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Sri Lankan human rights leader receives death threat

[guardian.co.uk, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 10:46 No Comment]

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu warned he will be killed if EU withdraws preferential trade benefits to island state

The director of one of Sri Lanka’s leading human rights thinktanks has been warned he will be killed if the European Union decides to withdraw the country’s preferential trade benefits.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu received the anonymous death threat in a letter sent to his home in the capital, Colombo.

"We swear on all that we hold sacred you will be killed," the letter says. "When you are killed there will no doubt be a huge Ho Ha [sic] but in this instance the government would not be involved and they will never be able to track us down."

Sri Lanka was recently granted a $2.6bn (£1.6bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund. It went through the IMF board with Chinese help although the US, Britain, and other western governments abstained because of concerns over human rights issues raised after the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers in May and put up to 300,000 displaced Tamils in special camps.

The EU decision on trade benefits is considered equally important, and will be feted by the government as proof of international support if it is positive. But the decision could go against Sri Lanka, since many European states have been troubled by Colombo’s recent actions.

The death threat appears aimed at pressuring the EU as well as Saravanamuttu. It purports to come from people representing thousands of workers rather than any political group. Claiming that Saravanamuttu has been lobbying Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external relations, to end the export benefits, it says: "The only way you can live is if that woman and her coyotes grant us the concession, but that now seems most unlikely, so we are left with no option but to kill you for what you would have done to us and the thousands of poor families who have had a livelihood because of the garment industry and would be pauperised because of you."

The Centre for Policy Alternatives, the thinktank Saravanamuttu leads, put a statement on its website saying his position had been distorted. "CPA has consistently argued that the benefits must be renewed, and that Sri Lanka should use the opportunity to also strengthen its human rights protection framework by complying with international law. We regret that our constructive contribution to this public policy debate has been perversely distorted and deliberately misunderstood in some quarters."

Saravanamuttu is out of the country but he told the Guardian he had asked for police protection. "It’s possible they will give it when I get back. This is the first time a threat has been directed at me specifically."

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan high commission in London acknowledged that police had received a complaint and would be investigating.

Several independent activists, lawyers, and journalists who have criticised the government in recent months have been attacked or murdered.

Human rights concerns led the European commission earlier this year to ask a team of independent consultants to visit the island. Their interim report on conditions has just been sent to the Sri Lankan government for comment.

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