ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42
Columns - Focus on Rights

Treating human beings like chaff in the wind

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardena

The realisation that I live in a system that responds to the abduction of a Vice Chancellor of a University from the heart of a high security area in the capital city with a casually cold, stony silence for more than three months is hard to become accustomed to.

Let us recall this incident somewhat more in detail. Prof. S. Raveendranath, Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Sri Lanka (EUSL) was abducted on the 15th of December 2006, not from any part of the Eastern province but rather from a high security area in Colombo in the midst of his attending a science forum at the SLAAS auditorium at Vidya Mawatha, Colombo 7. His distraught family members immediately lodged a complaint with the Dehiwala police. Since then, despite numerous appeals to investigate the circumstances of his disappearance, Prof Raveendranath (an acute diabetic who suffers from hypertension) remains missing to date. His medical condition has led family members to fear for his life.

The circumstances of his disappearance are fairly well known. In September 2006 unidentified gunmen demanding the Vice Chancellor's resignation, kidnapped the Dean of the Faculty of Arts of EUSL, Dr. Bala Sugamar who was released only after Professor Raveendranath signified his readiness to resign. He rendered his resignation on 2nd of October 2006 but this was accepted by the University Grants Commission only on 19th January 2007. It was during this intervening period that his abduction took place. Prior to this, he had received repeated death threats demanding his resignation.

Media reports have implicated responsibility for his disappearance to the Karuna faction which, in turn, has blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Regardless, one single factor stands out; the abduction took place in an area in the city centre heavily patrolled by the security forces, not in some remote road in the East. The inference therefore is either that the LTTE was strategic enough to get away with a high profile abduction in the heart of such a high security area or that the Karuna group was implicitly allowed to abduct the academic. Whichever this may be, the implications that either of these two possibilities holds out for the image of the government is profoundly negative.

Reportedly, the SLAAS, (in a statement on Prof Raveendranath's abduction) has noted as follows: "This reads more like something that could happen to a mafia boss, rather than to a respected professor, the head of an academic institution peacefully attending a research conference. Yet, what this shows is that scientists, scholars and educators are not free from harassment and even violent death (as in the cases of Neelan Tiruchelvam and Rajani Thiranagama), at the hands of terrorist and criminal elements that rule the roost in Sri Lanka today." The statement asks the further poignant question; "Many politicians appear to be in the pay of these underworld elements or at least owe their positions to them. What defence do we as scientists, have against these criminals?

One may well ask the related question - what protection does the law provide against such criminals? The dilemma of enforced disappearances is an old problem for Sri Lanka, a country which during the eighties recorded the second highest number of recorded disappearances in the world, second only to Iraq. Yet, despite this horrendous history, this country has been unable to put into place effective investigative structures or indeed, enact the necessary deterrent laws

It may be recalled that, in paragraph 10 of its Concluding Observations in 2003, the UN Human Rights Committee had expressed its concern regarding the large number of enforced or involuntary disappearances of persons during the time of armed conflict in Sri Lanka and particularly about the State party's inability or inaction in identifying those responsible and bringing them to justice. This, together with the reluctance of victims to file or pursue complaints, was pointed out by the Committee to create an environment that is conducive to a culture of impunity. "The state party is urged to implement fully the right to life and physical integrity of all persons and give effect to the relevant recommendations made by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances…", the body stated.

Currently, instances of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, (including cases where members of the police and security forces are implicated), are investigated by the Disappearances Investigation Unit (DIU), a special unit within the criminal investigation division of the police force. The need for an independent investigative unit in this regard has been repeatedly emphasized for decades but these calls have not been heeded. It stands to reason that, given the heavily political nature of these disappearances, an investigative mechanism that is completely independent from the police or the forces is an obvious priority. Yet, despite a long standing and urgent need for such a mechanism, no government has had the political will to put such a mechanism into place. Instead, in every period of recurrent conflict, individuals such as Prof Raveendranath and countless others become human chaff in the wind, tossed from one turbulent force to the other.

Proceeding from ineffective investigations and the absence of any tradition of witness protection, we have had predictably ineffective prosecutions. In research carried out during 2004 for example, it was discovered that only nine convictions have been secured in the thousands of disappearances that have occurred in this country during the past decade. Indeed, the law itself is manifestly inadequate to deal with this reality. Basically, we do not have a specific legal prohibition of forced disappearance, as a distinct crime, along with a provision for a sentence commensurate with its severity. Instead, perpetrators of enforced disappearances are currently prosecuted for abductions, which is an extremely unsatisfactory situation.

In a country where disappearances are now taking place for ransom, (quite apart from political motivations), talk of legal reform seems a mere luxury. And idle talk by the Rajapaksa Presidency that the law is still being enforced in this country is belied by the darkly surreal nature of these disappearances, which cannot be wished away as figments of our imagination. Indeed, such bellicosity is nothing new but has a weary ring of the past to it. Immediate priorities for the family members of the disappeared, such as Prof S.Raveendranath, focus exclusively on their safe return with the thought of prosecuting the perpetrators being obviously, furthermost from their minds. Yet, if we are not to resign ourselves to a situation of absolute despair, long term objectives of legal reform needs to be kept continuously in the public mind.

For the moment however, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of this well regarded academic warrants a far stronger response by academics in this country as well as by ordinary people. And in this respect, I do not mean letters or occasional petitions of protest. As well meaning as these efforts may be, they are only token responses to a situation that demands a full blooded and consistently conscientious public call to the government to trace his whereabouts. We need to see this happening forthwith.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.