Dec 21, 2016

Victims demand answers on OMP as rights activist focuses on Sisira Mendis

Families of the disappeared from Sri Lanka’s Kilinochchi District accused the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for celebrating World Human Rights Day while ignoring the plight of missing persons. In a petition handed over to Kilinochchi District parliamentarian K. Sritharan, the families urged “TNA representatives who are working with the government on reconciliation issues give […] answers and provide solutions to the questions,” on the fate of their missing loved ones.

The meeting, organised by the Kilinochchi Citizens’ Committee and held at the Karaichchi District Secretariat auditorium, Kilinochchi on 12 December, was addressed among others by the chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Jaffna Catholic Diocese Fr. S. V. B. Mangalarajah.

Commissioners shocked

Fr. Mangalarajah drew attention to the recently-issued UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) report and the presence of Mr. Sisira Mendis, head of Sri Lanka’s national intelligence, in the country’s delegation to the UNCAT meeting in Geneva in November. Mr. Mendis was head of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Sri Lanka Police in 2008-2009. Fr. Mangalarajah said, “He was in this post during the final days of the conflict when some of the worst human rights violations were committed. When he was asked about this (by UNCAT) he could not answer. The report says that the independent (UNCAT) commissioners were shocked at his inclusion in the Sri Lanka delegation.”

rev mangalarajahAmong the participants at the meeting in Kilinochchi were family members of the disappeared. They used the opportunity of the World Human Rights Day meeting to yet again draw the attention of the TNA and Government to the shortcomings of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) that was made law on 11 August.

Families of the disappeared from Kilinochchi supported by their counterparts in Mullaithivu have tried to get the Government and the TNA to address their concerns for the last five months. The families of the disappeared contend both political actors collaborated in drawing up the OMP legislation, which fails to meet demands of the victims.

Legal deficiencies

The petition handed to Mr. Sritharan at Kilinochchi meeting, refers to series of actions taken by the families of the disappeared to raise awareness about the shortcomings in the legislation and their attempts to initiate redress. Among them was a meeting in Karaichchikudiyruppu in Mullaithivu on 1 July, where the families demanded from the TNA how its representatives in parliament could provide input for the OMP bill without consulting the victims. They pointed as grave deficiencies in the law including provisions restricting international participation in the OMP to non-decision-making levels and the exclusion of prosecutorial powers, both which constitute core demands of the victims.

Assailed by a barrage of accusations that TNA parliamentarian Mr. M. A. Sumanthiran was complicit in drawing up the OMP bill, Vanni District Member of Parliament Ms. Shanthi Sriskandaraja, said “We are not aware of this. Mr. Sumanthiran is in my party. If you set up a meeting I undertake to bring Mr. Sumanthiran there, where you can ask him.”

But the promise was not kept before the bill became law on 11August. Ignored and smarting, the families of the disappeared from Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts decided to march to the TNA offices in their districts on 18 August protesting the lack of consultation by the Government before the OMP bill was passed and failed promises of the TNA to bring Mr. Sumanthiran to answer questions as a peoples’ representative. They presented a petition to the TNA offices in Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena through the head of the TNA, Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan. The petition demanded that the OMP include a robust presence of internationals at decision-making levels, powers to initiate prosecutions against perpetrators, and Tamil-speaking intellectuals and lawyers.

sumanthiran croppedUNCAT Report

Mr. Sumanthiran did finally make it to Mullaithivu on 17 September. Faced in the gathering darkness of evening by an agitated group of families of the disappeared incensed by his delayed arrival, Mr. Sumanthiran said that he did not have to consult the victims before he assented to OMP bill: “I did not speak about the people’s views only my own. It was based on my understanding of international law and legal mechanisms. I can’t consult 100 people where one person says it (OMP) is useful and another person says it’s not…”

That did not deter the families of the disappeared from trying again. Since the 18 August petition was addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena a delegation met the Kilinochchi government agent (senior-most central government officer in the district) Mr. K. Arumanyagam on 2 November to find out if the Government had responded. There was none. Mr. Arumanayagam told the delegation, “I cannot give back your [disappeared] children. But I understand your suffering and will take steps rectify your problems regarding the petition.”

