Photo courtesy WSWS

On 21st at 2.31pm, August 2012, 32 year old Vasanthamala sent a sms from her mobile to her relatives saying she had been taken by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Vavuniya. Around 8pm the same night, she made short phone calls to her mother and father, and said she was alright. When her parents had tried to find out where she was calling from, the call had been cut off and has been switched off thereafter, to date as her parents are still unable to get through to her.

When her father tried to complain to the Vavuniya Police, they had refused to accept the complaint stating that she must have eloped with a man. The complaint was only accepted once her father visited the Police station the following day along with his wife. Prior to the arrest, on the 19th of August, some persons claiming to be from the CID, had called Vasanthamala’s mother and told her that her daughter would be arrested unless she  produced some documents to the Vavuniya Police. Even in July, 2012, the Police had made inquiries regarding Vasanthamala.

Vasanthamala’s parents were amongst the around 500 families of disappeared persons who gathered in Vavuniya today, 30th August 2012, the International Day of the Disappeared, demanding for justice, accountability and  the whereabouts of their loved ones. . The families  staged a peaceful protest on the A9 road in front of the Vavuniya bus stand, and later held a public meeting at the Vavuniya Urban Council hall. Most of the families were Tamil and from the North and the East, with  many families of former LTTE leaders who have gone missing after surrendering, and also families of soldiers who are missing in action.

The event was held as disappearances (mostly in the form of abductions), continued to be reported at a rate of more than one every five days in post-war Sri Lanka. Twenty one disappearances (including attempted abductions) have been reported by Sri Lanka’s English media in the 100 days between April 1st and July 9th 2012. This brings the total number of disappearances reported from 1st January to 9th July to 57. [1]

Out of the abductions reported by the media, the police are reported to have made arrests in three cases. Eleven victims are reported as released by the abductors, four abductions were reported as foiled, and the body of a victim reported as abducted, was recovered. Five of the 11 released have publicly accused the Government’s involvement in their abduction.

April began with two high-profile abduction and release cases – that of Kumar Gunaratnam and Dimuthu Attygalle. Mr. Gunaratnam was a key leader of the People’s Struggle Movement (PSM) and Ms. Attygalle was the Secretary for Women’s and International Affairs wing of the organization. The PSM was a forerunner to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). Prior to their abduction both activists had been preparing for the first convention of the FSP on April 9th.

Mr. Gunaratnam, an Australian citizen, was reported abducted on April 7th morning. His abduction caused a furor in the Australian media. The Sri Lanka Ambassador to Australia Thisara Samarasinge denied the abduction at first saying, “We don’t have kidnapping by our Government.” The Sri Lanka Police spokesman also denied arresting them. Three days later the police spokesman said that Mr. Gunaratnam gave himself up to the police and “asked to be deported.” The Hindu newspaper reported that the Australian High Commissioner, Robyn Maudie personally escorted Mr. Gunaratnam from the police station to the airport. Speaking to the media from Australia, Mr. Gunaratnam accused the Sri Lanka Government of abducting and torturing him, adding that if not for the intervention by the Australian Government, he would have been killed.

Dimuthu Attygalle was also released by her abductors. She was dropped off near her party headquarters on the 10th of April. She too, publicly alleged that her abductors were connected to the Government and security forces.

On the 5th of July, Shanta Wijesooriya, a journalist critical of the Government who had faced a number of threats and harassment in the last few years, alleged that people connected with the Government intelligence services tried to abduct him in the Nugegoda area. He said he could identify his would-be abductors, and had seen them before. He made a written complaint to the police in this regard. However no arrests have been reported in any of these cases where the abductees have accused the Government of involvement in their abductions.

In the 100 days covered in this report, seven children (under the age of 18) are reported to have been abducted. Three of these child abductions were foiled by the parents giving chase and rescuing their children, while one abduction was prevented by the community foiling a  soldier’s from attempt to abduct a girl. Two children were released by the abductors.  According to the media the body of one child, Sivalingam Sivakumaran was found 5 days following his abduction in the Vadamaraadchi North area of the Jaffna district. The reported number of child abductions has increased from 2 in the first three months (January to March) to 7 in the latter three months.

Response by Ministry of Defence
The Watchdog is happy to note that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of Sri Lanka has on its website[2] responded to the disappearances reported by this column between October 2011 and March 2012 with what it deems to be a ‘Factual Analysis’[3]. The MoD statement refers to our earlier report as being one that is aimed at misleading the international community, thereby bringing disgrace to Sri Lanka. It is the consistent failure to take appropriate action in the case of complaints of abductions and disappearance that constitutes a disgrace to Si Lanka, rather than the actions of human rights defenders to draw attention to this continuing crime.

In the text of the article the MoD stated that “Of the 56 purportedly disappeared only 18 have been reported as actually missing.” However in the breakdown of numbers provided in a chart by the MoD, it admits that in addition to the 18 missing, 10 people were released after abduction, the bodies of 5 people reported abducted were found and another five people were found in police custody. It does not clarify whether those arrested have been initially reported as being abducted due to Police not following legal procedures such as informing the family members and allowing the arrested person to contact a lawyer. The critical issue remains that the MoD itself admits that 38 abductions (including those foiled) took place in Sri Lanka between the period of October 2011 and March 31 2012. 

The MoD also argues that most of those who have been abducted are people connected to underworld criminal gangs, saying “Law enforcement authorities have carried out extensive investigations into these disappearances and come up with startling information about these individuals and their dealings.” The argument seems to justify the abduction and disappearance of suspected ‘criminals’ showing a blatant disregard for the human rights principle that everyone is entitled to equal treatment before the law, and the legal principle that one is only guilty of a crime once the charges against you have been proven. If Sri Lanka is a country that respects the rule of law, then only the courts can judge if a person has committed a criminal act, and it is only the judicial system that can hand down punishment as stipulated in the relevant law. An abduction is illegal because it is a removal of a person from society in a manner that is outside the law, regardless of their personal context, identity etc. The MoD’s responses seem to argue that it is permissible for people to be removed extra judicially, if they are labelled as being ‘anti-social.’

