Tissa is finally free!

The Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa“) is finally free!  As I wrote on this site earlier, Tissa had been sentenced last year to 20 years’ hard labor, after an unfair trial, for criticizing the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers in a couple magazine articles.  Amnesty International had adopted Tissa as a “prisoner of conscience,” since he was being prosecuted solely for his legitimate journalistic activities.  While the Sri Lankan government had announced on May 3  that President Rajapaksa had decided to pardon Tissa, as of June 9 the pardon still hadn’t been issued.  Nor did we know whether his rights would be fully restored, including the right to leave the country.

Well, his pardon has finally come through and he has gotten his passport back.  As the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported, Tissa arrived in Washington, DC yesterday morning.  Thank you very, very much to all those who wrote on his behalf; I’m sure it helped a lot in getting his freedom restored.

Now’s the time for the Sri Lankan government to take other steps to demonstrate its respect for media freedom and human rights, including determining the fate of the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the emergency regulations.  I hope I’ll be able to report more good news again soon.

Sri Lankan doctors "recant" prior testimony

A group of Sri Lankan doctors currently in detention were produced by the Sri Lankan government before the media today in order to recant their prior reports of civilian deaths during the last stages of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  I’d written about three of these doctors in an earlier entry on this blog, expressing concern that their arrest by the government shortly after leaving the war zone was in reprisal for their earlier reports.  The doctors had provided eyewitness accounts from the war zone detailing the extent of civilian suffering earlier this year.

Since January, an intense military offensive by the government gradually reconquered all the territory once held by the Tigers.  In mid-May, the government announced that it had defeated the Tigers and recaptured all their territory.  Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers had been thousands of civilians who were prevented by the Tigers from leaving; some civilians who did flee were shot by the Tigers as they did so.  The government forces repeatedly shelled the war zone, despite the heavy concentration of civilians in an increasingly shrinking area.  The government denied that it had caused any civilian casualties.  Since the government barred independent observers and the media from the war zone, the doctors’ reports were one of the few eyewitness accounts available as to what was actually happening in the war zone.

Despite U.N figures of more than 7,000 civilian deaths this year, the doctors today said only 650-750 civilians were killed this year.  Their estimate also happens to be far below the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate – a Sri Lankan government official last month estimated 3,000 – 5,000 civilians had been killed.

The Sri Lankan government had said, and the doctors today asserted, that their earlier reports from the war zone had been given under pressure from the Tigers who then controlled the area they were in.  Consider this:  the doctors have been in detention by the government since mid-May and have yet to be charged.  At today’s press conference, they expressed hope that they might now be released.

Also consider that last week, Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa had said in an interview with the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, when asked why the doctors couldn’t be released now, “I told them to organize a press conference.  Let the doctors come and say what they have to say.”  You might think that that would mean that the doctors have now done what the President wanted, so they’d now be released.  But note that in the same interview, Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President Rajapaksa, had said about the doctors, “If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent.”

If the doctors had been under pressure earlier from the Tigers while the fighting was going on, have they since been under pressure from the government to “recant” their earlier reports?  AI said today that the doctors’ statements were “expected and predicted,” since we feared that their detention by the government was intended to produce exactly the result we saw today.

I’ll repeat the request I made in my earlier entry about the doctors:  please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  slembassy@slembassyusa.org).  Please ask that the doctors be released immediately from detention unless they’re promptly charged with a recognizable crime.  They should be given all the medical care they may need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice.  Thanks for your help.

Sri Lanka arrests three doctors

I’m very worried.  In the final days of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers, it had been hard to get reliable information as to what was happening in the war zone, since the government had barred access to the area to independent observers.  One of the few sources of information were the reports from three government-employed doctors (Drs. T. Sathiyamoorthy, Varatharajah and Shanmugarajah) who were working in the  war zone.  They provided eyewitness accounts to reporters detailing the suffering of the civilians trapped in the area, many of whom died from war-related injuries.  Their reports highlighted continuous shelling of areas in which civilians were concentrated.

The three doctors were reported to have left the war zone on May 15 with about 5,000 other civilians.  They were last seen at a holding area at the Omanthai checking point.  Amnesty International has gotten reports that Dr. Varatharajah was seriously injured and was airlifted by the Sri Lankan Air Force to an unknown destination.  We also understand that Drs. Sathiyamoorthy and Shanmugarajah were arrested and are now in the custody of the Terrorist Investigation Division, a police unit, in the capital, Colombo.  However, no detention order has been issued so their relatives don’t know where they are or what their status is.

