By Waruni KarunarathneThe previous government launched several investigations and even appointed a presidential commission to look into the complaints related to missing persons during the war in order to help the friends and relatives of the missing persons to find as to what happened to them – and also to establish truth and to help them move on. However, many have observed that these investigations and the commission have not led anywhere in terms of giving relief to those who were affected by the war. The mothers of forcibly-disappeared persons still lament on streets holding placards demanding the government to establish truth and give them answers. Recently in Mannar, mothers of forcibly-disappeared persons staged a silent protest demanding to know whereabouts of those went missing during the war – and their demands included the release of the Tamil political prisoners and the continuation of the excavation of the alleged Mannar mass grave.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Shreen Saroor, founder of the Mannar Women’s Development Federation and Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy said that there is a huge issue about whether the affected women rely on the local mechanism or not. Even though these women have got some hope with the change of the government, she pointed out that it is not only under the previous regime people disappeared but also under the watch of several others people went missing – and they are now part of the new government. Therefore she insisted that they have to collectively show this is a different regime by establishing truth.
“One of the easiest things that they can do is to open the known prisons like Boossa and Welikada for people to visit their kith and kin held in those prisons. That is a very easy thing to do,” she said. Sharoor demanded the new regime to expedite the cases of political prisoners – thus they can be either charged or released without dragging the cases.
She also showed lack of faith in the Presidential Commission appointed to look into the complaints related to missing persons. She said that there are about 20000 cases of missing persons – even though the commission had conducted several sessions, they have not revealed its findings to the public. She further noted that most women were intimidated by the manner in which inquiries were carried out and women were put off.
She went into saying that the findings of the investigation which the commission has collected so far should be released to the public – else once the report is given to the executive President or to the parliament everything get cooked up. “If you look at the interim recommendations of the LLRC and the final LLRC, it is totally different. It is being written to soothe the government. They should share the report at least with the civil society. Civil society should be there to oversee the commission and to come up with something suitable,” she pointed out.
She added that there are some speculations about the report that was supposed to be tabled in March by the Commissioner of Investigations which probably will talk a lot about disappearances that is one of the core issues cut across all the communities in Sri Lanka. However she added that many fear that this report would not be tabled and end up like any other reports on disappearances where reports were not published or do not see the light at the end of the tunnel. According to her, the new regime is also worried about tabling the report of the commission since the commission investigated incidents from 2002 to 2011. With that regard, she questioned about the accountability of this process.
In the bottom line she said what is important for the people is to have a proper tribunal and to know the truth. She added that people have been searching for their kith and kins who have been disappeared – and some of them know if they surrendered to the army or were taken forcibly. “Let’s say some come out of the prisons, but what happened to the others? That is why it is important to excavate the Mannar mass grave and allow people to give their DNA and bring people from outside for proper investigation,” she stated. Meantime she questioned if the regime has prepared the ground for a justice process and a way to make people acknowledge the truth.
Women Affected by the war also had sent their demands for the attention of the new President. Among many demands, they requested those being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) without charges should be released immediately or charged based on sound and credible evidence – Trials, including ongoing trials, of those charged under the PTA should be expedited. They also requested the president to publish a list of those who are detained, the reasons for their detention and the places where they are detained – and they demanded that this list should be shared with their family and legal counsel.
TNA MP Suresh Premachandran also reiterated that the kith and kins of the disappeared persons have the right to know whether they are still surviving or not – or as to how they went missing. He added that some of them surrendered to the army and others were taken away to the camps – and if that is the case people ought to know where they are. “There are many Tamil political prisoners held in prisons without a case or with on-going cases dragged over many years. There are also convicted prisoners held in prisons,” Premachandran added. He claimed that the Sri Lankan government released people like Karuna-amman and KP and let them get involved in politics – and he questioned why the government could not consider giving a general amnesty to the Tamil political prisoners.
Meantime, Chairman of the Presidential Commission to Investigate into complaints related to Missing Persons Maxwell Paranagama added that the commission has finished the draft of the interim report and would soon complete the final interim report to be presented to the President whereas the President has not yet given them an appointment. He added that the commission has requested an extension to complete its investigations and is awaiting the President’s response. He also denied some claims of some women who came to give evidence being intimidated by the manner in which the inquiries were held. He added that people had been very cordially coordinating with the commission and he had not received any complaints against the commission.
According to him, the commission received over 19000 complaints whereas up to now they have heard about 2000 complaints and they inquired into to each incident individually. He added that the reports of the findings so far would be included in the interim report which is to be given to the president.
The Commission has continued to encourage complainants to provide private testimony, if preferred by making themselves available for ‘private’ hearings. Two women provided testimony at the presence only of the Commission’s members, State Counsels and the translator.
