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Sri Lanka: The symbol of disappearances reappear

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
AS-213-2006
September 13, 2006

SRI LANKA: White vans without number plates; the symbol of disappearances reappear

In Sri Lanka a white van without a number plate is a symbol of terror and the disappearances that occurred in all parts of the country. Commissions on Disappearances in the South during the last few years of the 1980s have documented at some length how armed men, travelling in white vans without number plates abducted thousands of people who were never seen again. These reports are available at www.disappearances.org.

Now such vans have reappeared and do so frequently in the Jaffna peninsular. A report from one family states "the fear of the white van in the day and specially in the night is killing everyone [with fear] in the peninsular."

What the men who come in these vans do is the same as what happened in the South (in the time of terror). A story from one of the families in the Jaffna peninsular gives a first hand account of what happens when armed men travelling in these vans appear.

On September 11, 2006 early in the morning about 12:15 am 15 men fully equipped with heavy weapons jumped into the premises of a house. The owners had two fierce dogs and they were barking loudly. In a few minutes the dogs became silent. They may have been hit by heavy weapons or sprayed with some chemical to become unconscious. There were a number of people at home all of whom were sleeping. Suddenly the inmates were woken by the abnormal barking of the dogs. They thought thieves were entering the house. One adult said remove the wedding rings and all the gold jewellery, which everyone did. These were thrown under the bed. These days Jaffna peninsula is ravaged by thieves and killing contractors at night who abduct adults and students and then kill them.

The armed men broke open the main door of the house and forcefully entered. They wore black trousers and black shirts. Some of them wore shorts and T-shirts. The inmates shouted at high pitch in one tone "thieves." All of them who were in the rooms came out and stood along the corridor. As the inmates saw the men with heavy weapons they immediately told them to take away all they had and leave them unharmed. The gunmen had a very powerful torch with them. The family members had only two kerosene lamps. During this time the curfew was in effect. Since August 12, 2006 up to September 2 there was no electricity at night in the peninsular. Thereafter electricity was restored and was available until 11:00pm. The night after 11:00pm is when most of such incidents, as in this case, happen.

The inmates did not suspect that the armed men came to arrest anybody until one 30 year-old man was pulled by his shirt. The family cried that he was an innocent and responsible family man.

The inmates were unable to identify the faces of the armed men due to the powerful torch flashed in their faces. With the help of their torch the armed men thoroughly checked the house while the family members were standing along the corridor. The men came out of the rooms and threatened them at gun point. The gunmen told them that if they shout they would wipe them all out. The armed men began to question the adults. They questioned both the men and the women. Then again they started to inquire of the man his name, age, occupation, etc. Then they again questioned him. The men spoke irregular and unfamiliar Tamil but fluent Sinhala. All of a sudden they pulled him by the shirt he was wearing.

His mother hugged him strongly. She asked them not to take her son. She was pulling her son back against the men who were dragging him by his shirt. The armed men hit the mother on her head with a weapon. She received a head injury and was bleeding. She fainted immediately. Another family member was also hit on her chest by a gun. In fact several family members suffered injuries in trying to save the young man. The men hit him on his chest with the gun and he fell down. Then they dragged him by his leg. His shoulders and the back of the head were crashing against the rough ground. They dragged him nearly 50 meters by his leg. The men had parked their vehicles 45 meters away from the main gate along the roadside. They broke the pad lock at the gate and dragged him towards the vehicle. The family members rushed to the main gate. The armed men threatened the inmates at gun point. The gunmen thrust a gun into the young man's face and continued to threaten them that if they followed them they would kill him. The men had come in a van and on two motor bikes.

The abducted person has not been seen or heard of ever since although the family members have made complaints to the police and all other authorities. Will he become one more statistic to be added to the hundreds of disappearances that have been reported in the recent months from the North and the East and also a few in Colombo (according to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka about 30 persons)? Also will he be an addition to the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared in Sri Lanka in the recent decades?

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) gives the number of the disappeared from the Jaffna peninsular since December last year as 419. Not all these disappearances are attributed to "armed men coming in white vans without number plates", which usually means the military. The other militant groups alleged to be working with the military have also been accused of such abductions which end up as disappearances. International human rights groups have accused the other militant groups also on that score.

However, in cases such as the one quoted above, the suspicion of the family members is that such occurrences are done either directly by the military or with its approval. Such complicity will not come as a surprise to anyone who is aware of the extent of the disappearances that have taken place in Sri Lanka in recent decades. The reports of the Commissions appointed to investigate these earlier disappearances place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the state agencies.

In Sri Lanka causing of forced disappearances has been treated by the state as a legitimate means by which to deal with 'terrorism'. The failure to investigate and to take appropriate legal action is also evidence of the state's involvement in such matters. The fact that the opponents of the government at various times, like the LTTE and the JVP, have taken to violence is used a legitimate reason for the state carrying out forced disappearances and similar modes of the use of extreme violence; that the poison must be killed with poison and that the violence of terrorism must be dealt with by equal or more ferocious violence is an unquestioned part of the state ideology, regardless of which government is in power. A former Deputy Minister of Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, was known in the latter part of the 80s as a leader who openly advocated and carried out this policy. The disappearances during that period officially amount to about 30,000 while the other non-state sources have given much larger numbers. It is today not challenged that except for a handful of cases, the victims of these disappearances were not hard core insurgents. This of course does not mean that even hard core insurgents can be killed after securing arrest. The reports of the Commissions of Disappearances mentioned above have demonstrated that most cases of disappearances have happened after securing arrest which often takes the form of abduction.

For Ranjan Wijeratne and others (political leaders as well as some military and police officers) disappearances were the most practical method of dealing with insurgency. Disappearances help to do away with the necessity for arrest and detention which can create many legal problems, the keeping of political prisoners, which is again a complicated problem, having trials which requires security arrangements and similar problems which in turn create practical problems for state agents. Disappearances also help to erase all evidence as secret abductions often end up in the secret disposal of bodies. If in the use of this easy method some mistakes are made in the arrest of innocent persons, even if they far outnumber any "culprits", that is unavoidable and Ranjan Wijeratne called such acts mere excesses. Talking to parliament he said that these things cannot be done through legal means as that will take too much time. This same ideological position has never been clearly repudiated by any of the Sri Lankan governments.

Within Sri Lanka at the moment there is no government authority with the capacity to efficiently investigate the disappearances like the one in the case mentioned above. The HRCSL may record some facts of such disappearances but it does not have the capacity to investigate them in any manner that could be called a credible, criminal investigation. The assurance of some state authorities to the effect that if soldiers are found to be guilty of such acts they would be punished is a mere rhetorical gesture in the face of heavy criticism from local and international sources. There is no state machinery to give credibility to such assurances.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has been pointing out for several years now the deep impasse in the state's criminal justice system which makes it impossible for any gross abuse of human rights to be credibly investigated or prosecuted. There have been no attempts to cure this situation. Instead with time this situation has degenerated even further. Now after the virtual collapse of the cease fire agreement the country is entering into a further period of terror in the name of counterinsurgency. The local and international agencies including the AHRC has called on the United Nations to ensure a strong human rights presence, as in the case of Nepal during the last year to ensure that this situation is brought to an end and that the state will be willing to respect its duty to protect the lives of its citizens. We once again reiterate this basic demand which has been repeated by many.

Ends


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