I’m very concerned that the doctors may have been detained in reprisal for the reporting they had done from the war zone.  A Sri Lankan health official has been quoted as saying that they were detained on accusations that they gave false information about civilian casualties to the media.  A top UN official yesterday said that the doctors had “performed absolutely heroically” and expressed concern about their fate.

Please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S., Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  slembassy@slembassyusa.org).  Please ask that the doctors be released immediately from detention unless they’re promptly charged with a recognizable crime.  They should be given all the medical care they need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice.  Thanks for your help.

Disappearance of Sri Lankan human rights defender

It’s not only the war zone in northern Sri Lanka where people are at risk.  On May 7, Stephen Sunthararaj was abducted in Colombo, the capital, by five men dressed in military uniform and carrying pistols.  At the time, he was traveling in his lawyer’s car with his wife and two children, when two men on motorcycles pulled up in front of the car to stop it.  As the car stopped, a white van pulled up next to it and the five men emerged and forced Sunthararaj into the van which then drove off.  There’s been no word from Sunthararaj since then.  The police haven’t started any investigation and the Sri Lankan authorities haven’t provided any information as to his status or whereabouts.

Sunthararaj’s enforced disappearance may be due to his work as a Project Manager at the Centre for Human Rights and Development, a Sri Lankan human rights organization.  At the time of his abduction, he had just been released hours earlier from police custody.  He had been arrested by the army on February 12 in Colombo and later transferred to the police.  He was never charged with any offense.

Sri Lanka’s security forces have been responsible for tens of thousands of enforced disappearances over the past thirty years.  Last year, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed concern about the high number of recent cases of enforced disappearances reported from Sri Lanka.

Please write to President Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk or modadm@sltnet.lk) on behalf of Sunthararaj.  Ask that the government carry out an independent investigation into his enforced disappearance and prosecute those responsible.  If he is found to be in custody, he should either be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense or else immediately released; while he is detained, he should be treated humanely and given access to his family, lawyer and medical care.  Ask that the government ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their work without fear of harassment or intimidation.  Thanks.

U.N. calls for pause in Sri Lankan fighting

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a temporary pause in the fighting in Sri Lanka between the government forces and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in order to allow humanitarian aid into the war zone to reach the trapped civilians there.  The Secretary-General also urged the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the area and to stop forced recruitment.

Today, the Sri Lankan government announced that President Rajapaksa had invited the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka to see for himself the situation of civilians displaced by the fighting.  It’s unclear whether Ban would be allowed to visit the war zone, though President Rajapaksa  apparently did say that Ban’s visit would permit him to be able to make a better assessment of the conditions faced by the civilians still being held by the LTTE in the war zone.  The Sri Lankan government still won’t permit a U.N. humanitarian mission to enter the conflict area despite an earlier agreement with the Secretary-General to do so.

I hope the Secretary-General takes up the President’s offer, goes to Sri Lanka and is able to visit all parts of the country in safety, including the war zone.  I also hope President Rajapaksa responds positively to the Secretary-General’s request and orders a temporary pause in the fighting to allow aid into the war zone.  I also hope the LTTE responds to the Secretary-General, allows civilians to leave the war zone and releases all child soldiers and other forced recruits.  I try to live in hope; it’s better than the alternative.

Extend truce now in Sri Lanka

Last Sunday, President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka announced a two-day pause in offensive operations against the opposition Tamil Tigers, in observance of the Sinhala/Tamil New Year.  Over 150,000 Tamil civilians are trapped with the Tigers in a government-declared “safe zone” – a small pocket of coastal land in northeastern Sri Lanka which is the only remaining territory controlled by the Tigers.  The Tigers won’t let the civilians leave and have shot and killed those trying to flee the area.  Both the Sri Lankan army and the Tigers have shelled the civilians; hundreds have died since the start of this year.  The two-day truce called by President Rajapaksa is a welcome step but more is needed.  Both sides must agree to a sufficient pause to allow the civilians to leave the area safely and to allow in humanitarian aid for those unable or unwilling to leave.  The Tigers in particular must allow the civilians under their control the ability to choose to stay in the area or to leave without being harmed.

As part of AIUSA’s annual “Get on the Bus” event, AIUSA members and supporters will be gathering outside the Sri Lankan Mission to the U.N. in New York City this coming Friday, April 17.  We will be asking the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to stop attacking civilians, to allow them to leave the conflict area safely and to allow in aid for those unable or unwilling to leave.  Please consider joining us and raising your voice for the suffering civilians trapped in the crossfire.