authorities on her remand, has not been returned. Prison authorities claim the jewelry has been lost[11].

Balendran Jeyakumary, who was released in March 2015 after 362 days in detention under the PTA without any charges,[12] was re-arrested and detained for almost a week in September 2015, despite having being released on bail after 362 days in detention. She is yet to be charged. For the supposed “crime” of looking into the circumstances of her and others’ arrests, I was detained under the PTA, along with a catholic Priest, in March 2014. While I was subsequently released without charge, 18 months later I am still not free. An overseas travel restriction was in place for 15 months affecting my frequent travels for human rights work. The investigation against me continues, the restriction on my freedom of expression still remains, and confiscated electronic equipment has still not been returned to me.

The need for transparency about PTA detainees

Despite some statements[13], there is still no clear official information about those detained under the PTA. The list we examined for our report excluded those detained in places such as Boossa and TID headquarters in Colombo.

We highlighted new evidence reported to Courts by an investigating officer[14] and interviews to media by several Naval officers who had spoken to and served food to detainees held at a secret camp[15]. It is not clear what investigations have happened in relation to these and action taken against those alleged to be responsible.

In August 2015, the Attorney General’s Department is reported to have told Courts that “nothing had come to light with regard to former LTTE leader KP[16], who had been arrested 6 years ago. KP’s own public pronouncements, about his involvement with the LTTE are in the public domain[17]. After his arrest, the official Government news claimed that he was on the list of wanted persons by Sri Lanka, India and Interpol for a range of terrorism related and other criminal activities and that he has been accused of arms smuggling, conspiring the assassinations of VVIPs including former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi in 1990, and in control of billions in US dollars of LTTE funds to the LTTE’s terrorist activities, some of which was extorted from Tamils living abroad[18]. But there seems to be a reluctance to proceed on this case.

Continuing use of the PTA and continuing reports of torture

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council was discussing a long list of systemic crimes committed in Sri Lanka, such as unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence, attacks on civilians in places such as hospitals and churches, forcible recruitment etc., and widespread impunity, detailed in the reports of the UN OHCHR[19]. The resolution on Sri Lanka adopted by the UN Human Rights Council to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations has a commitment to reform/repeal the PTA – but it is silent about ensuring justice to those detained under the PTA for long years – including those released without being charged and those not found to be guilty after lengthy trials, such as Mrs. Sharma and Mrs. Anthony.

A report released by the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP) cited 11 cases of white van abduction, unlawful detention, torture and sexual abuse in 2015[20]. We learnt of one case this year, where a man was abducted from off the roadside in the North, detained in a secret detention facility, interrogated and brutally tortured. The TID officer has informed a lawyer that 20 persons have been arrested under the PTA this year. In reality, this number is likely to be higher.

PTA detainees and reconciliation

How the Sri Lankan Government and people will ensure justice for Mrs. Sharma and Mrs. Anthony will be key factors to be addressed if we are to move towards reconciliation. And there are many other PTA detainees like them – who might end up being released as not guilty or released without even being charged after years of detention, those who are still in detention without being charged for upto 9 years, those still detained without the conclusion of their cases for upto 19 years and those being harassed after release.

[1] http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=16065 and http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=16081

[2] Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations

[3] http://www.news.lk/news/business/item/10046-two-suspects-in-town-hall-bomb-blast-sentenced-to-290-and-300-yrs

[4] Based on information in a list of detainees in remand prisons examined by the writer in early 2015

[5] Interview with a lawyer in 2015, prior to conviction

[6] “The Mirusuvil case” http://groundviews.org/2015/07/02/the-mirusuvil-case-why-searching-reform-is-urgent-and-necessary/ & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirusuvil_massacre#Case_follow_up

[7] The date of arrest is unknown, but likely to have been earlier.

[8] Based on information in a list of detainees in remand prisons examined by the writer in early 2015

[9] Interview with HRDs and lawyers who have been assisting and representing her

[10] http://groundviews.org/2015/09/05/pta-detainees-ignored-under-yahapalanaya/

[11] http://www.radiogagana.com/archives/5524

[12] https://freejeyakumary.wordpress.com/?ref=spelling

[13] http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=126154

[14] The investigating officer was from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) – a special unit of the Police

[15] http://www.dailymirror.lk/82249/have-they-been-killed-or-hidden

[16] Popularly known as KP, full name reported to be Shanmugam Kumaran Tharmalingam

[17] http://www.channel4.com/news/exclusive-interview-tamil-leaders-concede-defeat, http://www.channel4.com/news/exclusive-interview-new-leader-of-the-tamil-tigers, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1607, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1631 and an formal announcement at https://www.tamilnet.com/img/publish/2009/07/21_July_LTTE_English.pdf

[18] http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca200908/20090807kp_arrested.htm

[19] News release with summary at http://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16432&LangID=E (The report is divided into two parts which are interlinked: The overarching Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights (A/HRC/30/61), available at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_61_ENG.docx and the accompanying report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (A/HRC/30/CRP.2) which can be found at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_CRP_2.docx

[20] http://www.itjpsl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Torture-in-2015.pdf