Head of state: Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
Head of government: Mahinda Rajapakse (replaced Ranil Wickremasinghe in April)
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice
International Criminal Court: not signed
UN Women’s Convention and its Optional Protocol: ratified
The ceasefire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) remained in place, despite a number of violations and a failure to resume peace talks. The human rights situation in the north-east deteriorated following a violent split within the LTTE in April and a dramatic increase in politically motivated killings. Although a large number of child soldiers were released during the internal fighting, the LTTE continued to recruit children, including through abduction. In November the government announced a “reactivation” of the death penalty. Torture in police custody was widely reported and victims seeking redress faced threats and violence. There was little progress towards holding security forces to account for past human rights violations. Religious minorities came under threat, with attacks on Christians and Muslims, as well as the tabling of a bill aimed at curbing religious conversions.
Elections on 2 April brought to power a fragile coalition headed by the President’s United People’s Freedom Alliance. The LTTE-affiliated Tamil National Alliance (TNA) took the majority of seats in the north-east, where elections were marred by vote rigging, intimidation and violence, including the killing of United National Party and TNA candidates and an Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) activist.
In March the LTTE’s eastern commander, known as Colonel Karuna, split from the organization, taking with him a large number of cadres. In April thousands of LTTE troops moved into the east to engage Colonel Karuna and his supporters in battle, resulting in substantial casualties. After four days of fighting Colonel Karuna disbanded the majority of his supporters and went into hiding. However, he continued to speak out against the LTTE and formed his own political party, which in October joined with the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front. Throughout 2004 the east remained volatile with continued skirmishes between the LTTE and remaining Karuna supporters, growing numbers of political assassinations and widespread child recruitment.
Despite efforts by Norwegian mediators, there was no return to peace talks. Amid an atmosphere of mistrust, the LTTE continued to insist that their proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) form the basis of any talks and the coalition government struggled to define its position. On 7 July an LTTE suicide bomber, allegedly sent to kill EPDP MP Douglas Devananda, blew herself up in a Colombo police station killing four policemen.
On 27 November, in his annual “Heroes’ Day” speech, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran stated that the LTTE might return to the “freedom struggle” if peace talks did not resume on the basis of the LTTE’s ISGA proposals. On 24 December the LTTE formally rejected the government’s latest offer of talks amid growing fears of a return to war.
On 26 December a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused tsunami waves to break on Sri Lanka’s coastline, killing more than 30,000 people. Most deaths occurred on the southern and eastern coasts, although there was widespread devastation of infrastructure and over 400,000 people were displaced across the island. Following this disaster, local communities across the country responded quickly with support for the victims, government and LTTE forces began emergency rescue and relief operations, and a large amount of international assistance began to arrive.
Politically motivated killings
There was a dramatic escalation in political killings, especially in the east, following the split in the LTTE. From April onwards an increasing number of civilians, including members of opposition Tamil groups, were assassinated by the LTTE and Colonel Karuna’s supporters. Some of these killings took place in government-controlled territory or near Sri Lankan Army (SLA) checkpoints, leading the LTTE to accuse the SLA of providing support to Colonel Karuna’s faction. The continued killings and intimidation created an atmosphere of fear among the civilian population in the east as well as putting the ceasefire under strain. A number of people were also killed in Colombo.
- On 31 May journalist Aiyathurai Nadesan was shot and killed on his way to work in Batticaloa. It was believed that Colonel Karuna’s supporters carried out the killing.
- On 8 July the LTTE publicly executed Balasuntaram Sritharan and Thillaiampalam Sundararajan in the eastern village of Illuppaiadaichenai. In a statement released by its Batticaloa-Amparai political wing, the LTTE claimed the two men had been sentenced to death as “traitors”.
- On 10 August Balanadarajah Iyer, a senior EPDP spokesman, was shot and killed in Wellawatte, Colombo. It was believed that the LTTE carried out the killing.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported the recruitment of 448 children as soldiers in the first half of 2004, while acknowledging that the actual figure was probably far higher.
It was reported that a large number of child soldiers were deployed in the fighting between the LTTE and the Karuna faction in April and that there were some child casualties. Following the fighting, over 1,600 child soldiers from the east, who had fought alongside Colonel Karuna, were disbanded and spontaneously returned to their homes. In May and June it was reported that the LTTE were re-recruiting many of these demobilized children, using tactics of intimidation, abduction and violence. Parents in the east, angry that their children had been used in internecine fighting, attempted to mobilize in an effort to resist re-recruitment. There was also an increase in child recruitment in the north in mid-2004 as the LTTE tried to make up for the large number of cadres it had lost during the split.
- In May and June, families in Vaharai, Batticaloa district, who tried to prevent the LTTE from forcibly recruiting their children were beaten with wooden sticks. One woman was knocked unconscious and another was cut on the face.
- In May, four boys from Trincomalee were forcibly re-recruited from their homes in the middle of the night. The mother of one of the boys was beaten and injured during the incident.
There were numerous reports of torture by police, as well as some reports of death in police custody. Some torture victims seeking redress in the courts were reportedly put under pressure to withdraw their cases. Among them was Gerald Perera, a torture victim due to give evidence against seven police officers in the High Court, who was shot on 21 November and subsequently died.
In August the National Police Commission announced that addressing torture by police would be its top priority. It also announced that it would be responsible for the disciplinary control of all police officers, revoking the previous authority of the Inspector General of Police (IGP) in disciplinary matters relating to officers below the rank of inspector. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) established a Torture Prevention and Monitoring Unit to investigate allegations and carry out surprise checks on places of detention. However, in September the IGP issued a directive, based on the Attorney General’s advice, stating that the NHRC must notify senior police officials before inspecting police barracks and other unauthorized places of detention.
On 20 November the Office of the President announced that “the death penalty will be effective from today for rape, murder and narcotics dealings”. This signalled the end of a 27-year moratorium on executions. The reactivation of the death penalty was in response to the murder of a High Court judge and a policeman guarding him. Since the last execution in 1976, all death sentences had been automatically commuted by consecutive presidents.
Prevention of Terrorism Act
It was reported that around 40 prisoners remained in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) at the end of the year.
In July, in response to a complaint brought under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that the rights of Nallaratnam Singarasa had been violated and that he should be given an appropriate remedy such as “release or retrial and compensation”. Nallaratnam Singarasa was detained under the PTA in 1993 and sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment in 1995. Nallaratnam Singarasa claimed that while in detention he was tortured and forced to put his thumbprint to a confession written in Sinhalese, a language he did not understand. This confession formed the main basis for his conviction.
In July a private members’ bill, the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act, was tabled in Parliament. The bill placed restrictions on the circumstances under which a person can be converted. Following objections that the bill was unconstitutional, in August the Supreme Court ruled that some amendments should be made to it. In November another private members’ bill was tabled for a constitutional amendment to make Buddhism the national religion. By the end of the year neither of these bills had been passed.
Christian groups reported a few attacks by Buddhist villagers on pastors and churches in the south during the year. In October there was rioting between different Muslim sects in the east, resulting in the demolition of a mosque belonging to a minority Muslim sect and reports of families fleeing their homes. Around the same time tension between Muslims and Tamils led to rioting in Mannar and Akkaraipattu.