Tamil protesters hold placards in Colombo, Sri Lanka, demanding the release of political prisoners. (Photo by Niranjani Roland)
Relatives of Tamil political prisoners in Sri Lanka are calling for the immediate release of family members, some of whom have been held for years under the country's controversial anti-terrorism laws.
More than 100 people demonstrated on the streets of Colombo Oct. 14, demanding the release of Tamil political prisoners.
Many of the prisoners are believed to have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations issued during Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, which gave the military sweeping powers to detain and arrest people deemed to be threats to national security.
Sri Lanka's government fought a lengthy war against the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. Tens of thousands of Tamils who were suspected of links to the rebel group were arrested and detained.
Lujini Emmanual, a Catholic who attended the Oct. 14 protest, said authorities arrested her father in 2009 on suspicion of having connections to the Tamil Tigers — a false allegation, she said.
"There are three girls in my family. I have seen many young girls whose fathers were in prison, married at an early age and some have become beggars," she told ucanews.com during the demonstration. "I beg the president … to release all the political prisoners."
Rajeswary Thangarasa, 60, said his son was arrested by security forces in 2011.
"My son was taken by the army while he was at home," Thangarasa said. "He has two kids. They always expect their father. What can I do?"
He said his son was a carpenter and mason who had no connection with the rebel Tamil Tigers.
"Please release my son. I need to live with him in my last days of life," Thangarasa said.
Rights groups have accused both the government and the Tamil Tigers of committing war crimes during the civil war. However, they have also placed particular blame on the government, particularly for a the way in which the military ended the war in 2009, overrunning a Tamil stronghold and killing or injuring thousands of civilians in the process.
Despite the end of the war, rights groups say the torture and detention of people with suspected links to the Tamil Tigers has persisted. An August report from the U.K.-based group Freedom From Torture documented at least 122 specific cases where people were detained since 2009.
"The Sri Lankan military, police and intelligence services have continued to practice torture — including rape and other forms of sexual torture and extensive burning — in the years of peace since the end of the armed conflict," the group said in the report.
"Those at particular ongoing risk of torture include Tamils with a real or perceived association with the [Tamil Tigers] at any level and whether current or historic."
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was elected in January amid promises to promote reconciliation between Tamils, the country's largest ethnic minority, and the majority Sinhalese. However, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the minister of justice, has also recently been quoted claiming there are no political prisoners in the country.
"The prisoners are ones who are held for aiding and abetting the activities of … terrorists. They are not political prisoners," Rajapakshe told reporters Oct. 14.
However, activists say about 260 Tamil political prisoners on Oct. 12 launched a hunger strike in several prisons around the country, demanding their unconditional release.
Father Marimuthu Sakthivel, an Anglican priest who attended the Oct. 14 rally, said that four prisoners have fainted and were admitted to prison hospital.
"They continue their hunger strike until their demands are fulfilled unconditionally," he said.
In September, the U.N. Human Rights Office released a long-awaited report detailing "horrific" abuses that occurred during the civil war and its aftermath. It documented killings, sexual violence, enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians between 2002 and 2011 and urged the government to set up an investigative court, including international judges and prosecutors, to pursue the truth.
Some Catholic Church officials in Sri Lanka have also echoed calls for an international probe into to the civil war, including a group of 170 priests and religious from the country's heavily Tamil northern and eastern regions.
"There has been no accountability of any kind, domestically, for any past violations," Bishop Joseph Ponniah of Batticaloa said in a letter addressed to the U.N. Human Rights Council.