17th October 1999

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Spotlight on the 'missing'

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will, later this month, visit Sri Lanka for the third time. But very little has been done by the government so far about the 60, 000 youth who have disappeared

By Feizal Samath

Kith and kin of the disappeared demonstrating: No reliefThe fate of thousands of young people who disappeared during a brutal military crackdown against the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1988 to 1990 comes into focus once again later this month with the visit of a United Nations Human Rights group.

The UN group is visiting here to ascertain whether the government has implemented recommendations the group made during two previous visits to study disappearances 10 years ago, human rights officials said.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) will be in Colombo from October 25 to 29 and the visit "will be very much focused on a review of the recommendations made by WGEID after its visits to Sri Lanka in 1991 and 1992," international rights campaigner Amnesty International (AI) said in a note.

Ingrid Massage from AI's Asia and Pacific programme, has circulated the note to Sri Lankan human rights groups alerting them of the UN visit.

Thousands of young people disappeared during the brutal military crackdown between 1988 and 1990 against leftwing rebels.

Estimates of missing persons have ranged from 10,000 to 60,000 over the three-year period in which the People's Liberation Front (JVP), tried to oust the government.

Shantha Pathirana, a local human rights official, told The Sunday Times that his group hoped to brief the UN mission on the failure of the People's Alliance (PA) government to punish the alleged killers, most of whom were from the police and the armed forces, and provide adequate compensation to relatives of the victims.

"The relatives of the missing persons are still being hounded by the perpetrators. They have been threatened with death and other harassment if they provide information to the authorities," Pathirana, secretary of the Organisation of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD) said.

Pathirana's father is among the missing. He is believed to have been killed by the police while working as a human rights activist.

The UN group, in a report prepared after its 1991 and 1992 visits, recommended that the government establish a mechanism to clarify the fate of missing persons and that it should prosecute vigorously those responsible for these acts and punish them.

It urged that perpetrators should not be protected by prevailing indemnity laws, that witnesses and relatives of the disappeared should be protected and that the human rights record of police and military personnel should be taken into account when promotions are considered.

While the PA was quick to appoint three commissions of inquiry to probe disappearances, the process of taking action against people identified by the commissioners as perpetrators has been slow. Compensation payments have also been slow.

"The three inquiry commissions, appointed by President Kumaratunga, identified some 3,000 persons from the police, armed forces and the public as responsible for these crimes but little has been done to take action against them," said Pathirana.

The commissions, in reports handed to Kumaratunga in August 1997, said there was sufficient evidence against some officers and members of the public and that they should be dealt with the law and punished.

Pathirana said these commissions had no judicial power other than making recommendations.

"This was one of the biggest flaws of the commission. There was nothing they could do other than make recommendations to the government," he said.

The Attorney General's Department said recently that it had filed 200 cases against security personnel pursuant to the reports of the commissions but noted that there was insufficient evidence to pursue others named in the report.

Local human rights groups say that the government is reluctant to take action against officers named in the report as many of them are serving in war zones.

"There is a general perception that any action against these serving officers may hamper the war against the rebels," one human rights activist said.

While the commissions of inquiry received complaints about 26, 877 missing persons, OPFMD says they have sufficient evidence of 31,000 cases of disappearances.

Pathirana said his organisation would furnish details of the 31,000 cases to the UN group during this month's visit. "The UN group has based its previous reports on 12,000 disappearances in Sri Lanka," he said.

He said it was due to the OPFMD's efforts that the UN group is paying a visit to Sri Lanka after a lapse of seven years.

"For the past two years, at the UN meetings in Geneva we have pleaded with the Working Group to come to Sri Lanka and study the situation which is not at all satisfactory.

"The UN mission is likely to be led by WGEID chairman Ivan Tosevski and would include working group member I. Hillali of Pakistan and group secretary Miguel de la Lama. Its visit would be confined to Colombo and aimed at meeting government officials, local human rights groups and parents and relatives of the disappeared.

The AI note has also alerted local human rights groups of the likelihood of a visit in January 2000 by the UN Committee on Torture (CAT).

It said the CAT visit is yet to be confirmed and hence specific dates have not been set. "It may well be that it has to be delayed if rumours of presidential elections in January 2000 are indeed true," the AT note said.

Several cases of torture by government forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and former Tamil militant groups have been reported in recent years by AI and other local human rights activists.

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