Author Topic: Sri Lanka Human Rights: Some Improvement But More Remains To Be Done (2007)  (Read 820 times)

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Human Rights In Sri Lanka: Some Improvement But More Remains To Be Done
OriginEmbassy Colombo (Sri Lanka)
Cable timeThu, 6 Sep 2007 11:21 UTC
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/05/2017
 709 G) COLOMBO 413 H) COLOMBO 463 I)
 959 O) COLOMBO 409 P) COLOMBO 1218
Classified By: Ambassador Robert O. Blake, Jr. Reasons: 1.4(b, d).
¶1. (C) SUMMARY: The period April-June 2007 showed a decline
relative to the beginning of the year in Colombo and some
other parts of Sri Lanka in certain categories of human
rights abuses, such as abductions. However, the overall
level of human rights violations compared to 2002-2005
remains elevated. Since human rights violations are
conflict-driven, the improvement may largely be due to an
abatement in fighting after government forces reasserted
control over the Eastern Province. The continuing role of
paramilitary groups such as the Eelam Peoples' Democratic
Party (EPDP) in Jaffna and the Karuna group (TMVP) in the
East raises important questions about the durability of the
improvement. There are some indications that the frequency
of abuses began to climb again recently, but reliable
statistics for August are not yet available. The situation
in Jaffna remains grave, with abductions continuing and
extrajudicial killings on the rise. There has been
negligible progress on punishing those responsible for
serious human rights violations. Further developments in a
few high-profile cases, including some of those within the
mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, will
provide a useful indicator of the government's commitment to
improve on accountability. The overall number of child
soldiers serving in the Tamil Tigers and the Karuna group is
falling, but child recruitment has not stopped. Pressure on
the English-language media in Colombo has eased somewhat,
although one prominent defense journalist left the country on
September 3 to seek temporary refuge abroad. Attacks on
Tamil journalists have continued unabated. Embassy is
encouraged by the progress so far, but believes that
consistent pressure from the U.S. and other friends of Sri
Lanka will be needed to sustain the positive trend. The
government's control of the East carries with it the
responsibility to ensure a political, security and human
rights environment that will reassure Tamils and other
minorities. We must make clear to the government that the
situation is Jaffna is unacceptable, and to find ways ease
the pressure on Tamil media. Please see Embassy conclusions
and recommendation in paragraphs 33 to 34. End summary.
¶2. (C) Statistics on disappearances and other human rights
abuses are gathered by different organizations, using
different methodologies for different purposes, and often
covering different time frames. While this makes it
difficult to reconcile discrepancies, comparisons of the data
available reveal trends. The International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) provides the best overview of abduction and
disappearance cases. ICRC has access to detainees held by
all the conflict parties, including the GSL, the LTTE, and
Karuna group, and maintains full case files, not just names
and dates of presumed abductions. The ICRC is able to
intervene and solve about 1/3 of disappearance cases when
families reported them early (within a maximum of about five
days) and provided accurate information. ICRC follows up
systematically with the families, visits detainees and meets
regularly with the GSL and other parties to the conflict.
¶3. (C) The senior ICRC protection officer in Colombo briefed
Pol Chief on updated statistics the ICRC had provided to the
government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and shared with us on a
confidential basis; these figures should not be shared
COLOMBO 00001225 002 OF 008
outside the USG. Overall, April-June 2007 was less violent
than January-March, he said. The ICRC, like other sources,
reports a significant drop in abductions in Colombo, and in
some northern districts. However, the number of
disappearances remains high in the East; and the number of
unsolved cases remains high everywhere. ICRC figures for
disappearances, island-wide, over the past year:
Q3 467
 234 solved
 233 remain
Q4 318
 152 solved
 160 remain
Q1 458
 183 solved
 275 remain
Q2 230
 79 solved
 151 remain
¶4. (SBU) Three Sri Lankan NGOS publicly released a paper
they submitted to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on
August 22, confirming that the victims of human rights abuses
) the dead and disappeared ) are overwhelmingly young, male
Tamils from the conflict-torn North and East. Over seventy
percent of the conflict-related fatalities were Tamils.
(Tamils make up only 16% of the total population.) The
killings are unevenly distributed geographically: the
government-controlled Jaffna peninsula, with about 3.5% of
the island's population, had 23 percent of the killings.
