Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: AHRC calls for high level inquiry into forcible removal of several hundred Tamils from Colombo and further action for their protection

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The Asian Human Rights Commission condemns the forcible removal of several hundred Tamils from Colombo by the Sri Lankan police and military in an operation carried out on the morning of June 7, 2007. Several buses were loaded with Tamils, a few of whom, according to reports are permanent residents and others who were visiting Colombo.

They were deported to Tamil areas in the north and the east. The Sri Lankan police and the army did not have any legal powers to carry out such forcible removals and in fact these acts are in violation of the Sri Lankan Constitution and all civilized norms and standards of treatment. This operation which was carried out secretly has come under severe criticism in the country within the last 24 hours.

Four leading opposition party spokesmen from the UNP, JVP, TNA and the NSSP in speaking to the BBC Sinhala service condemned this action and raised fears about the adverse implications of this operation. The operation was also condemned by several civil society organisations. (See below an Open Letter written by several human rights organisations to the government on this issue).

This operation clearly provokes and aggravates ethnic divisions. As citizens of Sri Lanka, Tamils need not provide any specific reason to justify their stay in any part of the country. This also applies to Sinhalese, Muslims and others who have equal entitlement on the basis of common citizenship. The purported reason for this indiscriminate treatment of Tamils is that it is not possible for Sri Lankan authorities to distinguish who might be a possible suspect of terrorism and who is not. Thus, persons of Tamil origins are treated as possible terrorists unless he or she can prove otherwise. The judgement on the matter is left to any police of military officer who happens to be conducting the search. Acceptance of such presumptions and assigning of such powers to police and military officers is not only illegal but completely irrational.

A law enforcement agency that cannot distinguish who is a real suspect of a crime and who is not has reached a stage where it endangers the security of persons and the stability of society. The Asian Human Rights Commission has consistently pointed out for several years now that the Sri Lankan policing system has reached that unfortunate stage. We have characterized it as a dysfunctional system which is contributing to the exceptional collapse of the rule of law in the country. The state has paid no heed to such criticism but has instead allowed the police and the military to engage in any form of adventurism in the name of fighting crime or terrorism. The instances when arrested persons are allowed to be killed while in police custody under various pretexts number in the tens of thousands in the recent decades. Abductions and involuntary disappearances have also been used on a large scale as a means of dealing with insurgencies. Any and every form of illegality has been allowed such as the widespread use of torture even in investigations into petty theft throughout the country.

This spirit of adventurism allowed to the ‘law enforcement agencies’ was explained by the Inspector General of Police as a right to deal with crime by ‘hook or by crook’. This meant that any illegality is permitted so long as it is done under the pretext of the control of crime and terrorism. (For detailed comments please see http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2007statements/1035/).

The police/military operation of forced removal is one of the most dangerous adventures carried out in recent times and has the potential of provoking enormous instability within the country. The terrorist label directed towards all Tamils will increase their insecurity. On the other hand the belief in the Sinhalese community of a rational solution to the prolonged conflict will also be lost. The result will be the deepening of divisions in a society where such divisions already run very deep. While the political parties of the opposition have condemned this operation they have not yet proposed a clear strategy to undo the wrong done by this operation. A clear strategy would require the highest level of an inquiry to be conducted within the shortest possible time. The Inspector General of Police and the military officers who engaged in this operation should be questioned by parliament and appropriate action should be taken against the conduct of such an irresponsible operation. The government needs to explain to the nation how it will revoke this operation and assure the Tamils and all other minorities that similar wrongs will not be permitted in the future. Of immediate significance is the fact that several of the persons who have been sent back have claimed that they are staying in Colombo out of fear for their lives in their native places. That extremely valid reasons exists for such fears in the north and east is quite well known. Under these circumstances it is the duty of the government, and the opposition to ensure their safe return to Colombo so that they do not face threats to their lives. This is a matter of concern also for the UNHCR and other UN agencies.

