By Frederica Jansz
Thevani Yogaraja holds a photograph of her family while grieving for her missing husband Emanuel and two sons Daniel and David, during a gathering to demand investigations into the disappearance in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007. Relatives of more than 100 civilians who went missing after being abducted, participated in a rally organized by the Civil Monitoring Committee, a group that campaigns against abductions. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
It was around 8 p.m. Weary after a days work and looking forward to going home to his bride of just one month, 26 year old Subramaniam Raveesh stepped out of his telephone repair shop at Kochchikade and turned his back on the street to lock and bolt the door. What happened next is anybody’s guess. Raveesh’s young wife, also in her early twenties, can only say that she received a message from a “neighbouring shop” that Raveesh had been “picked up.” By whom or in what kind of vehicle not even the neighbour will say. Nobody seems to know. And, above all, they are all too afraid to talk. They are all in a sense victims of a phenomenon that is sweeping the Island; the phenomenon of arbitrary abductions and murder.
Raveesh went missing on January 28th this year. A resident of Jaffna, he had lived in Colombo for two years. A complaint was lodged with the Kochchikade police, but the police claim that, to date, they do not have any indication, not a single shred of evidence, which can point to where Sumbramaniam Raveesh may be.
His aging mother, Subramaniam Rasamany, traveled all the way from Jaffna to Colombo to help find her son. But she has come up against a blank wall. Nobody seems to have answers to her questions. She has been told by concerned relatives to go back home. Rasamany cannot. She said, “Dead or alive I must know where my son is. I cannot go back and resume my life until I do.”
Twenty three year old Balasubramaniam Kirubalan had been residing at the Ramakrishna Mission in Wellawatte when he went missing. Kirubalan went missing exactly four months to the day after Raveesh was taken. On April 28th, Kirubalan left the Ramakrishna Mission around 2 p.m., never to return. Balasubramaniam Kirubalan hailed from Thirunelvely North in Jaffna and was in Colombo trying to get a visa to travel to Cyprus for employment.
He was a graduate of the Jaffna Technical College at Kokuvil. His mother, Sivanaya Sundari, like Subramanium Rasamany, trekked the long and arduous course from Jaffna to Colombo to try to find her son. Arriving in Colombo on May 19th, and taking shelter with relatives in Modera, she lodged a complaint at the Modera police station; but, two months later, her son is still missing.
On May 25th she made her way to the Boosa Detention Camp, where many Tamil suspects are held for interrogation on suspicion of links to the Tamil Tigers. There, she was first told that her son was indeed being held in the camp. She neither saw him nor spoke to him. As she hung around the gate uncertainly, the guards had finally asked her to leave, telling her that Kirubalan was no longer being held in the Boosa Detention Camp. Sivanaya Sundari says that the guards had told her that her son had initially been held in the Camp, but had subsequently been released.
If in fact he had been released, why Kirubalan did not return home, or contact his mother or any other person, remains a mystery. Even more mysterious is the fact that, on April 30th, two days after he went missing, cash had been withdrawn from his bank account six times from two ATMs. The first withdrawal was from an ATM at Keyzser Street for a sum of Rs. 20,005.00. The second withdrawal was for Rs. 2,005.00. , the third for Rs. 5,005.00 and the next was for Rs. 1,005.00. Two more withdrawals were made, for Rs. 10,005.00 and Rs. 2,005.00, from an ATM at Mutwal.
On June 21st, a special unit of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) led by DIG, CID, D. W. Prathapasinghe, arrested retired Air Force Squadron Leader Nishantha Gajanayake and Air Force Sergeant Deshapriya Dias in connection with a number of abductions. Government Defense spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella boasted soon after that “this clearly shows the bona fides of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.” Rambukwella was responding to criticism and finger-pointing alleging government collaboration with abductors, who, despite the many checkpoints in and around the city, succeeded in escaping detection until Gajanayake’s name was brought up in Parliament by opposition MP Lakshman Senewiratne.
On June 9th , investigators for the CID questioned Nishantha Gajanayake following the abduction and murder of two Tamil Red Cross workers. S. Shanmugalingam and K. Chandramohan were kidnapped in the presence of witnesses at the Fort Railway Station while they waited to board a train to Batticaloa after attending a two day workshop in Colombo. Their bodies were later found on June 2nd in the Ratnapura District, with gun shot wounds to the head.
Squadron Leader Nishantha Gajanayake was considered by fellow officers to be a man of clout. This was because he served as aide- de- camp (ADC) to former Air Force Commander Air Marshal Donald Perera. Gajanayake continued to serve as Perera’s ADC even after the former chief’s retirement from the SLAF and appointment as Chief of Defence Staff at the Joint Operations Command.
“As long as Nishantha Gajanayake served as my ADC I had absolutely no cause for complaint. He was a loyal and efficient officer.” Air Marshal Perera said.
The former SLAF chief maintains that Gajanayake, was an exemplary officer, “If not he would not obviously have worked for me.” But, he added, “I cannot speak for his conduct after he left the service. I cannot comment on his private life. If he has been leading some kind of a double life, I for one was clueless. I believe though that the man cannot be condemned until proven guilty.”