Other hot spots for extrajudicial killings were the eastern
district of Batticaloa and the border area of Vavuniya.
Nearly all the victims of abductions were Tamils.
¶5. (C) ICRC data have consistently revealed the East as the
source of most disappearance cases. This includes the
districts of Trincomalee, Ampara, Batticaloa, and "border"
areas of Polonnaruwa. The East is first in the incidence of
detainees allegedly "arrested" by a party to the conflict, as
well as those who disappeared in unknown circumstances. The
northern districts of Jaffna and Vavuniya follow, with a
lesser incidence of disappearances in Mannar, Anuradhapura,
and the LTTE-controlled Vanni.
¶6. (C) The ICRC noted that the situation in the East was
characterized by the problem of armed groups' aggression
against civilians, similar to that in Jaffna. In the case of
the East, the most vulnerable civilians are those displaced
by the conflict, who are at the mercy of the Karuna faction.
The ICRC protection officer feared that if the influence of
the Karuna group continues to increase, the situation in the
East will begin to resemble that in Jaffna (ref a).
¶7. (C) The ICRC protection officer underscored that his
organization has never received any substantial information
from any of the conflict parties that would point to the
culpability of any of its members. He added that to his
knowledge, police have never updated family members as to
whether an investigation has been instituted or is
¶8. (C) Our ICRC contact was adamant that government claims
that the majority of cases concern people who have
"disappeared" voluntarily are not true. People disappear
"forcefully," he said. Contrary to GSL claims, they almost
never emigrate or go on foreign trips without telling their
families. While the ICRC does not track cases of recruitment
COLOMBO 00001225 003 OF 008
of adults, he acknowledged that there were a very small
number of cases in which a person reported missing later
turns out to have been recruited by the LTTE or the Karuna
¶9. (C) ICRC documented only 149 cases of disappearances
island-wide in 2005. This rose to 1,134 in 2006, the first
year of the Rajapaksa government, as the ethnic conflict
escalated. The first quarter of calendar year 2007 showed a
sharp spike, making it probably the worst quarter for
abductions since Sri Lanka's independence in 1948. (Note:
the period of the JVP insurrection in the South in 1988-1990
was far worse for extrajudicial killings, however.) With the
relative improvement in April-June 2007, the incidence of
abductions returned roughly to 2006 levels, but was still
much higher than during the CFA.
¶10. (C) ICRC figures are updated quarterly. The most recent
statistics available are current through June 2007. Whether
the noted improvement in early summer has been sustained will
not be clear until third quarter numbers are ready, about the
end of October. The protection officer confided, though,
that based on the number of new cases he has seen and
documented in July and August, it appeared that the trend had
reversed. He thought the number of abductions, especially in
northern districts, was again headed upwards.
¶11. (C) The ICRC has much less confidence in the reliability
of its statistics on killings. Families, especially Jaffna
residents, are reluctant to report these cases for fear of
becoming victims themselves. Still, the ICRC noted a decline
in reported summary executions, island-wide, from 50 in the
first quarter of 2007 to 34 in the second quarter.
¶12. (C) The ICRC and UNICEF saw an overall decline in the
cumulative number of child soldiers serving in the LTTE,
Karuna faction, and other armed groups in the first semester
of 2007. The protection officer thought that the drop in
cases reported in the LTTE-held Vanni could be due to
pressure on parents not to report. The same would apply to
the Karuna faction, he said.
¶13. (C) The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a
respected Sri Lankan NGO, has also provided us with
statistics on abductions, killings, and cases of bodily
injury in the conflict-affected districts of the north and
east. In contrast to the ICRC figures, CPA shows the
principal locus of human rights violations is Jaffna, not the
East. (Embassy believes this is probably due to the CPA's
lack of access to detention facilities and resources to
collect reports from victims' families. CPA figures for the
East are quite low; Embassy considers the Red Cross figures
more reliable.) The CPA figures show a slight dip in
abductions in Jaffna from May to June, but a return to higher
levels in July and August. More significantly, there were
nearly twice as many extrajudicial killings as abductions in
Jaffna, and these show a steady rise from the spring through
summer 2007 (refs b, c).
