Photo courtesy of Kumanan Kanapathippillai

Today is the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims

The images are stark and compelling. The STF men are stoic and menacing. They stand unmoving, machine guns clasped tightly to their chests, their faces obscured by motorcycle helmets. The women are grey-haired, untidy and vocal. They gesticulate wildly, shouting in Sinhalese, accusing former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of murdering their sons. They wanted to meet him during his visit to Jaffna to lay a foundation stone for a Buddhist temple but were prevented by the barricade of STF personnel. The scene ends with the women pelting stones at a banner with Rajapaksa faces, tearing it down and stamping on it.

In another scene, screaming black clad women accost police forcing their bus to reverse as they were heading to protest along the route the Prime Minister was taking. One woman lies on the road to stop the bus. The police do not know how to react.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the government persists in the mistaken belief that the families of victims of enforced disappearances can be silenced with money. Time and again the families, consisting mostly of mothers, wives and sisters, have made it abundantly clear that they are not prepared to take compensation if it means an acknowledgment of death. They are holding continuous years of protest in the north and east; they march on every significant anniversary and commemorative day; and, having exhausted every local avenue, they demand international intervention.

In 2006 the UN confirmed that people had the right to know the truth about gross human rights violations and serious violations of human rights law. This right was linked to governments’ duty and obligation to protect and guarantee human rights, to conduct investigations and to guarantee remedy and reparations. In December 2010, the UN proclaimed March 24 as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

In the run up to the Geneva sessions earlier this month, the government made some gestures to appease the United Nations Human Rights Council but fell far short of convincing it that Sri Lanka was in any way moving closer to bring about truth and justice for those looking for disappeared relatives.

The government has announced that it would pay Rs.100,000 as reparation to the next of kin of disappeared people. It will be done after the issuance of a death certificate or a certificate of absence. Earlier attempts to give compensation were rejected because of the necessity for a death certificate after which a person could no longer be missing. The relatives will also be given land if they have lost their land due to the war or there are ownership disputes.

The Office on Missing Persons, set up to investigate complaints of enforced disappearances, has received 14,988 complaints. Twenty five Boards of Inquiry will be set up to expedite investigations into the complaints. Foreign Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris has announced that the government hoped to develop a truth seeking mechanism based on the report of the Nawaz Commission of Inquiry. Speaking at a media conference with visiting US State Department Under Secretary of Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, Professor Peiris said the assistance of the US was “most welcome” in setting up the truth seeking mechanism.

In January 2021, President Rajapaksa appointed the Commission of Inquiry to investigate, inquire into and report or take necessary actions on findings of preceding Commissions or Committees appointed to investigate into human rights violations, serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and other such offences. Supreme Court Judge A. H. M. D. Nawaz was appointed as the Chairman of the Commission.

“Families of disappeared want truth and justice. They have clearly stated they don’t want death certificates and compensation in lieu of truth and justice. To the Rajapaksa government, Rs. 100,000 is the price of a life. This is insulting, callous and cruel,” tweeted former Human Rights Commissioner and human rights activist Ambika Satkunanathan.

“It’s time that those pointing to the Office on Missing Persons or to other ad-hoc measures such as boards of inquiry to ‘expedite investigations’ as means of finding solutions accept that this government has no intention of holding anyone accountable. They only seek to bury truth and justice,” she pointed out.

Those who keep on pursing their quest for truth and justice are regularly harassed and intimidated by security personnel. Memorialisation is forbidden and those who dare to remember their relatives lost in the war are targeted and kept under surveillance.

In a report Still No Answers published in February this year, Amnesty International, said “Amnesty International observed that the space available for families of the disappeared to continue their pursuit for truth and justice is increasingly shrinking owing to intimidation tactics by the state. The seeming return of ‘white van’ style arrests in different parts of the country, harassment and intimidation of victim families by law enforcement officers through unannounced visits, intimidating phone calls, surveillance and taking photographs during protests are to name a few. Additionally, the state security apparatus as of late has begun approaching the judiciary to pre-emptively restrict the victims’ freedom to protest.”

According to the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), 503 people disappeared between May 17 to 19, 2009 after surrendering to the military crossing Vadduvakal bridge. One of the most notorious cases that has been recorded by eye witnesses is the disappearance of several hundred people who got on to buses after surrendering. The military told everyone who had any connection with the LTTE to come forward.

“We collected seven lists identifying the people known to have disappeared including people whom eyewitnesses saw being handed over to the army, were seen in army custody, were seen crossing the bridge or being detained south of the bridge, were seen at the Omanthai checkpoint, or were on a list specifically designating them as surrendered to the Army,” HRDAG said in a 2018 report.

One of people who boarded a fateful bus was Vairamuttu Raththeeswaran. His wife, Sabitha, is a vocal and articulate women who maintains her composure when telling her story but sometimes breaks down in tears, wiping them away with the corner of her starched purple and cream saree.

Sabitha wears her thali and has a large red dot on her forehead to show she is married. She lives with her two children on the border of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu on a spacious property that was bought by her husband. She took a Sinhala language course and earns her living giving tuition.

She recalls vividly the day she last saw her husband – May 18, 2009. The couple and their two children of seven and two had crossed the lagoon to the military side at 6 am. The army men announced through loudspeakers that anyone who had been associated with the LTTE should come forward and that they would be released after an inquiry. Her husband, an LTTE member, surrendered. At 10 am he was put on a bus and taken to the Omanthai checkpoint. Before he left he smiled at her and told her that there was no problem. That was the last time she saw her husband.

Sabeetha was also put on a bus to Omanthai, where she was kept for three days before being interrogated. “The military wanted me to leave my children but I wouldn’t. They threatened me with bad language and said they would hit me if I didn’t tell the truth. I said I was not an active member of the LTTE.”

Later the family were taken to Manik farm where they faced harsh conditions with little food or water, living in crowded and unsanitary surroundings. In November they left the camp and her ongoing quest to find out what had happened to her husband began with letters to every IDP centre, visits to military camps and police stations, registering her husband as a missing person with the ICRC, giving evidence at numerous commissions and interviews with people looking for information on the missing.

Sabeetha is steadfast in her conviction that her husband is still alive. “The army said they would release him and that is why we are waiting. Three buses full of people surrendered and were not returned. It is their duty to keep them safe and to return them. The government doesn’t want to identify them as disappeared persons. They want to call me a widow. I don’t accept that word,” she says firmly. “This government should answer because the president was secretary of defence when this happened and the military was under his control.”

She has no faith in any local justice processes and has pinned her hopes on international pressure being brought to bear on the government.

“I am asked to accept a death certificate but in front of witnesses I handed over my husband alive and well to the army, so how can I accept a death certificate? I don’t want compensation, I don’t want a death certificate, I don’t want a certificate of absence,” she says defiantly. “We are struggling, we are being punished. Who is going to punish the perpetrators?” she asks.

Here some photographs of the women’s protests taken by Kumanan Kanapathippillai.

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