Families of those reported missing visited the Welikada and Boosa prisons last week with the hope of obtaining answers to their questions, but it was to no avail.
Following a request made by the families of the disappeared, the Minister of Public Order John Amaratunga said that he instructed the authorities at Boosa and Welikada to let the families visit the prisons to confirm if those who claimed to be missing are in custody.
The Chairman of the Presidential Commission appointed to inquire into incidents of missing persons, Maxwell Paranagama, said that the commission made arrangements to take a set of family members of the missing persons to the Welikada prison last week.
“A Civil Rights movement which is working on this issue of the disappeared brought some parents who believed that their missing family members are being held in the prison based on some photo evidence taken during a function in the Welikada prison. We made arrangements for them to visit the Welikade prison last Thursday. The prisons authority presented all the prisoners detained related to the war for the parents to identify but none of the parents could identity their children,” Paranagama said. He added that these parents were suspecting that their missing family members have been detained somewhere in a different custody.
According to Paranagama, the commission has also made a request to the secretary of Justice asking him to forward a list of names who are being detained in prisons since the war. However he added that the commission had not discussed this matter with the Justice Minister as yet.
“A letter will be sent not only to the Ministry of Justice to obtain lists of detainees in the prisons but also to the Ministry of Defence to obtain a list of refugee who have been in the refugee camps and detention camps. We have already received a list of name from hospitals of people who have been treated and sent out during war and there are over 14000 people in medical registry and we will have to cross check the names,” he added. However he said cross checking the names in the list is a difficult task as most of the people have given their first name or the name they use.
Recently, the coordinating committee for enforced disappearances working on the issues related to the families of the missing persons also submitted a memorandum with their concerns and recommendations to the President and to the Presidential Commission appointed to inquire into the cases of missing persons.
They demanded the President immediately issue a report listing the names, dates of birth, identification numbers, and places of detention for all persons currently held in Government custody, whether in jails, detention centers, secret camps, or otherwise as a first and non-negotiable confidence-building step. They believed that this information is readily available at the government authorities.
The collective of civil societies working on this issue also said that the ICRC’s Director of Operations recently visited Sri Lanka and offered to set up an independent process to clarify the fate of missing persons and the President should accept all such offers of technical assistance from the U.N. and ICRC to overcome the trust deficit with families of the disappeared and signal a genuine commitment to finding truth.
According to the memorandum, they have hardly any faith in the exiting committee appointed to investigate into the cases of the missing persons as the commission has continued to fail to address these issues due to certain flaws in the process. The memorandum highlighted several structural flaws of the commission and said that they believe continuing the Commission with such structural flaws without addressing them will be a futile exercise from the point of view of the families.
Accordingly, they pointed out that the Commission’s mandate is too broad both in terms of thematic and temporal scope and unwieldy and therefore recommended to limit the mandate of the Commission to Enforced Disappearance as originally envisaged. The ad hoc extension of the thematic scope, after the Commission had already received thousands of testimonies, does not permit a fair and thorough investigation of civilian casualties or violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Worse still, it diverts attention away from the core issue of enforced disappearances which was the original mandate of the Commission,” they stated. Further, they recommended, 1983 to 2009 time frame be maintained but prioritise investigation, prosecution, and redress for complaints of disappearances since 2000.
“Provide a transparent mechanism for families of the disappeared to seek truth about disappearances in all parts of the country, as well as disappearances after May 2009. Abductions have occurred in all parts of the country since 1983, not just the North and East, and many disappearances have been reported after the war ended in May 2009,” they said.
No public confidence
They further said that there is no public confidence that the Commission will effectively promote truth, justice, and redress. Despite the volume of complaints received, they said that there is no indication that any investigations are currently underway whereas the families who are in search of their loved ones are going through various harassments in the process. “Man have been pressured to accept death certificates in lieu of offering testimony to the Commission, and those who have testified have faced intimidation and harassment by intelligence and military officials,” it noted.
They demanded that individuals who speak to the special units must be protected by law the special prosecutors should be granted authority to prosecute any individual who attempts to tamper with evidence or threaten witnesses. “Develop a comprehensive restorative justice process, keeping the principles of durable solutions which includes trauma counseling, social programmes, and economic and livelihood assistance. Provide compensation to families of the disappeared in a comprehensive manner while making it clear that such compensation will not jeopardise their standing to pursue truth and justice,” they further demanded.
International experts lack transparency
According to the memorandum, international experts appointed to advise the Commission lack transparency, further eroding public confidence. Therefore, they requested the President to appoint new international advisors, consisting of representatives from the ICRC, U.N., Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Appoint independent local advisors from civil society organisations, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, and community organisations that can engage with families of the disappeared to promote greater transparency and local buy-in,” they said.
They further demanded to appoint officers in the Commission who are knowledgeable about the North and East, and provide these officers/Commissioners with an orientation about the situation during the war. They requested the appointment to be done in consultation with the affected people and the civil society organisations that are working with them.
In addition, they asked the President to increase the number of officers/Commissioners for the Commission. “Given the sheer volume of complaints received, and the amount of time spent evaluating each petition, civil society organisations estimate that it would take 13 years to simply hear, not investigate, the complaints received thus far,” they pointed out.
They also asked the President to appoint new Commissions (like Human Rights Commission offices in the island) to conduct fact-finding hearings for the Commission that sits at least three to four days per week in multiple locations.
Internal matters for the Commission to address
“Many, if not all, the sittings have military intelligence officials present in civilian clothes in the vicinity as well as within the premises of the Commission sitting. Those making submissions and accompanying families have faced intimidation both during the days of the Commission sitting and subsequently, “The coordinating committee for enforced disappearances claimed. Therefore they requested the Commission/new mechanism to allow victims to submit testimonies in private with only approved members being present – and to ensure that military and intelligence officers are not permitted on the premises or surrounding area during the hearings.
According to them, many complaints had been made about gross errors in translation. “The commission/new mechanism should bring in more fluent translators, ideally women. Such an important commission cannot run on a couple of translator more translators and Tamil-speaking officers should be retained to hear complaints,” they noted. They further added that the Commission should have more Tamil-speaking members, to ease workload and work with local advisors, including members of civil society, to identify credible members with sufficient understanding of the history and context of the North and East.