Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

SRI LANKA: Gov’t Defends Detention of Suspected Tamil Rebels

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Feb 3 2010 (IPS) - Sri Lanka is rejecting claims that some 11,000 people who surrendered as suspected Tamil rebels just before the decades-long bloody conflict ended in May 2009 are being held incommunicado or risk being tortured.

“These allegations are untrue. The surrendered persons have access to relatives and family and we are working with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in their rehabilitation and reintegration programme,” said Major General Daya Ratnayake, Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, which is in charge of all rebel suspects undergoing rehabilitation.

On Tuesday, the U.S.-based rights campaigner, Human Rights Watch (HRW), urged the Sri Lankan government to end the alleged indefinite, arbitrary detention of more than 11,000 people held in “so-called ‘rehabilitation centres’” and release those who are not being prosecuted.

In a 30-page report titled, ‘Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] Suspects in Sri Lanka,’ HRW said its information was based on interviews with the detainees’ relatives, humanitarian workers, and human rights advocates, among others. The government has routinely violated the fundamental rights of the detainees, it said.

“The government has been keeping 11,000 people in a legal limbo for months,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams was quoted as saying. “It’s time to identify who presents a genuine security threat and to release the rest.”

The HRW claim was backed by Sri Lankan Tamil Parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran, who said even agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross were not allowed to visit these centres.

“Nobody knows who is in these camps. When we met President Mahinda Rajapaksa last September, he agreed to our request to release the names of those in these centres. But nothing has happened so far,” the parliamentarian, whose party represents the interests of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority community, told IPS.

Sarasi Wijeratne, spokesperson for the ICRC, said they have not had access to these camps since July 2009. “We did a registration of the inmates at that time. There has been no access since July,” she told IPS.

However, a local human rights group said that access has improved for the detainees in the last two months, owing to the recently concluded Jan. 26 presidential poll.

“As far as we are aware, parents and relatives have access to these camps in recent weeks, though there is a lot of bureaucracy … in getting approval. All this, I believe, is because the government wanted to win the Tamil vote,” said a spokesperson for the agency, who requested that her name and that of her organisation remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

Thousands of young and older people from the rebel movement surrendered to the authorities just as the war was winding down in May 2009. The rebels, fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, were finally defeated by government troops after nearly 30 years of conflict.

Some 11,000 former fighters or supporters of the LTTE since then have been housed in what the government calls ‘rehabilitation centres’ and access to them has been limited.

In an interview with IPS, Ratnayake said his department is focusing on rehabilitating the former rebels under a government programme, which starts after the authorities have identified the hardcore rebels who need to be prosecuted; those who have not been active and need rehabilitation; and those with marginal involvement, who will be released.

“This process is nearing completion, and on Jan. 9 we released 712 detainees while a few more remaining, under this category, will be released soon,” he said, without giving a time frame.

However, the spokesperson for the local human rights group, which has provided legal aid for political prisoners for more than two decades, said they were checking reports that about 200 of the released detainees were being housed at a government detention centre for suspected rebels in the southern town of Galle.

“Last week a 60-year-old Tamil man, who was released from the southern centre, told us that 200 of those released on Jan. 9 were actually brought to the Galle centre. He urged us to help them. We are checking out these reports and plan to send lawyers to that centre,” said the spokesperson.

The group of detainees was released by Rajapaksa himself in the northern centre, weeks before the Jan. 26 election in a widely publicised event, which opposition politicians said was a pre-election stunt to win Tamil votes.

With Parliamentary polls due in March, the government is still keen on winning Tamil support, sources said.

While Rajapaksa won the recent national poll, securing 57 percent of the votes cast compared to 40 percent obtained by his closest rival, former army commander General Sarath Fonseka, he failed to win any district in the Tamil-dominated areas in the north and the east, where the voter turnout was low due to reported intimidation and threats to voters from individuals who were believed to be supporters of Rajapaksa.

Rehabilitation Commissioner Ratnayake said the rehabilitation process has begun and some 600 child soldiers are housed in two camps in Colombo and northern Vavuniya, where he said they receive education and therapy.

“Once they are rehabilitated, hopefully in a year, they would be sent back to their homes,” he assured.

The same applies to 80 percent of all the detainees who, Ratnayake said, would be rehabilitated to prepare them for their reintegration into society. The remaining 20 percent of the detainees were perceived to be hardcore rebels and are the focus of continuing investigations.

The department has prepared a profile of all the detainees, indicating their backgrounds, educational attainments, skills, aptitudes and aspirations. “We wanted to establish what kind of persons they are before working out a conceptual framework and an action plan, which is now being implemented,” he said.

Ratnayake said the children and adults – segregated by sex – will be moved in groups to around 20 locations, where they undergo educational or vocational training.

The programme, financially supported by international agencies and the country’s private sector, has already begun conducting training in short-term courses, such as those on information technology and cosmetology for the females, said Ratnayake.

In the case of some 200 to 300 detainees, their parents cannot be traced. “We are still working on this,” he said, denying claims that the rest do not have access to their families.

He said, in fact, on Sunday, one of the 2,000 girls detained was taken under escort to her home in northern Jaffna as a member of the family had died, and brought back.

“The government, with the help of the private sector, wants to give every able-bodied male or female a job once they leave these centres. However, before that, the integration part is important to prepare them, their family and also the community, because they have been involved in antisocial activity,” he said.

Whether the detainees are hardcore rebels, sympathisers or simply forced by the rebels to join their movement, they should be charged or released, said Parliamentarian Premachandran. “(But) the government released just a few to win votes,” said.

HRW said the government has denied the detainees the right to be informed of specific reasons for their arrest, to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before an independent judicial authority, and to have access to legal counsel and family members

“While the government has the right and responsibility to protect public safety, it also has to do so in a lawful manner that respects basics rights,” the report said.

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