It is only in the one case[4] where the missing person has NOT been labelled a criminal/underworld member, that there has been an arrest of a suspected abductor. This case is that of Dinesh Indika Chandrasiri Silva, who is a member of the governing political alliance in the Minuwangoda Pradeshiya Sabha.

Equally telling is the fact that amongst the 18 persons the MOD accepts as still missing, it is only in the case of two well known human rights defenders who disappeared from Jaffna after campaigning against disappearances (Lalith and Kugan) that the motive and remarks column has been left blank.

The MoD in its response also seems to believe that merely because some of those reported abducted were later found alive, or a body was discovered, it somehow absolves the State of responsibility for the act. Irrespective of whether or not the missing person was found alive or dead, the fact remains that that an abduction took place. Therefore, it is the duty of the State to investigate these continuous abduction, and the State also remains responsible for the abductions and attempted abductions if it fails to conduct an investigation that is capable of prosecuting perpetrators.

The MoD implies that the State is not responsible for the abductions because it suspects that the abductions are a result of gang warfare. The Sri Lankan State – especially the MoD – has gone to great lengths to ensure the world that it maintains full control of law and order in all parts of the island. If the State is in control then it needs to reign in any illegal use of force and prevent abductions. International Law deems that if the State is in control then it is responsible even if the violations are committed by a private actor. The principle of the ‘due diligence’ of the state to prevent citizens from being subject to abduction, was set out in a landmark case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in1988, in which the judges said,

[A]n illegal act which violates human rights and is not … imputable to a State (for example, because it is the act of a private person…) can lead to the international responsibility of the State, not because of the act itself, but because of the lack of due diligence to prevent the violation or to respond to it […][5]

The MoD statement goes on to claim that media reports of 17 of the reported disappearances are false, on the basis that no such incidents were reported to the police from the area, at the time or place where the incident is said to have occurred. One such incident that the MoD claims is false, is that of the abduction of University of Sri Jayawardenepura student S.P. Sajith Sandaruwan. Mr. Sandaruwan was reportedly admitted to the Colombo South General Hospital following his abduction, and his abduction and subsequent release were reported to the media by Ven. Kimbullewe Chandrananda Thera, a Buddhist monk. Since the informant was clearly identified in the newspaper reports, it would have been easy for the MoD to verify the details of the allegation from the monk.

With the exception Mr. Sandaruwan and the four veddah youth, all other incidents that the MoD has claimed to be false, are reports of abductions that took place in the war affected areas of the North and East of Sri Lanka. In the article the MoD is only prepared to accept two abductions in the North, those of Lalith Weeraraj and Muruganandan Kugan. With regard to this case, at a Cabinet briefing on December 15th 2011, Government Media Spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella told the media, “Mr. Weeraraj and Mr. Murugananthan have not disappeared. They are there”[6]. He went on to state that they “would appear in courts soon”[7]. However in April 2012, the State prosecutor informed the Supreme Court that the State did not have any knowledge of the whereabouts of these two men.[8]

Unfortunately, the list compiled from media reports covering 100 days, is evidence of disappearances continuing in Sri Lanka. Not only do they continue with impunity, but the responses of those responsible for maintaining law and order in the country, point to a marked reluctance on their part to conduct effective and credible investigations into the complaints they receive. The State’s complicity in the crime of abduction or attempted abduction was clearly indicated in the statements made by Mr. Gunarathnam and Ms. Attygalle in April 2012, as well as in Mr. Wijesooriya’s complaint in July. But there has been no credible investigation into these complaints, and no one has been apprehended to date.

Abductions violate both the Sri Lankan constitution and International Human Rights Law. Under the Sri Lanka constitution, the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, the right to equal protection under the law and the right to be free from torture are guaranteed under all circumstances[9]. Even if a single abduction has taken place in the country, it is a violation of the Constitution and a violation of human rights. The number of abductions and disappearances is irrelevant. It does not matter if there were “only 18” or 38 or 56 abductions, what matters is that there has been no appropriate response from the state and its agencies which are charged with law enforcement and the maintenance of law and order. The State must investigate the allegations with the objective of identifying and prosecuting perpetrators. It is only by doing so that the cycle of impunity can be broken, and citizens of Sri Lanka be assured that no abductions will take place in the future.

Sri Lanka has a long history of un-investigated disappearances from the 1970s onwards. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, as well as other UN human rights mechanisms have consistently called for the Government of Sri Lanka to take effective action to break the cycle of impunity in this regard, and to deliver justice and redress to the victims of disappearances and members of their families. Recently, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed by the Government, had recommended the creation of a Special Commissioner of Investigation ‘to investigate alleged disappearances and provide material to the Attorney General to initiate criminal proceedings as appropriate’[10] but no action has been taken in this regard after more than 9 months.

Disappearances in Sri Lanka from 1st April to 9th July 2012 (based on English media reports)
Download the table below as a PDF here.

[1] See for analysis and case details of 56 cases of  disappearances between October 2011 and March 2012

[4] In the MoD categories of “missing” and “dead body found.”

[5] Velasquez Rodriguez case, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, judgment 27.7.1988, (Ser. C, No. 4), para. 172.

[6] The Sunday Leader – 18.12.2011

[7] The Sunday Times – 8.1.2012

[8] Army bigwigs deny accusations

[9] It cannot be derogated from in times of Emergency.

[10] LLRC Recommendation 9.51