Key highlights of the Proceedings based on the 9th report of the representatives of the civil society
Nature of testimonies:
Claim of perpetrators
About the 40% of the testimonies cited the incident led to disappearance or persons responsible for abduction are ‘unknown’. 29% of the cases testified Sri Lankan security forces as perpetrators along with ample evidence of the involvement of the Sri Lankan state actors in abductions/disappearances held in the district. 15% of the testimonies claimed responsibility over the LTTE for abductions and disappearances. Within the remaining 15% of the testimonies, few cases informed on the ‘white van’ abductions apart from the claims over CID officers, Indian Peace Keeping Force and PLOTE cadres. Testimonies indicated that in general, abductions were carried out for both, political reasons and for ransom. The descriptions provided by the testifiers indicated that the disappearances held with political motivations did happen with the participation of the State actors at different level. Few of the abductions driven by ransom were undertaken by individuals/groups in partial involvement of the security forces/STF/CID officers. In many cases, complainants had confirmation that the disappeared person was taken to a specific Military camp immediately after the arrest. The Commission was also confronted with a number of testimonies from people who disclosed the involvement of the LTTE in events led to disappearances. These were mainly abductions of males from the Muslim community in 1990s and recruitment of the Tamil youth which includes forced recruitment. A case alleging the PLOTE was also recorded with credible evidence.
Depth of testimonies
A number of complainants disclosed very accurate information on the perpetrator. Also sufficient details were provided that would facilitate the Commission to start an investigation. Crucial information such as the names of the military/CID officers or military camps involved in the incident that led to the disappearances, numbers of the vehicle that took their relatives away; the phone numbers from which the calls with ransom demands and/ or threats were made, the numbers of bank accounts to which the perpetrators instructed the family to transfer the ransom money etc.. In addition, a certain number of complainants presented various news paper articles in which they have found the name of their “disappeared” family member. As similar to the previous hearings, discrepancies were noted between the written complaint submitted to the Commission and the oral testimony. Specifically in relation to the description of the event led to disappearance, claim of perpetrator and the date of disappearances.
Co-convenor of the Platform for Freedom, Brito Fernando told The Sunday Leader that representatives of the civil society have complied reports based on direct observation and exchange of information with families of the missing persons summoned for the hearings. He added that since the establishment of the commission in August 2013, the Commission has received 19,741 complaints including approximately 5,000 from the Security Forces – the Commission in total has convened 1,856 complainants and recorded 1,448 testimonies.
According to the 9th report, as a whole, Vavuniya district has experienced widespread and organised enforced disappearances particularly during the period of 2006-2008, before the last phase of the war.
Key Observations of the 9th report of the representatives of the civil society on testimonies
Complaints from the Muslim community
Among the seven hearings held in the Northern Province, this hearing registered the presence of the higher number of Muslim complainants. Nearly all the cases testified by the Muslim families were in relation to the context following the expulsion of the Muslims by the LTTE from the Northern Province in 1990. In response to the Commission’s question on the possibility of the disappeared being alive, the majority of the testifiers voiced their disbelief and those who haven’t obtained the death certificate expressed willingness in obtaining one along with the relevant compensation.
As per the past hearings, different forms of intimidation undertaken by the Terrorist Investigations Division (TID) and the Criminal investigation Department (CID) officers as phone calls or frequent visits to the residence of the complainants were reported in many testimonies. Generally, such home visits of the CID/TID are regarded as frightening act by most of the families. On the other hand for some families, such visits undertaken by the CID officers increase hopefulness about the existence of the disappeared persons. The enduring culture of fear was evident among some of the complainants, especially in an event where the disappeared person was an ex-LTTE cadre, complainants were hesitant to disclose details when the Commission probed on any links with the LTTE. This could be due to either the fear of potential intimidation at the ground level by the CID/TID actors and/or anxiety over the possible investigations of the Commission fearing that the Commission would pay less consideration on investigating the cases of former LTTE cadres. The Commission also recorded the first testimony that was provided on behalf of a person arrested in 2014 in Palai, Kilinochchi district during Vavuniya hearing. As per the testimony, the arrest was undertaken by the TID for allegedly supporting the re-emergence of the LTTE.
On the approach adopted by the Commission based on the 9th report of the representatives of the civil society
Cases recognized as ‘out of mandate’
During the early stages of the public hearings, the complainants were informed that the cases classified as “out of mandate” will not be addressed by the Commission, instead they would be communicated to the relevant authorities. However, during the hearings in Vavuniya three cases that could be classified as “out of mandate” due to the location of the incident, were still accepted by the Commission and testimonies were recorded. Nevertheless, where a case has been filed at the Courts by the complainant, the Chairman indicated that the Commission will not interfere in such cases.
Focus on the additional elements of the mandate
In comparison to the past hearings held in Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu and Mannar, this time in Vavuniya only few cases were inquired about the causes of civilian deaths, any ‘collateral damage’ to civilians and violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law committed by both parties to the armed conflict. This could be merely due to the mode of disappearances held in Vavuniya district prior to the last phase of the war in 2009. Majority of the cases were reported to have been held during 2006-08 and not being directly linked to the final phase of the war. In addition, the majority of the testimonies were provided on behalf of the civilians and very lesser amount of complainants testified on behalf of former LTTE cadres.