¶14. (C) While some assign the blame for the dire situation
in Jaffna directly to the military authorities, there is an
increasing body of evidence documenting close cooperation
between army intelligence in Jaffna and the Eelam People's
Democratic Party (EPDP), an anti-LTTE Tamil militia (refs d,
e, f). Its leader, Social Affairs Minister Douglas
Devananda, who is believed responsible for numerous killings,
is fiercely opposed to the LTTE. Devananda appears to have
COLOMBO 00001225 004 OF 008
been given a free hand to deal with those in Jaffna he
suspects of ties to the LTTE by whatever means necessary.
¶15. (C) DCM and Pol Chief asked Defense Secretary Gothabaya
Rajapaksa about the apparently worsening situation in Jaffna
in a meeting on August 9. Gothabaya declined to respond
directly, noting only "I thought that the overall situation
in the country had improved" and observing that "they're
dealing with a difficult situation up there."
¶16. (C) A diplomatic note from the Foreign Ministry to the
Embassy on May 30, 2007 is the only direct response we have
received to date on the list of approximately 355 names of
abductees we submitted to the Presidential Secretariat
following a meeting on March 8 between SCA PDAS Mann and
President Mahinda Rajapaksa (ref g). The note addresses only
14 of the 355 cases. It states that immigration records show
six of the individuals on the list (or persons with similar
or identical names) either applied for passports or departed
Sri Lanka after their reported abductions. Two of the people
on the list were killed, one was arrested by the army, one
was released after his abduction, two had returned home, and
two had been "traced by Jaffna police" (no further
information). The Ministry told the Embassy that it and
other parts of the government continue to investigate the
other names on our list, but progress has been halting.
¶17. (C) The same diplomatic note refers to the interim
reports of Mahanama Thilakaratne's "One-Man" Commission of
Inquiry into Disappearances appointed by President Rajapaksa
(ref h). Thilakaratne, a former High Court judge, is a close
associate of the President. According to the note, only 79
of the cases on the Embassy's list had been reported to
Thilakaratne. Of those, 14 abductions took place outside the
time frame established for the "One-Man Commission."
¶18. (U) Thilakaratne gave a press interview on August 31 in
which he stated that of 1992 disappearance cases from
September 2006 to March 2007, 1425 of the individuals had
returned. He said he was still probing into 567 cases, and
would release the results within two months. It is not clear
from where Thilakaratne derived these numbers. The number of
"disappeared," for example, is more than twice as high as
reported by the Red Cross, while the percentage of those who
have returned far exceeds that reported by the Red Cross. It
is not possible to confirm Thilakaratne's information, since
he has so far released his report only to President
Rajapaksa. Thilakaratne's first interim report, which we
have seen, indicates that the lack of resources for his
"Commission" and other, self-imposed constraints have led to
spotty, haphazard research. Our ICRC contact commented
privately that Thilakaratne's numbers for both disappearances
and their resolutions were impossibly high.
¶19. (C) Recent cases show that the security establishment
has not abandoned the use of strong-arm tactics when it sees
its vital interests threatened. In the aftermath of the
attempted eviction by police and army of temporary Tamil
residents of Colombo in June (ref i), seven residents of one
hostel filed a "fundamental rights" case in Supreme Court
against senior officials, including Inspector General of
Police Victor Perera and Defense Secretary Gothabaya
Rajapaksa. On August 15, the owner of the lodge discovered
that some transient residents had left behind a bundle
COLOMBO 00001225 005 OF 008
including claymore mines and other explosive devices. He
immediately reported the find to police, who detained him for
questioning over two days. They then suggested that the case
against him would be dropped if the plaintiffs in the
eviction case dropped their lawsuit against the authorities.
The lodge owner subsequently left for India after receiving
explicit threats that his schoolage daughters would be
¶20. (C) Attacks on journalists, especially Tamils, continued
unabated in July and August. A 22 year old Jaffna journalism
student was shot dead in his home on August 1; another Tamil
journalist who had previously been assaulted by air force
personnel was the victim of acid-throwing that caused serious
injuries. In the most celebrated case (ref j), Iqbal Athas,
defense analyst for the Sunday Times (Colombo), Jane's
Defense weekly and CNN, had his security detail withdrawn by
the Defense Ministry and was subsequently threatened in
connection with reporting on irregularities in the
acquisition of four MiG-27 planes for the Sri Lankan Air
force. Athas left Sri Lanka to seek temporary refuge abroad
on September 3.
