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Sri Lanka: Spectre of abductions by
the security forces officially admitted

On 6 March 2007, Sri Lanka's Inspector General of Police (IGP), Victor Perera stated that over 400 persons including “ex-soldiers, serving soldiers, police officers and underworld gangs and other organised elements” had been arrested since September 2006 on charges of abduction. Mr Perera refused to divulge further details. But Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) believes that majority of those abducted have been killed.

The announcement of the IGP appears to be the first official admission about the role of the police and the army in abductions and enforced disappearances. Often, the Sri Lankan government dismissed such allegations and set up inquiry commissions which whitewashed the gross human rights violations.

The intensity of abductions and disappearances in Sri Lanka require little introduction. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) is reportedly investigating 16,305 past cases of disappearance left un-inquired by the All Island Commission on Disappearances. According to HRCSL, about 100 abductions and disappearances have been reported so far in 2007. The majority of these abductions have taken place in the capital Colombo, Batticaloa in the Eastern Province and Jaffna peninsula in the Northern Province. Over 1,000 cases of abductions were reported in 2006 and ethnic Tamil minorities were the main victims.

I. Impunity: Inadequacies of the systems

Blanket impunity and the lack of systemic protections intensified human rights violations.  Rather, laws were adopted which facilitate abductions and disappearances.

In May 2005, the Sri Lankan government adopted draconian Code of Criminal Procedure (Special Provisions) Act and Criminal Procedure Code Amendment Act in the name of speedy justice. The Acts empowered the Police Officer not below the rank of Assistant Commissioner of Police to detain persons for 48 hours, instead of existing 24 hours, in certain cases such as killings, rape and any offence committed with the use of explosives or offensive weapons without producing before the judge. The Acts also provided for the extension of the period of detention of persons arrested without producing before the court. In these offences, a magistrate has been also empowered to hold a preliminary inquiry and forward the record of the proceedings to the Attorney General, who on receipt of the record of the proceedings can decide whether to file indictments in the High Court, thereby denying trials at the lower courts. The Acts also provided that statements made by a witness in the course of the investigations shall become part of the records of the inquiry after the Magistrate had verified the accuracy of such a statement and both the witness and the Magistrate had certified it. 

The institutional mechanisms have been inadequate. In 2002, the Sri Lankan government set up National Police Commission (NPC) under the 17th Constitutional Amendment with the power of “appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of police officers other than the Inspector-General of Police”, among others. The NPC also has power to “entertain and investigate public complaints and complaints of any aggrieved person made against a police officer or the police service, and provide redress in accordance with the provisions of any law enacted by Parliament for such purpose.” However, the NPC has been hamstrung by the lack of adequate financial resources, investigative powers and the lack of cooperation from the police department. Chairman of NPC, Mr Ranjith Abeysuriya stated that effectiveness of the NPC depends on the goodwill of the police administration, and not its own effectiveness.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has not been different. Since inception, it has been hamstrung by the failure to establish transparency in its work. The lack of powers to enforce its recommendations and inadequate financial resources remained serious impediment to its effectiveness and independence. In its Annual Report 2003, the last one to have been made public, HRCSL stated, “owing to the heavy cuts imposed on the HRC budget in terms of the government's budgetary policy, HRC was severely constrained during this period in carrying out its routine duties such as visiting police stations and this often hampered the Commission in performing this deterrent role as efficiently as it would have”. The HRCSL recommended that the Human Rights Commission Act of 1996 should be amended to make the recommendations of the Commission enforceable but no action was taken by the government.

II. Establishing accountability: Spotlight on International Independent Group of Eminent Persons

President Mahinda Rajapakse set up his own Presidential Commission of Inquiry headed by former High Court Judge Mahanama Tilakaratna to enquire into disappearances. This was nothing new considering that each new President of Sri Lanka had a penchant for setting up his/her own commissions of inquiry. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal of Persons of 1991, Regional Commissions of Inquiry in 1995, A Board of Investigation of the Ministry of Defence of 1996, All Islands Commission of Inquiry in 2000 are some of the inquiry commissions set up by different governments.

In its fourth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2005, the Sri Lankan government stated that Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal of Persons (13.11.94 to 03.10.97) had concluded that approximately 16,800 persons had disappeared during the period. The All Island Commissions of Inquiry “reported that further 10,400 persons had disappeared” during the relevant period”. The Sri Lankan government stated that “With this new addition the total number of persons who had disappeared during the period 1988-90 currently remains approximately at 27,200”. In December 2002, a Committee was appointed under the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to investigate reports of over six hundred cases of "disappearance" which took place in Jaffna district during 1996 and 1997. The HRCSL reportedly did not receive information about 42 people from Batticaloa and four from Amparai who disappeared in 2002.

Kidnappings and disappearances in Sri Lanka have intensified following the collapse of the Cease-Fire Agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. With the government backing the Karuna faction, the abductions and disappearances at the hands of the armed opposition groups have also intensified.

It is unlikely that that Justice Mahanama Tilakaratna Commission of Inquiry will establish accountability. All the eyes are presently on the inquiry to be conducted by International Independent Group of Eminent Persons headed by India's former Chief Justice, Justice P N Bhagawati. Given Sri Lankan government's track record of consistent failure to establish accountability, the eminent persons, who will make trips to Sri Lanka on rotational basis according to the Terms of Reference, have put their credibility at stake. The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons remains the last hope for the victims and their relatives, though the Terms of Reference belie any such hope.

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