At the meeting to commemorate Human Rights Day, Fr. Mangalaraja, referring to the UNCAT report said, “There is also evidence that very few steps have been taken regarding (bring justice) for enforced disappearances by the Sri Lanka Government.”

Full text of the petition follows:

To: The Tamil National Alliance (TNA)

From: The Families of the Disappeared (Kilinochchi District)

Subject: No reply from the Government or TNA about OMP

We are very happy that the TNA in the Kilinochchi District has decided to participate in a meeting today to officially commemorate World Human Rights Day 2016. It shows the importance the TNA places on human rights and its role in helping restore to the Tamil people their rights, which successive governments have stolen from them.

However, there are number of crucial human rights issues that we have brought before the TNA, who are our representatives in parliament and the NPC, which have either been ignored or stalled by the party. One of the most important of these is our concern that the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) law would be an ineffective piece of legislation because it fails to address our concerns.

We have tried to raise our misgivings about the OMP legislation at many forums. We held a meeting in Mullaithivu on 1 July where families of the disappeared met with certain TNA members of parliament and members of the NPC. Because these elected representatives could not answer our questions they promised to bring Mr. M. A. Sumanthiran, MP, who played an important role in drafting the OMP legislation.

After more than two months delay Mr. Sumanthiran came to speak on 17 September. By that time the OMP had been made law. Due to the fact that it was late evening when he arrived at the meeting and the people got agitated at some of the things he said, we could not have a proper conversation and many things were not properly explained.

Because it took more than two months for Mr. Sumanthiran to meet us on 17 September, the families of the disappeared in Kilinochchi undertook a march on 18 August protesting this delay and handed over a petition to the Mr. Vehamahalithan at the TNA’s Kilinochchi office. The petition was addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena, through the Leader of the Opposition Mr. R. Sampanthan stating the following:

1. We have consistently demanded that there should be internationals in decision-making positions of the OMP if the victims are to receive justice;

2. We have also consistently demanded that the OMP should have prosecutorial powers. However not only does the Office have no such powers, the law stipulates that “the findings of the OMP shall not give rise to any criminal or civil liability.” That means that we cannot even use the information to prosecute perpetrators before other judicial bodies. This will only strengthen the military’s impunity;

3. The OMP’s headquarters should be in the North and East, which would make it easier for the victims to interact with the Office rather than have branch offices with unresponsive Government officials, which has been our past experience. We also expressed our strong reservations against going to Colombo to make representations. However, the Act has not made provisions for this;

4. We requested that the Office of Missing Persons be renamed the Office for Enforced Disappearances. How can we accept that you are working for the welfare of the victims when you do not incorporate our requests or views;

5. Why did the sittings of the Zonal Task Force take place? Are they also a deception? We regret that it publicised before the report of Zonal Task Force was compiled.

6. We expressed a desire that there should be Tamil-speaking intellectuals, lawyers and skilled administrators from areas where the most significant disappearances occurred, but the Bill says the nomination of the Members of the OMP would be determined by members of parliament and not civil society and the names approved by the President. We do not have any faith in such a body.

However since there was no reply by the government for more than two months after handing over the petition, a group of us met the Kilinochchi G.A Mr. K. Arumanayagam on 2 November and handed over the same petition. The G.A accepted our petition saying, “I cannot give you an answer. I cannot give back your children. But I understand your suffering. I will take steps rectify your problems regarding the petition.” We checked again with the GA, but up to date there has been no reply from the Government.

We are deeply perturbed by the indifference shown by the government over this issue. We are also saddened that the TNA through which we channelled our petition has not taken the trouble to contact the government for a response to our misgivings.

The indifference of both the Government in Colombo and our Tamil representatives forces us to conclude that neither party is interested in answering our questions sincerely.

It is unfortunate that the TNA, which has come forward to participate this meeting to commemorate Human Rights Day 2016, remains indifferent to answer the questions and fears in the minds of the victims.

We urge you even after five months of our first meeting, that the TNA representatives who are working with the government on reconciliation issues give us answers and provide solutions to the questions we have posed.

(Kasun Yapa Karunaratne -