NEW YORK and COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — When the Sri Lankan government declared that the country's 25-year civil war was over in May, thousands of civilians took to the streets in celebration. The threat of the Tamil Tigers was gone for the first time in decades and the fears of violence that had held a nation in their clutch on a daily basis seemed to dissipate. But for many Sri Lankans things have only become worse since the war ended.
As part of the government's continued efforts to weed out possible terrorists and sympathizers, the military has begun detaining large numbers of people it suspects of collaborating with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the majority of cases, the arrest and detainment is shrouded in secrecy under provisions of "emergency regulations," a set of vague but sweeping laws that give the government in effect unlimited powers.
Since the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was passed 30 years ago, Sri Lanka has operated nearly every year under emergency regulations ordered by the executive branch. Under the most current regulations issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, suspects can be arrested without warrants and held for 18 months without formal charges or access to legal representation. Few details of alleged crimes are ever released and trials, when they occur, are rarely publicized.
“No one can tell you what's in them," said James Ross, the legal and policy director for Human Rights Watch, of the country's anti-terrorism laws. "That’s part of the problem. It’s getting worse for journalists, it’s getting worse for human rights activists. Where restrictions should be lessening, they are actually getting tighter.”
The recent spate of detentions appear to resemble the United States government’s actions after Sept. 11, 2001, when Guantanamo Bay was filled with suspected terrorists who could be held indefinitely under an executive order issued by President George W. Bush in 2002. But the use of unchecked detentions as a counter-terrorism strategy in Sri Lanka pre-dates 9/11, according to Nagaioh Manoharan, a senior fellow at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi. “What is new now,” said Manoharan of post-war Sri Lanka, “is detentions in large numbers. The PTA and emergency regulations are used without much hesitation. The rule of law has not been abided by even approximately.”
Arguably the biggest difference between terrorism suspects detained by the United States government at Guantanamo Bay and Sri Lanka’s current detainment policies is that of citizenship: Detainees in Sri Lanka are citizens held in their own country. In many recent cases, they are the government’s own employees.
On Aug. 1, Nagalingam Vedhanayagam, a government bureaucrat, was arrested by the government's Terrorist Investigation Division which was reportedly given a tip by a detained LTTE cadre. Vedhanayagam worked in Kilinochchi when the area was under LTTE control. When fighting overwhelmed the region last January, he moved to the government-controlled area but continued to make frequent trips into the conflict zone to ensure that humanitarian assistance was being provided. Since his arrest, defense officials have not released any information about his whereabouts or what the accusations against him are.
In May, five government doctors were detained by the Terrorist Investigation Division and held for 100 days without access to legal representation. The doctors had worked inside the war zone during heavy fighting for months and communicated information via telephone and email reporting often desperate conditions facing civilians. One of the doctors remains in prison while the others are on parole, awaiting a court hearing in November for spreading "false information to the international community."
On Aug. 31, the Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor under Sri Lanka's Prevention of Terrorism Act. Tissanayagam was the editor of a Tamil language magazine and the government accused him of accepting money from the Tamil Tigers and fomenting "communal disharmony" through his coverage of the war.
Even NGO workers are not immune from the government's far reaching efforts to prosecute suspected terrorists. Two United Nations employees, Charles Raveendran Navaratnam and Kanthasamy Sounthararajan, were arrested on June 11 and, according to a U.N. official in Sri Lanka, are accused of collaborating with the Tigers. Similar to the case of Vedhanayagam, the U.N. staff were originally reported as “missing” or “disappeared” and only later was it revealed that they were in government custody. Both of their lawyers have filed complaints in Sri Lanka claiming torture by security forces following their arrest. Since Sri Lanka regained independence in 1948, the country has operated more often than not under an official state of emergency, allowing the repeated implementation of emergency regulations. The actual content of the regulations are difficult to obtain and cannot be challenged in court. In 2005, regulations were passed that allow the use of confessions made to police in a trial. Contrary to normal standards of criminal law, in Sri Lanka it is up to the defendant to prove that a confession was coerced, according to the International Crisis Group.
Many argue that the country's deeply unstable history — insurgencies include the separatist LTTE and the leftist People's Liberation Front, or JVP — since independence requires extreme measures. "The legal system here cannot cope with the breakdown of law and order, like two insurgencies by the JVP in 1971 and 1987-89 and a separatist insurgency by the LTTE the last thirty years," said Sinha Ratnatunga, a lawyer and president of the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka. "Does it lead to abuses? Of course it does. But, if the strict application of the 'rule of law' applied in both letter and spirit the JVP might well be running a 'Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat,’ and the LTTE might have their own Eelam.”
Ratnatunga argued that striking a balance between quelling armed uprisings and upholding the standard of innocent until proven guilty is easier said than done when violence overwhelms the system. In the last 25 years, at least 80,000 Sri Lankans have died due to the civil conflicts. “That does not mean that civil liberties must be given a complete holiday,” he said.
Since the end of the war in May, the Sri Lankan government has continued to operate under an official state of emergency. In a special debate held Sept. 10 in parliament, Leader of the House Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva argued that because “certain groups” were plotting to assassinate President Rajapaksa, upholding emergency laws was critical, according to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. The motion received 87 out of 100 votes in favor.
Secretary to the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Rajiva Wijesinhe said that the threat of terrorism is still a reality in Sri Lanka and that emergency regulations should continue because, “we also owe it to our friends who supported us against terrorism to ensure that information pertaining to possible attacks on them, as part of the globalization of terror, will also be prevented.”
“Overall, regimes in Colombo have gotten used to 'rule by emergency,'” said Manoharan at the Center for Land Warfare Studies. “It is an exceptional case among democracies. By some pretext or the other, they are imposed and extended.”
In addition to O'Connor, who reported from New York, one journalist in New York and one in Sri Lanka contributed to this story but wish to remain anonymous to maintain their safety and that of their colleagues.