SRI LANKA: the Executive Director of the AHRC replies to some comments published in a review article in the Island

In a feature entitled Review Essay – Targeting the NGO sector, The Island December 22, 2006, I found the following reference.

“The Chairman of the seminar was a lawyer who I knew as a member of the organization which published Christian Worker. But that day, he had been presiding at the seminar in his incarnation as the boss of the Asian Human Rights Commission. That kind of situation is common within the NGO sector. Everybody seems to be involved in everything else”

Since this reference is to me I am writing this in reply.

The reviewer refers to a meeting held in February 1998.  Between then and whatever the time I have had a slight acquaintance with him, many years have passed and many things have happened.

In September 1989 I left Sri Lanka as my name was found at the top of a list maintained by the ‘Anti Terrorist Unit’ in the Pelliyagoda ASP’s Division.  During the whole of the 80’s I was a practicing lawyer and it was the officer in charge of that unit itself that informed about this through a mutual friend, a businessman who was my client.  For petty personal reasons a group of persons had insisted that my name be added to the list and the senior-most officer that was dealing with this area, who later acquired a notorious reputation, had included me.  Among those in that pressure group was a local politician against whom I had filed together with a few others a fundamental rights application for obstruction of an educational meeting on The Supreme Court Judgments On Human Rights, which we won (SCFR 199/87); there were some police officers whom I may have hurt in pursuit of my innocent belief in fair trial by way of harsh cross examination or some remarks made in court by way of submissions – at least one of them had vowed that if there was an emergency he knew what to do to me – ; and there were also a few lawyers who were purely motivated by petty jealousy.

Making use of an occasion to attend a Law Asia Meeting I came to Hong Kong and there after got more details of what was happening.  The file against me included a large photograph taken as I walked out of a court, kept for easy identification.  This file was kept open for quite a long time due to the pressure of interested parties and transferred to other units when the Anti Terrorism Unit was closed.  There was a police inspector, who is now a senior police officer who was in charge of the file.  He went on several occasions to the vicinity of my house in disguise when an informer kept in the area supplied information that someone in my family was sick and that I might return.

This police officer at the time believed in the information that was given in the file which labeled me as a JVPer (in all my life I have had no links of any sort with the JVP).  Later when he got to know the real details behind the file he not only gave up the inquiry but also, through a close friend of mine, gave me the details.  At one stage he told my friend “your friend may be innocent but don’t ask him to come.  If I am told he is there all that will happen is that I will go there, I will show him my identity card and ask him to come for a short while, he could return in 30 minutes or so.  But he will never return.”  I could not attend the birth of my child or the funeral of my father.  My first brief visit to Sri Lanka was after President Premadasa’s assassination.

It was after 1989 that I took employment outside, first as a legal advisor to the Vietnamese refugees in a UNHCR project based in Hong Kong and later as a senior United Nations officer in the human rights field in Cambodia.  It was later that I became the Executive Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission.

These facts are also relevant to challenge the reviewer’s main thesis on the disappearances that took place during that time.  His view is that it was the executioners that were executed.  If the plan against me also succeeded I would also have been listed among these executioners.  The dead cannot defend themselves.  But since I am alive I can!

To characterise the 30,000 or more people who disappeared during this time as executioners may fit the style of a propagandist who, for whatever reason feels obliged to defend the official misinformation on this issue.  Fifteen percent of those killed; according to official reports were persons below the age of 19.  Were they executioners?

The reviewer says “Everybody seems to be involved in everything else”, in fact everyone should because what happened in the country was not just something between the hunted and the executions as the reviewer would like to have it, but something that fundamentally destroyed every decent norm and standard that affects everyone.  That was what my own experience showed.  The country’s law enforcement system is acknowledged to be at its lowest ebb.  That is a result of the way so called anti terrorism was dealt with at that time.  In such situations everybody should be involved if a decent way of life is to survive.  A society where everyone is involved in everything is better than one in which informers working secretly with executioners decide, not only the fate of individuals but also that of society as a whole.

An earlier debate on the issue of the relevant meeting in 1998 seemed to have left a deep impression on the reviewer that he keeps on talking about it.  I refer to an earlier exchange of articles between the reviewer and the AHRC published in the Island.  But when his views were challenged by us during that debate he announced that the debate was closed and did not publish a final reply.  The details of the meeting given by him are inaccurate.  However, these are no longer matters of importance.

Thank you

Yours faithfully

Basil Fernando

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-070-2006
Countries : Sri Lanka,