Where are they ‘alive, or dead’?

–         Mass detention of LTTE “suspects” shadows post-war era –

Lee Yu Kyung in  Sri Lanka

Note : The variety of this article has been already published (and reproduced) in outlets in Korean, English and German in accordance with the limited space of each outlet. This is an original piece.

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It seems no one bothers ‘them’ in Sri Lanka. No lawyer or rights groups in the country would dare to talk of ‘their’ basic legal rights. Deserve to be abandoned or deserve to be ‘disappeared’? Tamil Tigers (or LTTE), a textbook of suicide bombing which made them the world branded “terrorists”, have become ‘prisoners of war’ (or POA) ever since its dead end in May 2009. Tens of thousands LTTE cadres, including “suspects”, were either captured alive or surrendered during the last stage of war. The fate of some of them has not been known, while some have been located in various detention camps due to the desperate efforts of their family, who are then allowed to visit their loved ones under the army’s lookout.  However, some families including Buddima’ (32, F) hardly made a visit as they are too poor to afford transport.

Buddima’s husband has been detained in Boosa camp in outskirt of Colombo. She has made just a few visits for the past 8 months. “Whenever I visited, I was also subject to be interrogated” she said. “My husband was an aid worker for Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO, pro-rebel aid group). He was a paid staff. He never was a combatant” she added.

During the last days of war, the army kept announcing at Omanthai checkpoint –the main check point near war zone – that anyone who’s been involved in LTTE for even a day has to surrender. “The surrendees will be free immediately or at most three months” it said. On this basis, Rangitha (43) pressured on her 25 year-old son to surrender, as many other mothers did. However, her son remains to be in detention after a year-and-a-half without being charged or facing trial.

“My son was conscripted by LTTE in April 2007 but he fled the LTTE next year. I had had to take care of his body waste for nearly two years, hiding him inside the bunker” said the grieving mother.

Conscripted by the rebels, detained by the army

There are said to be a dozen of “surrendees camps” in Northern Sri Lanka. But the number of these camps and their locations are varied depending on who you ask. The state-owned Daily News recently quoted the minister of rehabilitation and prison reform, D E W Gunesekara, saying 5,819 out of 11,696 detainees have been released as of October 23. This figure doesn’t include 800 alleged LTTE members who were to be charged.

“It’s not a detention center, but ‘rehabilitation center’. You yourself come over here to observe it” said Brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe, who has been in charge of the camps since February. “Having spent time together for more than a year, ex-combatants and the army are in friendly mood” he argued.

However, former detainees tell a different story.

A Sri Lanka soldier and Tamil boy riding a bicycle in the north of the country. Tens of thousands LTTE 'suspects' have been detained in various detention centers since the war ended in May 2009. Without monitoring by independent institutions and lack of transparent legal process, International Committee of Jurists (or ICJ) in its recent report, termed it ‘the largest mass administrative detention anywhere in the world’. (Photo @ Yu K. Lee)

“A day in the camp starts by singing national anthem in Sinhalese, the language of majority ethnic. There was one boy who had to kneel down under scorch sun all day long because he didn’t sing it properly. There’s another boy who got kicked by army boots because he coughed while anthem was playing” said Jeya (39) a former detainee.

Only Sinhalese – the language of majority ethnic – was spoken in the camps, which most Tamil detainees couldn’t understand, he said. Therefore, those who speak Sinhalese among detainees would become a ‘leader’ of small groups to pass on the army orders to others. Nevertheless, there were still communication problems followed by ‘punishment’.

“In December, one boy who didn’t move promptly when the army said ‘disperse’ was kicked down. He couldn’t understand that word in Sinhalese. That was actually one of many cases”

Jeya, who is disabled in one leg, was released in April 10, when the disabled prisoners and women detainees with children were the first batch of detainees to be let out. A week before his release, he was brought to a school compound nearby his ‘rehabilitation center’ along with 106 others.

“In that school, I heard about imminent release. But one person died of unknown reason and another six were taken by Terrorist Investigation Department (or  TID). The six were various disabled. One was blind, two lost one eye. Another one lost one eye and one hand. Another boy lost one leg…etc. I don’t know where they were taken to and why”

There have been reports that some detainees were transferred from ‘rehabilitaion centers’ to Boosa camp by TID. However, it is difficult to trace as there is no formal registration process for LTTE suspects overseen by an independent agency, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Given the Sri Lanka dark history of “disappearing” thousands of opponents, there is a legitimate fear some LTTE suspects have been disappeared. The former UN spokesperson Gorden Weiss wrote in Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail on August 28 that “the UN is currently reviewing 5,749 cases of Sri Lanka’s disappearance”. On top of that, a few video footages where seemingly rebels prisoners got shot by the soldiers in army uniform at point blank or tortured to ‘apparent’ death, have been disclosed by various rights groups.

Another incident that Jeya talked of, strokes such fears.

“One day morning the army said three detainees, who did not show up at the gathering for national anthem, ran away the previous night”.

When asked if he believed it, he said

“Well, we had to believe whatever the army said. But the camp’s surrounded with twofold fences and heavily guarded by armed soldiers. We were told if anyone tried to run away, soldiers would shoot immediately”

‘Enforced disappearance’ feared

Jeya claims he was not a LTTE cadre. He was one of many who were transferred from Internally Displaced Persons (or IDPs) camp to various detention centers including the so-called ‘rehabilitaion centers’. When his family was about to be released in August last year, the army held him back in the camp. Left alone, he had been subject to the army interrogation about 15 times until he was taken to one of the ‘rehabilitation camps’ in November.

