SRI LANKA: Extrajudicial Killings — The miserable breakdown of the rule of law 

By Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Our lives are spinning out
from world to world;
the shapes of things
are shifting in the wind.
What do we know
beyond the rapture and the dread?- Stanley Kunitz*

“They finished off my husband after two days of torture, and then took me to Hambantota where a number of women were held on suspicion. To my knowledge, most of them were innocent like me. There too they tortured me and urged me to reveal the names of the people who had connections with the JVP, but I did not know anyone who had JVP connections and I didn’t have any link with them either.” – Mrs. Premasili**

Every national and international observer agrees that Sri Lanka today is a state facing tremendous upheaval and chaotic social disorder, even after the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on May 19, 2012 (when the Government of Sri Lanka officially declared the longest civil war in Asia over1). The national and international civil society organizations have documented that violations of fundamental human rights are occurring every day2. The tabling of the drafted resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka by the United State of America, to the 19th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, has questioned an old phenomenon in a new framework, though it continues, as previous resolutions have, to open widespread discussion on human rights violations by the Government of Sri Lanka, as well as by non-state actors in recent times in the island nation. There is no doubt that the Government of Sri Lanka needs tremendous pressure from the international community, not only to take responsibility for its conduct during the war, but also to address the many constitutional shortcomings that resulted from the introduction of the 1978 Constitution3 and most of its amendments, where the principles of common law were manipulated by the executive branch to place itself above the law.

In regard to the threat to human lives, there is no significant difference between open warfare and political competition between the powerful political parties of Sri Lanka. Since 1971 when the UF Government4 introduced the practice of extrajudicial killing for the first time against the JVP insurrection, many dissidents, both rebel and civilian, have been killed in cold blood. Extrajudicial killings have become a norm of daily life in Sri Lanka. Even though the present regime has made some symbolic developments on extrajudicial killings, they remain part of daily life. Sri Lankans, rightly, remain fearful of abduction and the white van syndrome has become a powerful symbol of extra judicial killings in recent years. However, the Government of Sri Lanka remains unwilling to conduct genuine investigation on “White Van” abductions and it is commonly believed that the Government is the one of the main perpetrators of these heinous crimes.

The worst development of this practice was reported on the second week of February this year, when an armed gang entered the premises of a courthouse and abducted an individual who was being escorted by security officials from the courthouse to prison, after hearing a case against him. The following morning, Tuesday 14th February, 2012, a body of a male was dumped and burnt near Sri Lankan President Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s private residence in Boteju Mawatha, in Colombo. Around 9.30 am on 14th February, unidentified persons arrived in a white van, dumped a male body, and burnt it in front of Mr. Rajapaksa’s private residence.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has documented a case of a man who was tortured and illegally detained for 28 months and was abducted before the Supreme Court could hear his Fundamental Rights application. On 11 February, 2012, Mr. Ramasamy Prabakaran was forcibly abducted in the presence of his wife, Shiromi, and their daughter, near their home in Canal Bank Road, Wellawatte. Prabakaran, who owns Panama Traders, an electronic shop in Majestic City Shopping Complex, is a Tamil of Indian origin.5 It has been reported by the media, that there have been 32 unexplained abductions documented between last October and this February, mostly in Colombo and suburb or northern Sri Lanka; the victims being a mix of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim6.

As a part of the militarization of the country, not only of the North and East, but of the entire country, the rule of law has come under threat while the military controls whole sectors of the country and has been given enormous power to undermine the peoples’ basic rights, rights that have been confirmed in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, international treaties which have been signed by the Government of Sri Lanka, and even in election manifestos issues by each of the political parties, including the present ruling alliance. Former high court judge, Mr. W.T.M.P.B. Warawewa, at a felicitation organized in his honor by the Young Lawyers Association, has claimed that the current breakdown of the rule of law is the result of certain judges failing to maintain the dignity of their profession and having no self-strength. Some judges would fall to any lowly depth for personal gains and this corruption has allowed human rights violations to flourish. Honesty and courage are essential for a judge, and that is why the people respected the judiciary. Very soon, it would not be surprising if the Army’s major generals are appointed to the Supreme Court, as the judiciary has recognized a court martial as a legitimate court of law for accused civilians, as well as military personnel.

