Sri Lanka: time to end irregular detention

September 24, 2009

Mostly I’ve been blogging about the internally displaced civilians who are being held in internment camps in northern Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lankan government says they can’t be released until they’ve been screened to determine if any are former fighters with the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International is conducting our “Unlock the Camps” campaign to demand that these displaced civilians get the freedom of movement they’re entitled to.

Today, however, I want to talk about the more than 10,000 suspected Tiger members who are being held, separately from the displaced civilians, by the Sri Lankan government.  Amnesty International reported today that one of those detainees, Sri Chandramorgan, was seriously injured last Tuesday when he tried to escape from the teachers training college where he is being held.  The college is being used as an unofficial detention center to hold suspected former combatants.  It was rumored that Sri Chandramorgan had been killed when he tried to escape; the rumor of his killing sparked a clash between the security forces and the detainees at the college.

Unofficial detention centers, which aren’t officially acknowledged by the government, unfortunately have a long history in Sri Lanka and have been used to facilitate torture, disappearances and political killings by the security forces.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has had no access to the suspected Tiger members being held by the government.  Many of them have not had contact with anyone outside the detention centers, most of which are not officially acknowledged as places of detention by the government.

Although the Tamil Tigers were responsible for thousands of grave human rights abuses during the war with the Sri Lankan government, that does not mean that former Tiger combatants (or those suspected of links with the Tigers) do not have any rights.  They should be treated humanely, in officially recognized places of detention, and not be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.  They should be allowed access to their families, lawyers and doctors and have the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court.  They should be promptly charged with a recognizable crime in civilian courts and provided a fair trial in accordance with international standards.

I know some may say that the Tigers didn’t afford any of this to the people they held prisoner during the war, but surely the Sri Lankan government wouldn’t want to use the Tigers as a standard of measurement for adherence to human rights standards?