Groundviews

White Vans and unlawful detention under the PTA

Featured image courtesy Quartz

By Swastika Arulingam, Marisa de Silva and Gajen Mahendra

Rasathurai Jeyanthan, from Nunavil, Jaffna was abducted in a white van, and was later found to be in custody of the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) last month. He was taken away from his home on 10th April, 2016, by unidentified men in civil clothes claiming to be from the “police”. His family who saw him being taken away was asked to go to the Vavuniya and Boossa detention facilities by the abductors, but they were only able to establish his whereabouts and that he was in fact alive on 12th April when a Commissioner from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) spoke to Jeyanthan and established that he was being detained at the TID office in Colombo.

It appears that he was arrested and detained without due process being followed. According to his lawyers Jeyanthan had been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and had been given a detention order which expired on 9th of May, 2016. They further state that he is yet to be produced in Court, as is required under the law. He was also not offered opportunities to contact his lawyers, and his family had been misled about the location of his detention. Two motorcycles belonging to his brother and 3 mobile phones belonging to his mother and wife and his own, have been confiscated by the TID and not returned as yet.

Background

Jeyanthan was previously detained from 18th May 2009 to April 1st 2011 after he surrendered to the army in Omanthai during the final days of the war. He was then sent for ‘rehabilitation’ to the Vavuniya Tamil Maha Vidyalayam, from where he was subsequently released in 2011. The family then moved to their current house in November 2009, from where they had earlier been displaced from in 1996. After being released from detention, intelligence operatives/security personnel would visit him frequently and conducted inquiries, for approximately the first six months following his release. But these visits later stopped. Two of Jeyanthan’s brothers had also been detained after the war’s end, undergone ‘rehabilitation’ and are now released.

The Incident

According to Jeyanthan’s mother, he had been mending the fence of his house when four men in civilian clothing had arrived and approached him. After a brief conversation with them, Jeyanthan had brought the two men onto the front lawn, and was conversing with them in Sinhala. The two men would not answer any questions posed by Jeyanthan’s mother or wife but spoke only to Jeyanthan. Jeyanthan’s mother grew suspicious of the strangers’ motives when she realized that they had been gripping Jeyanthan’s hands whilst they spoke to him.

When the family had asked the men who they were, why they were gripping his hands, and if Jeyanthan had committed a crime, the two men had asked the family to stand aside, as they needed to question Jeyanthan. The men had got Jeyanthan to sit down on a chair, whilst one of the men locked legs with him, so he was unable to stand up, and also had his arms in a tight grip. When Jeyanthan’s brother had pointed out that they couldn’t question Jeyanthan without producing identification the two men had asked him also to stand aside.

Thereafter, when Jeyanthan’s mother had repeatedly protested and asked for identification the two men had said, that they were from the Police. When she had pressed further they had said, We have come in civvies (civilian clothing). You should know who we are.”

Following the inquiry, the two men had searched the house and brought out with them 5 mobile phone boxes, which had the phone warranty cards etc. They had then proceeded to record all the phone details, and then returned all the phones except for Jeyanthan’s phone, which they took with them. They had then handcuffed Jeyanthan and asked his wife to pack him clothes enough for a week. When Jeyanthan’s mother repeatedly pointed out that he lived with them and asked why he had to be handcuffed, and demanded to know what crime he had committed, the men had replied that the family might not know what Jeyanthan had done, but that he knows. We can’t tell you.”

Approximately 30 minutes into the inquiry, and after Jeyanthan had been handcuffed, one of the two men made a phone call, after which, a white HiAce van, with black tinted windows, had arrived at the house with three men inside. In addition, two more men had arrived at the house in a motorcycle. According to the family, one of the men who arrived in the van had carried a rifle and a pistol. All the men had been in civilian clothes. They had then surrounded the premises. A total of seven men were at the premises when Jeyanthan was led into the van and taken away. Two of the men had also taken two motorcycles belonging to Jeyanthan and his brother (both registered under his brother’s name), along with the bike insurance and other documents, which had been parked outside the house.

Before the men left with Jeyanthan, the family was asked to come to a house in Ariyalai after two hours and not before. When the family asked for an address the men had asked them to come to a house near the Neernachchiththaazhvu Amman Koyil in Ariyalai, claiming that it was ‘their place’.

Search for Jeyanthan

Jeyanthan’s mother and other family members immediately went to the nearby Police Station to lodge a complaint. The family had conveyed to the police personnel that the abductors had come in a HiAce van, given the number of the van (69-1010), that they claimed to be from the ‘Police’, and that they had also taken away two motorcycles belonging to the family. The policemen had then discussed among themselves and informed the family that since the abductors had claimed to be from the ‘Police’, and since the family had been given a location to come to, that they could not accept a complaint from the family.

