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Sri Lankan forces bar Tamils from human rights event

Families of disappeared turned back en route to Colombo

Sri Lankan forces bar Tamils from human rights event

Sri Lanka police and military are out in force ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo (picture: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP) reporters, Colombo
Sri Lanka

November 14, 2013

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Security personnel prevented families of disappeared Tamils from traveling to Colombo yesterday for a human rights event to be held ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

The family members, numbering around 150 people, were stopped at Murrungan and Medawachchiya while traveling by bus. They were heading for the Human Rights Festival, a people’s forum set up to stress Commonwealth values and urge the government to  improve its badly tarnished record on human rights issues. 

“[Police and military] stopped three buses and forced the families to turn back and go home,” said Father Emmanuel Sebamalai, a Catholic priest from Mannar district who was one of the organizers of the bus trip.

“We were not allowed to attend the event to raise our voices,” said Fr Sebamalai, adding that they had hoped to draw attention to the issue of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, where thousands of disappeared persons remain missing in the wake of the country’s civil war.

The security personnel avoided giving a specific reason for turning them back, but explained that the order had come from a “higher authority”, he said.

Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said in a press conference yesterday that the families were not allowed to travel to Colombo because intelligence reports suggested their presence could cause a “breach of the peace”.

Some of the families argued with the security personnel that it was their right to attend the festival.

“[The security forces] took photographs of the family members” and engaged in a heated argument with the families about their “rights as civilians in the country,” the priest said.

In March, the government prevented family members of disappeared persons from traveling to Colombo to hand over a petition to United Nations staff at the organization’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, over 1,500 pro-government activists including six Buddhist monks demonstrated today against the Human Rights Festival, despite the fact that the government has effectively banned protests in Colombo on November 14 - 15.

United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was also reportedly attacked yesterday by demonstrators opposed to the Human Rights Festival.

“Ranil Wicramasinghe’s vehicle was attacked by an unidentified gang,” said Parliament Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He added that plain-clothes security forces stood by as demonstrators threw stones at Wicramasinghe’s car and attempted to break the windows.

The Sri Lankan government is facing mounting international pressure to investigate and mete out justice for war crimes and human rights abuses. In particular it is being called upon to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations.

The LLRC was a government inquiry set up in 2010 to investigate the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the 2002 ceasefire. The commission made a list of recommendations, few of which have been implemented, rights groups claim.

These human rights issues are coming to the fore while the government also its hands full trying to stage manage the movements of a large influx of foreign media.  

Yesterday a group of protesters blocked a train carrying a news team from the UK’s Channel 4 TV, who were on their way to Kilinochchi in the former conflict zone. Channel 4 attracted the Sri Lankan government's ire in 2011 when it broadcast an extremely hard-hitting critique of the closing months of the country's bloody civil war. 

The government has also grounded all private airlines from flying to Jaffna until November 18.

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