Our own Bermuda Triangle

The growing number of abductions and disappearances in Sri Lanka is not getting the amount of publicity the issue deserves.

In just the past year, the trend is both deeply disturbing and damning. We are living in a country where people are routinely, with complete impunity, picked up, tortured, sexually abused and disappear without a trace. It is entirely unclear how our much vaunted post-war democratic credentials, purported rule of law, independence of the Police and confidence over addressing more serious issues of war crimes accountability can co-exist with this record of systematic abuse, intimidation and violence.

Two recent high profile cases are telling in this regard. Dimuthu Attygalle and Premakumar Gunaratnam, an Australian citizen, were abducted and released in a matter of days because of international intervention. Others haven’t been so lucky. A disquieting article first published on a website I curate, referred to date by the Leader of the Opposition, The Hindu in India and most recently by the Economist, flags fifty six abductions in Sri Lanka over the last six months alone. Incredibly, nineteen abductions were reported while the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council were in progress in Geneva from the 27th of February to the 23rd of March 2012. People have been abducted from the vicinity of Colombo’s court complex in Hulftsdorf, teeming with Police, lawyers and crowds, while being accompanied by Prison Guards. A Tamil man, detained and worse, tortured in custody for two years without any charges being filed against him, when he took his case to the courts, was abducted in broad daylight, again in Colombo. As the Economist notes, “No one has offered proof of a government role in the abductions, but circumstantial evidence suggests it. The high number of cases, use of weapons, the daring of the perpetrators and police inaction all point to a degree of official direction. Nor is it clear who else could possibly wish to kidnap human-rights activists”.

The government’s responses are getting increasingly farcical. The Ministry of External Affairs, upon the discovery and deportation of Premakumar Gunaratnam, issued a highfalutin rebuttal to claims that the government was involved in the abduction. It failed to convince the intended audience – the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka – precisely because it is not known how the Secretary of Defence – who, lest we forget, is a US citizen – can, in so many instances, decisively influence the discovery and release of abductees. The attempted abduction of UPFA Chairman of the Kolonnawa Urban Council, Ravindra Udayashantha revealed the direct involvement of sections of the armed forces in abduction squads. Every response in the media by the army, police and government spokespersons to explain away the presence of army personnel in a white van that targeted Udayashantha rings utterly hollow. Soon after, Sagara Senaratne, brother-in-law of Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga was abducted and released, according to Senaratne, because of the intervention of the President and Defence Secretary. Though neither the President nor his brother the Defence Secretary have publicly acknowledged Mr. Senaratne’s confidence in their supra-legal powers, revealingly, they haven’t denied it either. To quote the Economist again, “… rights groups naturally ask how such powerful men knew whom to contact to get him free. And precisely how, too, did Gotabaya Rajapaksa help with the Australian request to find Mr Gunaratnam?”

This hugely distressing record of abductions is also not one, to the extent we can see, related to advocacy and work in Sri Lanka that can still generate this kind of violent pushback – the collection of war crimes evidence on the ground for example, or activism over war crimes allegations. Abductees have been former detainees, businessmen, politicians, school children as well as University students, ex-LTTE cadre, ordinary citizens, human rights activists, traders, and even those from our adivasi veddah community. There have also been a number of underworld gang leaders and drug traffickers abducted. The one, bizarre leitmotif of government responses seems to be that all of these people had essentially, and for whatever reason, engineered their own abduction!  Under the moniker ‘Apelankawe’, a vocal and informed critic of government over Twitter publicly noted recently that “If abducted, for rescue pls call Mahinda – +94112324801, Gota +9411243 5879 or Jeevan +94112422591. This is a tried and tested method”.

Life in Sri Lanka, dangerously, imitates farce?

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Published in The Nation, 15 April 2012

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