¶21. (C) Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, deputy director of the
Law and Society Trust, and author of a confidential legal
opinion commissioned by the International Independent Group
of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), noted that since 1948 a number of
Commissions have been appointed to look into disappearances.
Few of these have reached credible outcomes. The more
successful ones have been those appointed to look into
misdeeds of previous governments. None have directly
resulted in prosecutions of those found responsible. There is
no provision under Sri Lankan law for the findings of
Commissions of Inquiry, which operate under relaxed rules of
evidence, to be taken into account by prosecutors or the
criminal courts.
¶22. (C) Since Sri Lanka's 1994 accession to the UN
Convention Against Torture until 2006, there have been just
three convictions for torture which have not later been
overturned on appeal, Pinto-Jayawardena noted. 3615
investigations into "enforced disappearances" initiated since
1994 by the Disappearance Investigations Unit have led to
proceedings in just 432 cases. In these cases, there have
been 12 convictions, only two of those in high-profile cases.
 Charges have been dropped in 130 cases. The majority of
cases remain pending. Even when as a result of inquiries the
Supreme Court had ordered filing of charges against
identified suspects, prosecutors often failed to do so.
Pinto-Jayawardena pointed out there is no public access to
court records. Releasing information about pending cases was
formerly at the discretion of the Attorney General, but the
incumbent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a Sinhalese
hardliner, recently issued an order prohibiting the release
to third parties of information relating to human rights
cases against the security forces (ref k).
¶23. (C) The government has frequently cited the President's
nomination of a Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Abuses
(CoI) and the International Independent Group of Eminent
Persons (IIGEP) as evidence of its intent to establish
accountability for the 16 high-profile cases enumerated in
the Commission's mandate. However, the history of previous
commissions shows that a successful outcome of the current
COLOMBO 00001225 006 OF 008
CoI is anything but assured. In private conversations, IIGEP
members, including U.S. Eminent Person Gene Dewey, have told
us that progress in clearing up the 16 cases has been
"glacial." It is questionable whether even one of the cases
will be resolved before the CoI's mandate expires in November
¶2007. While the GSL may well choose to extend the CoI's
mandate by a year or more, it is doubtful that the Eminent
Persons will ask for such an extension or request additional
funding from the donors for this purpose.
¶24. (C) The CoI has so far expended most of its efforts on
the killings of seventeen Tamil humanitarian workers of the
French NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Muttur on August 4,
¶2006. IIGEP sources told us that weeks of interviews have
produced little but endlessly repetitive questioning of
witnesses, led by the Solicitor General, into circumstances
preceding the massacre but not directly relevant to
discovering the identity of the perpetrators. They note that
the killing of five young students in Trincomalee on January
2, 2006 is "open and shut," but that inadequate arrangements
for witness protection threaten to short-circuit the inquiry
(ref l). The CoI has not begun to look into another
apparently easily solvable case, that of the killing of ten
Muslims in Pottuvil near a mosque on September 17, 2006.
¶25. (C) Embassy has examined the lists Sri Lankan Ambassador
to the U.S. Bernard Goonetilleke turned over to SCA PDAS
Steven Mann on August 8. It is difficult to assess the
status of indictments returned against 90 persons in 2004 to
2007 in the absence of further information identifying those
cases and without access to court records. The few such
cases that ever reach the trial stage may take a decade to do
so; the courts are now dealing with cases from the mid-1990s.
 If the historical pattern continues, it is unlikely that
many of these will result in convictions, let alone
significant sentences for the perpetrators. It is highly
probable that none of them will come to trial within the term
of the current Sri Lankan administration, which runs until
¶26. (C) According to an RSO police contact, all six names on
the list of recent arrestees are related to the case of
retired Air Force Wing Commander Nishantha Gajanayake (ref
m), which has received wide media coverage and has been the
subject of parliamentary debate. Gajanayake's last position
before his retirement was that of executive officer to
then-Air Force Commander Donald Perera, now Chief of Defense
Staff. According to accusations leveled in Parliament in
early June by the opposition UNP, Gajanayake ran an
abduction, murder and extortion ring under the direction of
senior officials, including Colombo Criminal Investigation
Division Deputy Inspector General Rohan Abeywardene, that
ultimately reported to the highest levels of the Sri Lankan
government. If there is any truth to this, Embassy considers
it improbable that charges will be filed against Gajanayake
(ref n).