The very argument against people fleeing to other countries in search of security is that they may be able to leave to other areas of the same country of origin in order to avoid dangers they face in their usual place of residence. This operation has removed this argument. Now the Tamils have been told that even if they are in danger of their lives in their usual place of residence they should not move to other areas. This violates the most basic norms of humanitarian law and practice. This is a matter that the Red Cross and all other international agencies must face at the moment.

Open Letter to President Mahinda Rajapakse to stop the expulsion of Tamils from Colombo

Honorable Mahinda Rajapakse,
President of Sri Lanka

On receiving reports of the expulsion of Tamils from various locations in Colombo this morning, June 7 2007, members of our organizations visited the Wellawatte, Pettah and Peliyagoda areas and spoke to various persons who had been affected by the process and the police in the area. This move is directly attributed to the statement made by the IGP on the 1st of June, claiming that Tamil people cannot remain in Colombo without a valid reason. On May 31 Tamils from the North and East residing in lodges in Pettah were forced to leave, as lodge owners were reportedly instructed by the police to not to shelter people from the North and East who had no "valid reasons" for being in Colombo.

According to the information we have received, in an operation that commenced in the early hours of the morning, police and army officers visited various lodges occupied predominantly by Tamils in Colombo and forcibly removed Tamils from these guesthouses. In several instances, eyewitnesses reported that these were not from the local police stations.

Hundreds of Tamils from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, who had been staying in Colombo for a range of reasons were forcibly loaded onto buses and taken to Peliyagoda. A Police Officer at the Peliyagoda Police reported that at least 8 buses with approximately 50 people in a bus left Peliyagoda. Later today, we heard that the IGP had clarified to the party leaders meeting in the parliament that 6 buses had left for Vavuniya, 1 bus to Batticaloa and 1 bus to Trincomalee. At 8.30am in the morning, an officer at the Wellawatte Police reported that 3 buses with approximately 60 people left for Trincomalee and that they would be sent to Jaffna by ship. Later on in the day, the Wellawatte Police reported a figure of 83. However, as of now, there is no confirmation of the numbers of people who were put on the buses, nor of their names.

Many of the lodge managers, and remaining inmates, complained to us that people were given less than half an hour to pack all their belongings and board the CTB buses that were parked outside these lodges. They were also not told their exact destination, only that the return to their homes was being 'arranged'.

The criteria for their expulsion seemed to be determined arbitrarily by the police and army. Even in some cases where lodgers were able to explain their presence in Colombo to establish their bona fides, they were told that Tamils who were not permanent residents of Colombo had no right to be in Colombo and had to leave. According to a senior official at the Wellawatte Police, the criteria for determining return was: those who wished to return but did not have the funds to do so; those who had no rationale for remaining in Colombo; and those who said they were remaining in Colombo out of fear.

The Police claimed that they were simply assisting Tamils return to their home towns, and that they had come to know about these desires during checking carried out. The reports from residents, owners and staff of lodges, eye witnesses to the expulsion however are in complete contrast to these accounts. People were forced to leave, even those who were in Colombo for health reasons and were not fit to travel.

While we are full cognizant of the current security situation and the need to maintain close surveillance of the city and its environs, in terms of the human rights principles that guide us in our work as human rights defenders, we are convinced that the above process is NOT capable of guaranteeing security and rather creates further polarization between the different ethnic communities that share this island, and heightens the sense of marginalization and alienation of Tamil people of this country.

We reaffirm the principle enshrined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees all Sri Lankans the right to choose their own residence (temporary or permanent), and freedom of movement and maintain that what has taken place in Colombo today is a flagrant violation of this principle, and a disgrace to humanity.

We call on you, as our head of State, to take all steps available to call an immediate halt to this practice, and to offer facilities of return to Colombo to anyone who has been forcibly removed from Colombo in this process.

Sincerely yours,

Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Free Media Movement (FMM) INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center (INFORM) Institute of Human Rights (IHR) International Movement against All forms of Racial Discrimination (IMADR) Law & Society Trust (LST) Rights Now (RN)

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Asian Human Rights Commission
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984