“For the first 4-5 times, they heavily assaulted me as soon as I entered the army office in the IDPs camp to be interrogated. They said ‘somebody said you are LTTE’. If I denied, they said I had to prove it and again assaulted me with cricket bat. I have difficulty breathing because of that assaults. There were many boys like me” said Jeya.

According to IDPs in ‘Zone 4’ camp, which is one of several IDPs camps, there were roundups of youths aged between 17 and 25 in the IDPs camp last year in the camp. It was happening around July and August during the time when lots of people escaped from the camp by one way or another.

“First they took boys and 1 or 2 days later girls as well. Some parents were crying out as the army took more than one child from one family. Then army released one or two. The army seemed to believe that the remained youths couldn’t dare to escape because they were LTTE” said Rani (21).

As for Jeya, he was transferred from ‘Zone 2’ IDPs camp to ‘rehabilitaion center’ in Vavunya, where he was not much interrogated but did hard labor. This is not the case of another former detainee Suganthy (36), who was fighting the last battle field.

“They interrogated me till last moment of release in April. For 11 months’ captivity, different interrogators have asked me same questions in repeat. They didn’t believe what I answered”

Suganthy believed that the army intelligent was questioning her relying on the LTTE files. They asked, for example, ‘which battlefield were you fighting for?’, ‘which year were you fighting in?’ and ‘what time did you go to the battle field and what time did you come back (in that particular battle)?’. “They said they knew everything so I shouldn’t lie” she said.

Suganthy has been a political cadre after she lost one leg in a battle in 1995. She was dealing all statistics and datas of ‘Tamil Eelam’. But ‘Tamil Eelam’ was about to collapse early 2009 when its ‘capital’ Killinochchi was run over by the government forces.

“Just before the fall of Killinochchi, Jawan, the director of Voice of Tigerthe radio station of the rebels -came to us disabled cadres. He said there’s an order that all cadres now to fight”

Suganthy were positioned at second line along with other disabled cadres and the suicide unit Black Tigers. The battle turned to be extremely fierce from May 13. When the front line was collapsed on May 15th, she retreated with her injured companion.

“There were piles of dead bodies and injured people. No distinction between civilians and cadres. No place for the newly wounded. No commands anymore. The cadre in charge of the place told me I’d better to move towards the government side”

At Omanthai checkpoint on May 19th, she was taken to one of ‘rehabilitation center’ in Vavunya. She couldn’t hide anymore that she was a Tamil Tigers, because there were ex-LTTE cadres companying the army to pick out their former comrades. “I didn’t surrender” said Suganthy.

Although female cadres have not been much assaulted in a ‘rehabilitation center’ Comparing to male cadres who were heavily assaulted, female soldiers would beat them up with sticks if the detainees violate bath time.

“We were allowed to take a bath from 10 am to 1pm. There was no washing facility in my block of the camp. So we were guided to other block by the army. There was no covering wall in the bath well. There used to be, but fallen down. Nobody care of bringing new wall”

Even if she was released, Suganthy has been intimidated by Intelligence. They have visited her home and asked the family where she was if she was not at home.

“I’ve got a new job thanks to my computer skills and experience of administration work. But intelligence asked me I have to submit or prove that I’m really working there. I don’t feel I’m free”

Release followed by Intimidation

Without monitoring by independent institutions and lack of transparent legal process, International Committee of Jurists (or ICJ) in its recent report, termed it ‘the largest mass administrative detention anywhere in the world’. The ICJ noted the fact that “565 children associated with the LTTE were held in separate rehabilitation centers monitored freely by UNICEF and all released” as a positive development.

However, it criticized that the Government’s ‘surrendee’ and ‘rehabilitation’ regime fails to adhere to international law and standards, jeopardizing the rights to liberty, due process and fair trial. Brigadier Ranasinghe denounce this criticism, saying “International Community and international journalists write what they want without evidence. Reality is different”. Regarding access for ICRC to the “rehabilitation centers”, the brigadier answered ;

“You have to ask higher authority. I’m only working on the ground”

ICRC has no access to ‘rehabilitation centers’ as well as IDPs camps in Vavunya since July 2009. “But we have access to other type of detention centers including Boosa camp and some police detention centers, as we have visited them for many years” said Sarasi Wijeratne spokesperson of ICRC in Colombo.

As LTTE suspects have been detained all these various detention centers, some could be touched by ICRC while majority are not. But this is far from

adequate monitoring of the treatment of LTTE suspects. The detention of LTTE suspects is a “don’t ask” issue in Sri Lanka – along with the war crime allegations -.

However, the mass detention of LTTE suspect is a critical point in post-war era, As LTTE has had so pervasive influence in Tamil community, many of Tamil populations are affected by it one way or another. Thousands of people, who made a queue before the Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (or LLRC) – the president appointed commission – were reportedly looking for their missing family, who they believe are in the army detention.

When I asked Buddima, the wife of detained aid worker as a LTTE ‘suspect’, what was a top priority for her family’s resettlement, she simply replied,

“My husband back”

*Name of detainees and their family are pseudonym for security reason.

Relevant publications at

http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/45873

http://www.neues-deutschland.de/artikel/183988.wenig-versoehnliches-auf-sri-lanka.html

http://h21.hani.co.kr/arti/world/world_general/28322.html

and reproduced at various others

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