When Jeyanthan’s mother and other family members went to the house in Ariyalai as instructed, they saw one of the seven abductors there. According to the family, the house was dilapidated and had no sign boards outside indicating that it was an ‘official’ premises, unlike a usual Police Station. The family also saw the two motorcycles taken away from their house, parked outside these premises. As the family was waiting to speak to someone, the HiAce van which the abductors came in earlier in the day, arrived at this house from the direction of Jaffna. One of the abductors got down from the van and told the family that Jeyanthan was inside the van but they wouldn’t be allowed to see him. As the glasses of the van were tinted the family was not certain if Jeyanthan was actually inside the van. The man further said that they “couldn’t do anything here (in Ariyalai)” and had asked the family to come to Vavuniya the next day (Monday, April 11). When the family had asked to at least allow Jeyanthan’s two-year old daughter to see him, the abductor had refused and said that it would be impossible as “he (Jeyanthan) might get agitated.” The family had then returned home and left for Vavuniya on the 11th morning.

In Vavuniya the family was asked to come to a house in the vicinity of the Damro (furniture shop) showroom on the Kandy Road. Earlier in Ariyalai, the family had been given a number to call once they arrived in Vavuniya, and that they would be given directions to the place at that point. According to the family, the premises in Vavuniya was situated in the vicinity of the Damro showroom and a timber mill, located on the same side of the road. This location, according to Jeyanthan’s sister-in-law was directly opposite the Vavuniya ‘Police Station’ (Note: although there is no ‘Police Station’ in the vicinity, the sprawling ‘Office of the Superintendent of Police’ premises is situated directly opposite the timber mill). The premises had several houses, according to Jeyanthan’s sister-in-law. There was a vehicle similar to the dark blue Police jeeps and a couple of motorcycles within the premises (Note: Given the precise description of the location provided by the family the location, linked below, seems to fit the description of the location where Jeyanthan was held in Vavuniya[1].)

The family then saw one of the abductors there. This man saw the family and inquired if they had come to see Jeyanthan. He had then inquired from another man in Sinhala and responded to the family saying that Jeyanthan was no longer in Vavuniya and that he had been taken for further inquiry to Boossa. The family had then been asked to visit Jeyanthan in Boossa with a letter from their Grama Sevaka (GS) certifying their residency. As the three women who went to Vavuniya did not know Sinhala they realized their stay there would be futile, so they returned home on the same day.

Human Rights Commission intervention

Jeyanthan’s family and lawyer informed us that on Tuesday 12th April, a Commissioner from the HRC had spoken to Jeyanthan at the TID office in Colombo, whilst on a routine visit there, in accordance with their mandate. Coincidentally, Jeyanthan had just been brought to the TID office from Vavuniya, when the Commissioner was visiting. Therefore the Commissioner had managed to speak to Jeyanthan and establish his whereabouts, his lawyer said.

The family had then lodged a complaint at the HRC in Jaffna on 15 April. Then the family had visited Jeyanthan at the TID office on Sunday 17 April, after which they also lodged a complaint at the HRC Colombo office and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well. When his family had gone to visit Jeyanthan on 24 April (Sunday) at the TID office in Colombo, they had only been able to have very general conversation, as there had been TID officers and cameras all around them.

On the 30th of April, Jeyanthan’s wife and mother had been called by the TID in Kilinochchi, and asked to be present at the Kilinochchi police station, with their mobile phones. Upon their arrival, they had been asked to hand over their phones to persons identified as TID. Thereafter, as the TID had brought Jeyanthan to the Vavuniya police station (near the Damro showroom) to meet with his family, they were allowed to visit with him on 1 May. Having asked the TID for their motorcycles to be returned to them, the TID had promised to release at least one.

According to section 7(1) of the PTA on arrest and detention without a detention order, the arrested person must be produced before a magistrate within 72 hours. In Jeyanthan’s case it doesn’t appear that a Detention Order by the Minister of Defence had been issued within the 72 hour period, and neither was he produced before a Magistrate.  Hence even the bare minimum protection provided under the PTA for a detainee appears not to have been adhered to by authorities.

In this context it is welcoming that the Human Right Commission of Sri Lanka has issued directives on arrest and detention under the PTA. The directives include amongst others, communicating to the arrestee the reasons for the arrest, the identification of the person making the arrest to the arrestee, regulations guaranteeing the right to know of relatives of the person arrested of his or her whereabouts, the guarantees to be represented by an attorney at law, guaranteeing medical assistance when needed and the official recognition by way of receipt of property seized by authorities.[2]

Arbitrary arrests and detentions have left areas in Jaffna in a state of tension and suspiciousness. A glimmer of hope which dared rise in the hearts of these war torn communities is once again crushed by the callous nature in which most of these arrests and interrogations have been done. The promises made by the new Government on reconciliation, good governance and the reestablishment of the rule of seem to be slowly fading away. The words of a TID Official to one of the authors upon her requesting that her client have legal access in mid- 2015 acts as a stark reminder of the ground reality. He said’ whether it be Mahinda Government or Maithripala Government we (The TID) are still the same. We will do our job”.

Seven years following the war, the Tamil community, particularly from the North and East, are still unable to live freely without fear of abduction, arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention. Last year the winds of ‘change’ heralded in a new government. A glimmer of hope dared to grow within the heavy hearts of a war weary people. Your government asked the people to trust you…to support you. One and a half years down the road, we’re right back where we started. Yahapalanaya government, will your legacy too be one of broken promises?


[1]https://www.google.lk/maps/@8.7463541,80.4953519,3a,90y,287.79h,82.37t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sfPHTyhGHYgTSBhVh6s066Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

[2] http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Directives-on-Arrest-Detention-by-HRCSL-E-.pdf