According to Perera, the last he heard of Gajanayake was that he was working for Minister Rohitha Bogollagama during his tenure as Minister for Industries. Perera said that Gajanayake, who hailed from Diyatalawa, had confided to him before he chose to retire prematurely from the SLAF, that he planned to go back to his hometown and set up a restaurant there .
Air Marshal Donald Perera had first met Gajanayake when Perera served as Base Commander for the SLAF in Katunayake. Gajanayake worked in administration but he and Perera hit it off and became friends. The friendship grew to the extent that Perera trusted Gajanayake enough to appoint him as his ADC when he was appointed chief of the SLAF.
DIG Prathapasinghe maintains that while the arrest of Gajanayake may have helped minimize the situation “it is definitely not rectified yet.” He added, “The abductions are still continuing. I believe there is more than one group operating. Perhaps members of the underworld are involved. We have not been able to make any breakthrough in this context. We need the assistance of the public to do so.”
Prathapasinghe says it is not clear yet how many people operated with Gajanayake. “There are more to be arrested. It is difficult to trace these people. Some of them are members of LTTE breakaway groups. They are evading arrest. Some are living in un-cleared areas in the Batticaloa District,” he said.
The top cop claims it is difficult to estimate how many have been abducted by this gang as “many of those abducted have not lodged any complaint with the police, so it is hard to give numbers, or say how much was paid as ransom.”
According to Prathapasinghe, the abductees were hidden in houses in Goththatuwa, Wellampitiya and Batticaloa. “Some of those abducted were murdered,” Prathapasinghe said.
Sri Lanka has been witnessing gross violations of human rights committed by both the government and other groups from late 2005 and since the resumption of the war between the armed forces and the LTTE.
In April this year, the American ambassador handed over a list containing the names of 355 missing persons to the President’s Office. What is interesting is that only two of the missing persons on this list are from the east. This, despite a large number of complaints of abductions by the Karuna faction. Some believe that this was to avoid further calls on the western countries to name the Karuna faction as a terrorist organization. Both local and international human rights organizations have accused the Karuna faction of abductions and forced recruitment of children to their armed wing. When Montage contacted Terry J. White, Public Affairs, Consular, for the US Embassy, he said he could not recall the existence of such a list. However, a few days later the Foreign Ministry issued a press statement commenting on the US ambassador’s list. Terry White then called back to confirm that such a list had been handed over to the government after all. “There was a list of names of abductees we got hold off. We took it upon ourselves to present it to the President’s office. We thought it credible enough that it merited government attention.” The list, according to White, was compiled by multiple human rights groups and NGOs.
The Foreign Ministry statement issued on June 29th noted that of the list of 355 alleged disappearances submitted by the US Ambassador, only 79 had been reported to the Mahana Tillekeratne Commission investigating abductions, and only 53 have been reported to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.
The government, in its response, states that the report lists cases where, of those alleged to have disappeared, 16 have been accounted for by the Department of Immigration and Emigration and the Police and the Army and notes that investigations into the alleged disappearances of the remaining names in the list are continuing.
The Foreign Ministry also goes on to note that given that most of the cases are from the Northern Province, there is a possibility that many of the persons have entered the ‘uncleared’ areas, where the government has no access.
The spate of abduction has created a fear psychosis in the country, and even international human rights watch groups are cautious in releasing information. David Vignati, Media and Communications Officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) refused to divulge a detailed list of 383 names of abductees which the ICRC has compiled, saying it is “for government eyes only and not to be shared with the public.” The fact that it is the public of this country that has to face the possibility of abduction, and that the Sri Lankan public, more than anyone else, has the right of access to such information, seems to have been excluded from Vignati’s perception of the situation. This, despite the ICRC , on June 28 th issuing a very public condemnation of the military government in Myanmar for human rights violations.
There seems to be more to this than the traditional ICRC position of not publicly criticising governments. The ICRC had earlier informed the Foreign Ministry that it would submit a list of the disappeared to President Rajapaksa during his visit to Geneva. However, the submission of such a list never took place. Repeated requests for the list by the Foreign Ministry, in order for comparison to be made against other such lists, brought no results. The Foreign Ministry statement has shed some light on the issue. Ã¢Â€ÂœOur inquiries from the ICRC indicate that of a list of 383 names of alleged disappearances about which complaints have been made to the ICRC, 180 have been accounted for. It is noteworthy that this includes cases in the ‘uncleared’ areas since the ICRC has access to these areas.” What is becoming obvious is that neither the government nor local and international human rights groups have accurate information of the number of people who have disappeared.
Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission figures point to nearly 100 abductions and disappearances in the country in the first two months of 2007. The majority of these abductions have taken place in Colombo, Batticaloa and the Jaffna Peninsula.
A senior activist of the government – allied Upcountry People’s Front has a different set of figures. He says more than a thousand cases of abductions were reported in 2006 alone, including the disappearances of the Eastern University Vice Chancellor, a close relative of a senior police officer and a brother-in-law of a university don.
