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Ensuring the rights of war suspects

Feb 02, 2010

Human Rights Watch, just released publication, Legal limbo: The uncertain fate of detained LTTE suspects in Sri Lanka is an account of the pain and sufferings of individuals who have been detained on suspicion of LTTE association, their families, as well as of numerous humanitarian workers.

Legal limbo The uncertain fate of detained LTTE suspects in Sri Lanka

Publisher: Human Rights Watch, February, 2010

The Sri Lankan government is currently detaining at least 11,000 people, including more than 550 children, in so-called “rehabilitation centers.”  These individuals, said to be associated with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), were among the almost 300,000 displaced persons confined in detention camps in the final months of the armed conflict with the LTTE.

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The government has routinely violated the detainees’ fundamental human rights, including the right to be informed of specific reasons for arrest, the right to challenge the lawfulness of the detention before an independent judicial authority, and the right of access to legal counsel and family members.

The authorities’ consistent failure to inform families of the basis for the detainees’ arrest and their whereabouts raises serious concerns that some detainees may have been victims of torture and ill-treatment, which are more likely to take place where due process of law is lacking and which have long been serious problems in Sri Lanka.

Given the lack of information about some detainees, there is also a risk that some may have been “disappeared.”

This report is based on interviews with relatives of individuals who have been detained on suspicion of LTTE association. While the government prohibits access to the rehabilitation centers for most independent observers, and access to the camps and former conflict zones remains strictly limited, we were able to conduct more than a dozen interviews with families of detainees, as well as with numerous humanitarian workers and others in Sri Lanka with knowledge of the situation. Many of those interviewed for this report have requested that their names not be used out of fear of repercussions from the Sri Lankan authorities.

The government has the right and responsibility to protect public safety. International law allows the government to take measures to identify and apprehend individuals who acted on behalf of the LTTE in violation of the law, including LTTE combatants and leaders hiding among the displaced population.

However, the detention and treatment of LTTE suspects must also be in accordance with international law.

It is unclear whether any of the 11,000 detainees have been formally charged with any crimes and what acts these individuals have committed that led to their detention.

In many cases, the authorities have failed to inform family members about the whereabouts of the detainees. Often, family members who themselves were deprived of their liberty in detention camps have had great difficulty in locating relatives who were taken away from the camps.

While some families have been able to locate their relatives in other camps, many people remain missing weeks and months after they were separated from their families, raising fears that they might have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Concerns about the fate of detainees are aggravated by Sri Lanka’s appalling record of enforced disappearances.

The government argues that the detainees are “surrendees” under the Sri Lankan emergency laws that permit the government to hold without charge or trial individuals for up to two years. It claims that the 11,000 detainees acknowledged that they had participated in the insurgency and effectively turned themselves in. The absence of information on arrests and detention makes it impossible to determine whether those deemed to be surrendees actually surrendered voluntarily.

The government’s treatment of security detainees has fed fears among many Tamils that the government intends to persecute and discriminate against the Tamil population. It is important for public confidence in the government that these cases be dealt with in accordance with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law.

Human Rights Watch also calls upon influential governments and the United Nations and its relevant agencies to publicly and privately raise concerns about the legal status and treatment of security detainees. While the Sri Lankan government has requested financial support from the international community to build rehabilitation centers for LTTE cadres, no such support should be provided unless and until the basic rights of those detained are respected.

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