¶27. (C) There are, however, similar cases from the mid-1990s
now working their way through the courts involving officials
who have since been promoted and are now in key positions in
MoD. We are following a case dating from 1996 involving the
disappearance of 25 villagers from the Jaffna peninsula in
which Lt. Col. Duminda Keppetiwalana, now the executive
assistant of Army Commander Fonseka, is implicated.
(Keppetiwalana has been denied U.S.-funded training under the
Leahy Amendment because of pending charges against him, ref
o.) The magistrate who was handling the case has since been
transferred from Jaffna to Colombo and demoted to juvenile
court. If the 1996 case is quashed, it will be an indication
that Sri Lanka is making little headway on accountability.
COLOMBO 00001225 007 OF 008
¶28. (C) The handling of more recent cases, such as the
massacre of 13 residents of Allaipity (Kayts island)
allegedlly at the hands of Navy personnel on May 13, 2006,
and the killing of five students at a Vavuniya agricultural
college on November 18, 2006, apparently by army and STF
personnel, will also reveal whether Sri Lanka has developed
the political will to enforce discipline, apply the rules of
war, and hold its servicemen and police accountable for
¶29. (C) According to a source close to President Rajapaksa's
inner circle, the GSL has counted votes within the Human
Rights Council and is confident it can defeat any country
resolution on Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan media are reporting that
Sri Lankan PermRep in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke, who is known
for his hardline Sinhalese views, will be reinforced by
Attorney General C.R. De Silva (another hawk) and a three-man
team of Deputy Solicitors General. This would indicate that
the delegation will treat any debate about Sri Lanka in the
HRC as an adversarial proceeding.
¶30. (C) Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told
Ambassador on August 24 that the GSL will take the position
that the HRC's decision to move forward beginning in 2008
with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, a peer group
process with observers, would render any country-specific
resolution on Sri Lanka unnecessary.
-- July and August have seen a reduction in the number of
abductions reported, particularly in the Colombo area.
-- It is not true that abductions have "gone to zero," as
some have alleged.
-- The overall incidence of human rights violations appears
to have abated in the second quarter of CY 2007 compared to
the first quarter.
-- The frequency of human rights violations has returned to
its approximate level in autumn 2006, and remains far above
the levels seen before the election of President Rajapaksa in
November 2005.
-- Disappearances have continued at a high rate in the East.
The human rights situation has shown little improvement
there, although the potential exists for an improvement if
stability returns.
-- As reported elsewhere, the outcome of the government's
plan for the recovery and development of the East will be
crucial. Any future role of the Karuna group as a
paramilitary will have serious consequences for human rights
-- The GSL will resist any Sri Lanka-specific resolution in
Geneva because it believes it has the votes to defeat a
resolution. Efforts similar to last year's to negotiate a
more mildly worded resolution will probably be futile.
-- Sustained U.S. and international pressure will be needed
to keep the GSL on track for improving its human rights
COLOMBO 00001225 008 OF 008
-- The U.S., as an influential non-member of the HRC, may
want to consider supporting a reasonably worded EU resolution
on Sri Lanka (that acknowledges some progress), even if the
votes do not appear to be there to pass it.
-- If decisions are made not to receive Sri Lanka officials
at the highest levels in Washington, we should use available
opportunities for less senior Washington-based officials to
deliver tough messages on the need for a concerted, genuine
effort to improve Sri Lanka's human rights record and hold
those guilty of abuses accountable.
-- We should link a sustained improvement on human rights to
U.S. ability to provide certain types of assistance,
including a possible Millennium Challenge Compact and more
robust forms of security cooperation.
-- U.S. assistance to help Sri Lanka improve its forensic
capability (ref p) will not only help address the GSL's poor
record of investigation and conviction, it will give the
Embassy important access. We should also provide whatever
assistance we can to human rights defenders in Sri Lanka, who
remain under duress (see September 5 Embassy email to

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