(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Government promises inquiry into ‘disappeared’ while families wait in anguish

Relatives of abducted civilians cry while holding pictures of their loved ones during a meeting of the Civil Monitoring Committee in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 2007. More than 1,000 civilians have been abducted in the last 16 months, according to the count
Amantha Perera/IRIN

Seven-year-old Angel Yogarajan held a photograph of her family and stared blankly, while her brother and mother fought hard to keep back the tears. On 2 March, their family of seven was suddenly reduced to three people who have been desperate ever since.

Angel’s father, Emmanuel Yogarajan, and three of her brothers were abducted in the coastal town of Negombo, 40 km north of the capital, Colombo. The family has no information of the whereabouts of the four or even if they are still alive.

“We have gone everywhere, the police, human rights organisations. We don’t know what happened to them,” Dalian Yogarajan, the one surviving brother, said. The Yogarajans are not alone in looking for missing loved ones in Sri Lanka, once again beset by sectarian violence despite a five-year ceasefire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Violence began escalating in December 2005 and more than 1,000 people, the majority ethnic Tamils, have gone missing, according to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, a semi-autonomous government entity. Relatives are scared to openly point fingers at who they fear are behind the abductions. Many have been abducted in white vans, in broad daylight from public places, according to the relatives interviewed by IRIN and media accounts.

S. Amalajasi’s husband, S. Ketheswaran, was abducted from a public bus in Colombo along with his brother in January. The mother of two is pregnant and has sought the help of local and international human rights groups to locate her husband.

“He just went missing and I don’t know what to do. Someone with authority and power has to help us. Maybe we will not get anywhere without international help,” she said, while attending a Colombo meeting organised by the Civil Monitoring Committee (CMC) that has taken up their cause.


''The government has to be more assertive on these cases, you just can’t wait till 1,000 civilians go missing to wake up.''

Government slow to investigate

Consisting of opposition lawmakers, the CMC too has faced its share of the violence. One of its founder members, Nadaraja Raviraj from the Tamil National Alliance, was shot dead in Colombo last year. CMC members feel that the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has been slow to investigate cases of abductions, giving credit to suspicions that groups with tacit government support were responsible.

“The government has to be more assertive on these cases, you just can’t wait till 1,000 civilians go missing to wake up,” CMC president Sirithunga Jayasuriya said. He suspects that a breakaway Tiger faction is behind most of the abductions.

The CMC has appealed to the UN Human Rights Council to intervene, and many relatives told IRIN that UN intervention is now the last hope. “For more than six months I have been looking. Local authorities are of no help; international help is now absolutely necessary if our complaints are not to be forgotten,” Mariappan Maruwei, whose son Ajanthan went missing in the northern town of Vavuniya last June, told IRIN.

The UN Human Rights Council, along with groups including Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have for some months called for the establishment of an international human rights monitoring mechanism for the island to investigate violations that they say are taking place on an almost daily basis. The government however is unlikely to allow monitors anytime soon.



Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
G Badra cries holding a picture of her missing husband during a meeting of the Civil Monitoring Committee in Colombo

“No international monitors would be allowed without an invitation from the government,” Sri Lankan government spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said.

The government has set up a Special Presidential Commission assisted by a group of international experts to investigate 15 selected cases of violations. However, many organisations, such as AI and HRW, say that past experience with local investigations does not encourage optimism.

President Rajapakse recently told a group of parliamentarians that he was also planning to set up a parliamentary select committee to look into abductions. According to officials in the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management, they are trying to schedule a meeting for June or July between President Rajapakse and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.

Sensing that the government was facing increasing international pressure on rights violations - US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, just last week said that his government supported an independent international monitoring mechanism – the main opposition United National Party has come out supporting an international mission.

The LTTE also say that they have no objections to international monitors. “We will work with them, we support investigations into the extrajudicial killings and abductions,” Tiger human rights spokesperson Selvy Navaruban said.

For the relatives, though, the diplomatic moves mean little. “We need answers, there has been silence for too long,” Yogarajan said.

ap/bp/bj/jm

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