The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

I looked last week at the provisions in the LLRC Action Plan for dealing with questions about disappearances, and noted the importance of the recommendation regarding greater transparency and precision as to the actual facts. This is also important regarding detainees, where much confusion has resulted from conflation of two separate issues.

I should note that there is also a third, which is even more serious now, given that we have dealt quite effectively with the first two issues. I refer to those who have nothing to do with the conflict, but should definitely be considered under the Action Plan recommendation to create ‘a special mechanism to examine cases of persons being held in detention (for long periods without charges)’. The recent visit to the Prisons that we undertook with the Human Rights Commission brought home to us graphically what statistics had already indicated, that large numbers are held in remand with no prospect of their cases being heard. At Welikada itself there are over 1000 remandees, some of whom have been in remand for years, while the State continues to ponder as to whether charges can be brought.

I had been astonished at the failure in coordination that sometimes led to this situation. At the consultations the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies persuaded me to commence at the Reconciliation Office even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force on the Human Rights Action Plan, I found the Government Analyst’s Department for instance, which participated actively and helpfully, noting that sometimes reports they sent in were lost, and sometimes they travelled miles for cases only to be told that the prosecution was not ready.

At the Task Force then it was agreed that the Ministry of Justice would ensure regular consultations (monthly, though I had recommended they should be weekly) where the various state agencies concerned (the Attorney General’s Department, the police, the Government Analyst) should meet to decide what was required with regard to the cases in which court decisions were due, and coordinate the necessary measures to ensure speedy disposal of such cases. I am told those meetings now take place (though the last one was cancelled, something I trust will not be repeated), and I hope they have ensured some relief to those remanded for years with no end in sight to their incarceration.

This problem had not come under the purview of the LLRC, since they dealt with the conflict, but I am happy their recommendation makes it clear that this is a general problem, and must be addressed. With regard to those in state custody because of the conflict, we should however distinguish between the former combatants who surrendered at its end, and those detained previously on suspicion.

The latter, it should be recognized, were deemed more dangerous since they were suspected of terrorist activities, meaning attacks on civilians, whereas the former, as combatants, were a less insidious threat. Indeed the state rapidly decided that most of these combatants were victims rather than perpetrators of terror, and that almost all would be released after lesser or greater periods of rehabilitation.

With regard to these combatants, there was total transparency, and they all enjoyed visits from their families. The ICRC had been present at the registration of almost all of them and , though subsequently the ICRC was not given access to them, IOM contributed actively to the rehabilitation process. Interestingly the more hostile members of the international community tried to prevent IOM from working in the rehabilitation centres, in order it seems to perpetuate the myth that the detainees were held in secrecy. Fortunately IOM withstood these pressures, and contributed actively to the recording of the rehabilitation process.

With regard to the visits, I have suggested the Bureau of the Commissioner General publish records of the number of visits each former combatant received. I was told that there were no combatants who had not been visited, and this is something that should be on record. While it is now generally granted that the Rehabilitation programme was successful and a model to the world, which has nowhere else dealt as sympathetically or successfully with former combatants, we must also make it clear that the whole process was totally transparent and open to scrutiny throughout by families as well as external agencies.

With regard to those detained before the conclusion of conflict there was less transparency, but even in those cases the ICRC had access to them, as was confirmed to me in writing recently by the ICRC itself. It has also been able to facilitate visits by their families to the detainees, though not all have been visited, for a variety of reasons that includes the greater threat presented by some of them.

Even before the end of the conflict we at the Ministry of Human Rights suggested that the cases should be expedited, but in those days we were told that, in some cases, the threat to civilians was too great to permit of release even if prosecutions could not be conducted immediately. However the position changed after the conflict, and I chaired a committee appointed on the instructions of the President to look into those detained under the PTA or emergency regulations, and we did our best to ensure either prosecution or release. In fact in the few months we operated the number of those detained was brought down considerably.

Later, after the Ministry was abolished, the Attorney General pursued the matter, though unfortunately he did not see the same need to make clear what was being done. I tried to follow up, but had no status until I was asked to monitor the work of the Committee to implement the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC. Sadly the work of that Committee was not systematic, but finally the Attorney General gave me the figures, which showed that much work had been done. That however will need to be explored in another article.

Daily News 20 August 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/08/20/fea05.asp

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