The victims of forceful abduction and extrajudicial killings are not only ordinary people, but it has been widespread among all level of the society and some of members of the Government itself are in fear of abduction and execution. In an interview with this writer7the President of the Urban Council, Kolonnawa, Colombo suburb, Mr. Ravindu Udaya Shantha revealed that the Government was responsible for the extrajudicial killing of his own brother, who was abducted on February 21, 2012, in a white van, as well as an endeavor to abduct him by an armed group attached to the Sri Lankan Army on 11th March 2012, in Umagiliya, Kolonnawa. There is no investigation regarding his brother’s abduction, while the Minister of Economic Development Affairs, who is the brother of the President as well as an adviser, Mr. Basil Rajapakse, unofficially informed Mr. Ravindu that his brother had been killed. There has been no investigation into the abduction of Mr. Ravindu, even after four people who were involved in the attempt were handed over to the police station in Wellampitiya. They were released on special order from the Defence Authority that same day.

Forceful abduction and extrajudicial killing have been constantly growing after the killing of former parliamentarian and an advisor to the President, Mr. Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, as a result of internal power struggles within the ruling alliance, in Mulleriyawa, Colombo on October 08th 2011. As the Asian Human Rights Commission disclosed, all business transactions and even human transactions will suffer from the unscrupulous actions of persons who will refuse to respect the law. Already this situation exists to a large degree. Guns, goons, and the police and politicians acting illegally have a great influence on business activities both big and small. Those who have influence with the criminal elements and the politicians that support such elements will ensure that the ‘cake’ only belongs to them. Of course these persons will fall out with each other and resort to the same tactics against their former friends.8 Most of abductions and extrajudicial killings that have occurred recently, not only in Colombo but everywhere in the country, targeted businesses, both lawful and unlawful.

There is also the case of Mr. Mohamed Sali Mohamed Niyas, also known as “Loku Seeya”, who was abducted in a Colombo suburb by an armed gang in a white van, and then taken to an unknown location in the Eastern province where it is believed that he was tortured, killed, and his body then dumped at sea. It is questionable how such abductions can occur, taking a victim hundred kilometers away from the place where he was abducted when the abducting gang has to go through at least five major security points. The statement of the wife of Mr. Mohamed Sali Mohamed Niyas a.k.a. Loku Seeya, Mrs. K.G.C Ruika Niyas, shows the kind of gruesome murders taking place in the country. According to the post-mortem, he was strangled and his throat slit. He had also been pounded in the head and stabbed a number of times. He was also administered 3 injections of unknown chemicals. I am still unable to imagine how brutal that must have been. The body had over 100 kgs of weight strapped on to it which was wrapped with barb wire. The body was then covered with polythene and secured further with chicken fencing ( same as barbed wire) . It also had something like an anchor attached to the body. In spite of all that it washed ashore at Akkarai Paththu. The body was flown back home and the funeral proceedings were conducted.9

Meanwhile, there is no justice for the abduction and murder of the human rights activist Mr. Pattani Razeek. He disappeared on 11 February 2010. After much delay in the police investigation, his dead body was found on 28 July 2011 by the police in Kavathamunai, Oddamavadi, Valaichenai, Eastern province. It has been reported that the family and lawyer of Mr. Razeek has yet to receive the post-mortem report and the deoxyribo nucleic acid test (DNA) report that may reveal the truth behind the murder of Razeek.

It has been widely reported that the party of the ruling alliance was directly involved in an abduction and extrajudicial killing in Northern district, in the Jaffna peninsula. On the first week of March 2012, a thirteen-year –old school girl, Jesudasan Lakshmi, was abducted, raped and killed by breaking her skull using a stone, when she was on her way to the school on Delft Island, by a man who is a member of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), led by Douglas Devananda, who is a minister of the Government. In the beginning of the year, on January 28, 2012, there was another extrajudicial killing in Jaffna where sixteen-year-old school student Miss. Iridiyanar Sineshika, of Alwari North, Point Pedro, Jaffna was murdered. Also, on November 10, 2011, Mr. Subramanium Dayabaran (45) who was the Principal of the Karanakuri School, Kodikamam, Jaffna, was murdered. Like other parts of the country, the Jaffna peninsula remains a dangerous place, even after the elimination of the LTTE. There is still no news of Mr. Lalith Kumar and Mr. Kugan Muruganathan who were abducted at the end of last year by an armed group.

