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Rights body presses Sri Lankan president over Tamils

Human Rights Commission pressures president to ensure the rights for Tamils to honor loved ones who died

Rights body presses Sri Lankan president over Tamils

A file image of Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena after he addressed a public discussion on the island's foreign policy, in Colombo on June 13, 2016. (Photo by Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP)

Sri Lanka's top human rights body has pressed the country's president over Tamil rights, following a complaint made by a Jesuit priest concerning official harassment of a memorial event.

A complaint made by Father Elil Rajendram to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) led to the commission writing to President Maithripala Sirisena asking him to safeguard the rights of Tamils to conduct memorial services for relatives killed during the country's 30-year civil war.

Father Rajendram who works in Mullaitivu district, Northern Province, organized a memorial service May 18 to remember the hundreds of Tamil civilians who died in the final phase of the civil war in Mullivaikkal village.

However, Father Rajendram faced intimidation from officials for organizing the event, including attempts to ensure it did not go ahead. The priest described the actions of the police as harassment and a threat to his freedom of movement, expression and association rights, which are enshrined in the island nation's constitution.

The HRCSL letter to President Sirisena, dated June 7, identified the need for Sri Lanka to rebuild ethnic relations and work toward reconciliation after 30 years of armed conflict.

"It is important that all communities have the space and ability to mourn the loss of their loved ones and remember them," wrote Deepika Udagama, chairperson of the HRCSL.

"In Sri Lanka, we have built many memorials to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives during the armed conflict," the letter said.

"The fact that the person who died was a LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cadre should not [matter]. Every family has the right to remember and memorialize their loved ones irrespective of their status or political beliefs," it said.


Attempts to stop memorial event

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In the lead up to the memorial event, Father Rajendram received a court order to halt the service. The Jesuit priest challenged the direction, which was rescinded, and he was permitted to proceed with the memorial ceremony and Mass at St. Paul's Church.

However, after the event, Father Rajendram was interrogated by the police at his residence and at the police station about the ceremony. The intense questioning of his elderly parents caused them great distress and anxiety, sources said.

Father Rajendram's memorial service included carved names of dead Tamils on stones but police were concerned that the list may include the names of former Tamil Tiger fighters.


A path towards reconciliation

The commission's view is that memorial ceremonies are an essential part of the journey toward reconciliation. The letter to the Sri Lankan president said any denial of this right would deepen ethnic divisions and hamper reconciliation efforts.

Human rights activist Ruki Fernando said even after the letter to the president, police had insisted on continuing investigations and extending the prohibition on carving the names of dead people.

"The police admitted in court that they were unable to confirm a single carved name was of a LTTE member," Fernando told ucanews.com.

"They failed to explain the legal basis for the investigation or, more fundamentally, to identify a law that says it is illegal to carve a name of a dead LTTE member on stone and display it," he said.

The police told the court they had not received any instructions from the president based on the HRCSL's letter. "It seems the president is not willing to take action, which is deeply worrying," Fernando said.

More than 60,000 Tamil rebels and civilians were killed in the 30-year war between the Sri Lankan army and LTTE, with most deaths occurring in the war's final stages.

In 2015, Sri Lanka's new government partially lifted a ban on commemorating Tamil victims.

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