The Human Rights Commission office in Jaffna has records of 87 youth disappearing in the first 69 days of this year. 416 people disappeared in 2006, according to the same records. In a recent report, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) says that 34 people have been reported as having been abducted in the East within the space of just one week
Mano Ganeshan, Convenor, for the Civil Monitoring Committee (CMC) and a Member of Parliament said that the CMC has so far received 130 complaints from families of those who have disappeared. Apart from this, the CMC has recorded 26 cases of murder, bodies found in and around Colombo after having gone missing and 27 people who were abducted and released after paying ransom monies.
He said ransoms range from anything between Rs. 5 million to 50 million.
Ganeshan maintains the government is not doing enough to stop the abductions and killings. “They were forced to arrest Gajanayake only because his name was raised in parliament. He may be involved, but there are other various influential persons who are continuing to mastermind this operation,” he said, asserting that 90 percent of the abductions are politically motivated.
The different types of abductions/ extrajudicial killings that are taking place are
Ã¢Â€Â¢ State sponsored abductions,
Ã¢Â€Â¢ Para military abductions,
Ã¢Â€Â¢ Abductions by the underworld
Ã¢Â€Â¢ Abductions by the LTTE.
The theoretical basis of State sponsored abductions and extrajudicial killing is that the civilian base of the LTTE has to be destroyed if the armed forces are to defeat the LTTE. This is very clear in Jaffna, where abductions happen largely at night, during the curfew imposed by the military. Around 400 persons in Jaffna are reported missing.
The increase in abductions can be linked to the break up of the LTTE. The Karuna faction joined the EPDP to abduct people to obtain information or to take revenge. They also abduct people for ransom. The LTTE has been indulging in similar activities for decades and it is one of their main programmes to raise money for the “struggle”
Another group which has now come in to this lucrative business is the underworld mafia. Here it has become a practice for business houses to pay protection money to various groups in the underworld in order to avoid being abducted.
While the numbers of those abducted are disputed, the frightening phenomena has seen hundreds of Tamils and Muslims seize an invitation by the Malaysian government to apply for a ten year multiple entry visa. Mohammed Fazool, Consular Assistant for the Malaysian High Commission in Colombo said that the new scheme, introduced at the beginning of this year, for a 10 year multiple entry visa to Malaysia had hundreds of Tamils and Muslims apply.
“Most of them are already there,” he said, adding that the High Commission in Colombo was “flooded” with applications from Tamils and Muslims who deposited the required Rs. 8 million (USD 75,000) into a bank account in Malaysia in order to qualify and get accepted. Asked how many had left in the last 6 months, Fazool said he cannot reveal exact figures.
‘Malaysia My Second Home Programme’ is promoted by the Government of Malaysia to allow people from all over the world who fulfil certain criteria, to stay in Malaysia as long as possible on a social visit pass with a multiple entry visa. The Social Visit Pass is initially for a period of ten (10) years and is renewable.
It is open to all citizens of countries recognized by Malaysia regardless of race, religion, gender or age. Applicants are allowed to bring along their spouses and children below 18 years of age who are not married.
Those who can afford it have fled to Malaysia, but thousands who cannot continue to live on in this island in fear.
On December 19th, 2004, Gnanasithan Manoranjan Prasad, who was 21 years old at the time, went missing from Kochchikade. Around 10 a.m that day, together with a Tamil friend who had arrived from Jaffna, he had left a telecommunications call centre the family owned and managed at Kochchikade, saying they were both going to Wellawatte. Neither returned. To date they remain among the missing.
Manoranjan Prasad’s mother, Gnanasithan Vasanthi says she can only “pray and hope that he is being held in a camp” and that he is not among many other Tamil youth who have been taken in and murdered. Asked if her son had any connections with the LTTE she said “No.” But she said she suspects the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of having picked up her son.
A strange story is an abduction that took place in Vavuniya. Sulosana Rajkumar told Montage that her husband, Sathi Vadivel Rajkumar (29), the driver of a three wheel taxi, went missing on October 23rd, 2006. The family then received a Ã¢Â€Â˜phone call demanding ransom money. His abductors wanted Rs. 25 lakhs. But Sulosana had pleaded with them saying she could not find that much money. She had agreed however to pay Rs. 10 lakhs. She was given a bank account number at Sampath Bank, Anuradhapura, and asked to deposit the money in the Sampath Bank branch at Vavuniya. This she did. Thereafter she informed the police.
The police acted quickly on this occasion, and immediately froze the account, which carried a credit of Rs. 11 lakhs. The police probe traced the account to M. T. R. Peiris, a resident of Panadura. Peiris was arrested, but claimed he know nothing and had not used this account for two years. The man, to all intents and purposes, spoke the truth, for he was subsequently released. There the police investigation ended. Why this particular account number was given and who intended to withdraw the money was never resolved. And Sathi remains missing.
Twenty three year old Sulosana Rajkumar has been left a single parent with two children. The eldest is 3 years old and her youngest only 7 months. Asked who she suspects took her husband she replied “the CID.”
This article reproduced with permission from Montage Vol 1 Issue 7, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com