Corruption within law enforcement and police brutality towards civilians has resulted in the killing of unarmed civilians who were engaged in peaceful demonstration, due to the loss of their essential rights. The AHRC, over the past few decades, has highlighted the loss of independence of the police, and their shift by government elements towards the unlawful practice of social control and now the police have become another tool to secure the absolute power of politicians. Through the killing of a torture victim, Mr. Sugath Nishantha Fernando, who was pursuing a fundamental rights application against Negambo police, and the killing of Mr. Gerald Perera, who was a torture victim pursuing a case against several police officers at Wattala Police station, the AHRC has examined the country’s policing system and the decline of genuine investigations. Recently, the killing of Mr. Roshan Chanaka Rathnasekara, a worker at the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Katunayake, Colombo and the assassination of Mr. Anthony Fernando of Chilaw, who was shot dead while engaged in a peaceful demonstration against the rise in the prices of oil, reveals the changes of law and order, policy, and attitudes relating to murder and its these developments destroy faith in the country’s legal system.

Nationally and internationally pressuring the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations given in the Report by the Commission of inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC) is essential to stop the abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killings that have become part of daily life in the island nation. The government has denied human rights to the people and identified opposition to this policy as a threat to national security and part of an international conspiracy against the country. Meanwhile, the government claims that their action plan for the protection and promotion human rights is the result of a government and people deciding to take concrete action to bring about positive change. “In developing the Action Plan, the Government assessed the measures in place to protect and promote human rights, identified areas that need improvement and have committed ourselves to improving the protection and promotion of human rights.”10 However the LLRC report highlights some important aspects of social developments in the country. Acknowledging the losses and suffering of the past and providing mechanisms for recompense, social justice and for restoration of normalcy and expressions of empathy and solidarity, are steps aimed at redress. Relationship building following violent conflict, addressing issues of lack of trust, prejudice, and intolerance whilst accepting commonalities and differences, is the essence of reconciliation.11 The culture of suspicion, fear, mistrust and violence needs to be removed and opportunities and space opened up in which people can hear each other and be heard.12

While we welcomed the draft resolution by the US on Sri Lanka, which urges the implementation of recommendations given by the LLRC, the AHRC believes that there will be little hope for the reconciliation of disordered social institutions unless the Government takes action to change the present constitution to limit the powers of the executive and respect basic law in order to restore social order. The people of Sri Lanka expect that the government of Sri Lanka will be encouraged in the Universal Periodic Review to take gradual action, not only at the legislative level, but beyond that to implement basic principles of rule of law, where complaints will be systematically investigated, and where crimes will be properly prosecuted, regardless of whether they were committed by state agencies or non-state actors.
*Stanley JassponKunitz( 1905-2005) was an American poet
** Mrs. Premasili,a Sinhalese widow. Her husband was killed in cool blood by the Sri Lanka Army, while interrogating in detention camp in 1988.
1.Address by the President MahindaRajapaksa at the ceremonial opening of Parliament, Sri Jayawardhanapura – Kotte, May 19, 2009. ( )
2. The Phantom Limb: Failing Judicial Systems, Torture and Human Rights Work in Sri Lanka , Chapter 01- What is and What is Not of Human Rights in Sri Lanka , Asian Human Rights Commission ( )
3. 1978 Constitution original promulgation by the National State Assembly on 7 September 1978, by Prime Minister J. R. Jayewardene then he became first executive president of Sri Lanka. It is Sri Lanka’s second republican constitution and its third constitution since the country’s independence (as Ceylon) in 1948; perhaps it has been formally amended 18 times up to 2010 September.
4. The United Front ( UF) was a political alliance in Sri Lanka, formed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Lanka SamaSamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) in 1968. It came to power in the 1970 general election, but broke up in September 1975.
5. SRI LANKA: Abduction of a torture victim seeking judicial remedies from the Supreme Court ( )
6. Sri Lanka’s sinister white van abductions ( )
7. Interview with Mr. RavinduUdayaShantha, Mayor, KolonnawaUC ( )
8. Sri Lanka: It is not enough to ‘cry for the country’ ( )
9. Sri Lanka: The abduction and the brutal murder of Mohamed Sali Mohamed Niyas — the family writes to the human rights organisations ( )
10. Sri Lanka: The National Action plan for protection and promotion of human rights (2011 -2016)
11. The Report by the Commission of inquiry on lessons learnt and reconciliation ( LLRC), Chapter 09-173
12. ibid ( Chapter 09-174)