Sri Lanka’s Missing
Where are they?
What happened to dozens of LTTE members who surrendered to the army together with Rev. Francis Joseph, a Catholic priest, south of the Vadduvaakal bridge on May 18 2009? “Aananthi” (not her real name), the wife of one of the disappeared, told Human Rights Watch that she saw the army load the priest and the LTTE members on to a bus and drive them away.
Human Rights Watch interviews with other witnesses and numerous media reports confirm her account. The wife and two children, aged 3 and 5 years, of an LTTE member were also taken away on the bus. The family members and Fr. Joseph remain missing. Where and what happened to these people? Why are these disappearances not investigated by the government which instead continues to stonewall all calls demanding accountability.
Through interviews with relatives of the missing and witnesses, published testimony and media reports, international human rights organizations have found that more than 20 people who were taken into army custody between May 16 and 18, 2009, appear to have been forcibly disappeared. Most of them are known to have been detained in the Vadduvaakal area, just south of the strip of land in north-eastern Sri Lanka where the final battle between the LTTE and government forces occurred.
At the time, the area was controlled by the Sri Lankan army’s 59th Division. Abductions in Sri Lanka continue unabated. Last week two more people went missing. Ramasamy Prahaharan, a Tamil businessman was abducted from outside his home as he attempted to open his gate at Canal Road, Wellawatte while another Tamil, Subramanium, was abducted from Aluthkade.
At the time of the abduction, Ramasamy Prahaharan had filed a fundamental rights application with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka against senior police officers, the Attorney-General, and eight others, alleging torture and unlawful arrest and detention. The Supreme Court had granted him leave to proceed and the hearing had been scheduled for February 13. Ramasamy Prahaharan was abducted two days before the Fundamental Rights petition was to be heard in the Courts.
Apart from the ritual blank denial, the government has thus far ignored the fate of these missing persons. Family members of those abducted have a right to know if their loved ones are missing or dead.
Under International Law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the authorities take an individual into custody but refuse to acknowledge doing so or do not provide information about the person’s whereabouts or fate. Among the rights an enforced disappearance may violate are those to life, liberty, and security of the person, including protection from torture and other ill treatment.
Aananthi meanwhile has told Human Rights Watch that she has had no news about her husband since the abduction. “I have searched in all the camps. I went to the Defence Ministry. I filed a complaint with the police in January 2010. But I have received no information about my husband. The police only told me it would be difficult for them to find him since the area where he went missing is under military control. I want the government to tell me what happened to him. Whether he is dead or alive, I want an answer.”
Asked specifically about Yogiratnam Yogi, one of the men taken away on the bus, the Sri Lankan Commissioner General for Rehabilitation said in July 2010 that he was not among more than 11,600 LTTE cadres in custody. Human Rights Watch has established the names of several other people who were taken away on the same bus, but it has not been possible to confirm whether they remain missing. In another disappearance case, a witness told Human Rights Watch that two former LTTE members helped government soldiers identify Colonel Ramesh, an LTTE leader, among the fleeing population and took him and three others away to a small hut nearby. Ramesh’s family has not received any news about him since he was detained. In December 2010 several media outlets broadcast a video clip obtained by the Global Tamil Forum that allegedly showed Ramesh in custody.
Human Rights Watch has obtained several additional, longer videos of Ramesh, providing further evidence that he was in army custody. In one of the videos, Ramesh is seen lying on a bench in civilian clothes. In four other videos, several soldiers stand around Ramesh while one of the soldiers questions him about where he is from, the whereabouts of the wife of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and how he received an injury on his back. At one point it seems the soldiers are telling Ramesh that the date is the 22nd, suggesting that the video may have been filmed on May 22, 2009. A sixth video shows only Ramesh answering questions about when he joined the LTTE, what his position is, and his family members.
A Sri Lankan military spokesperson dismissed the December video as fake and claimed that Ramesh had been killed during the last days of the war.
On May 17, army soldiers detained Paramnantham Kokulakrishnan and two other men just north of the Vadduvaakal bridge. Kokulakrishnan’s wife told international human rights activists that the soldiers did not allow her to accompany her husband even though he was blind from an injury that he had received in 1996. The soldiers told her they would interrogate the men and then release them, but she has not had any news of her husband since. Kokulakrishnan’s family filed a complaint with the police in October 2010. The police replied by letter that they would investigate the disappearance, but the family has received no information.
Another witness account relates that five people are still missing after they were separated from the rest on May 17 just south of the Vadduvaakal bridge. Among the missing is Sudarsani Krishnakumar. Her family has filed complaints with the national Human Rights Commission and the police, but has received no information about her whereabouts.
In several cases, family members also testified before or filed written complaints with the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which was created by President Rajapaksa in May 2010. While the LLRC has published testimony of government officials and others on its website, it has not published many of the testimonies alleging enforced disappearances by government forces.