SRI LANKA: Details of the abduction of human rights defender Stephen Sunthararaj 


Stephen is a B.A. graduate in Sociology from the University of Jaffna. From 2001 to 2003 he worked as Assistant Lecturer in the University of Jaffna. After a short stint as Lecturer in the University of Colombo from 2003 to 2004 Stephen returned to Jaffna to take up a position in World Vision (Child Protection) and thereafter worked as Coordinator in the Jaffna District Child Protection Committee which is a Government body. While in Jaffna Stephen had been “arrested” by LTTE and kept for two days. EPDP too were not happy with Stephen for the unrelenting manner in which Stephen conducted investigation in respect of Child Abuses in the Jaffna peninsula. As a result he was under threat and his life was at risk, therefore he shifted to Colombo with his family in 2007 and sought employment. While residing at Mount Lavinia Stephen was visited by STF members on motor bikes with guns openly displayed and was told not to shift residence without informing them. Stephen obtained employment as Project Manager of Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) situated at Kollupitiya.

His work was appreciated by board members of CHRD and staff members. On 11th and 12th February 2009 Stephen attended a Workshop conducted by SAVE THE CHILDREN organization. He returned to office at 3.00 p.m. on the 12th and while he was returning home from office at 4.30 p.m. he was confronted by a group of Army officer numbering about ten just close to the CHRD office premises. In addition there was a civilian in civil clothes who spoke fluent Tamil. While Stephen was being questioned by the said persons a minor staff named Ariyadasa greeted Stephen while passing that way. Soon thereafter they took Stephen in a white colour van which was parked close to Galle Road to the Kollupitiya Police Station. It could be reliably inferred that if not for the intervention of Ariyadasa an office colleague, Stephen may have been taken in the white van without a trace to some unknown destination. Soon thereafter the wife of Stephen received a telephone call stating in clear Tamil “even if you get Stephen released from Police we will see that he is lifted again.” The number of the mobile phone from which the said threat originated got registered at the receiver’s end.

The next day 13.02.2009 there was a visitor in the morning who claimed that the matter could be settled by him if some money is paid. Mrs. Stephen did not encourage him. Thereafter in the evening she received a telephone call from the number on the mobile screen displayed as 1112 which indicates a net/overseas call demanding that Rs. One Million be paid for her husband to come out early. “if not we will see that he is tortured and won’t be released for long time”.  Mrs. Stephen responded that she doesn’t have that much money to pay.  She was permitted regular visits to her husband who was held in a cell at the Kollupitiya Police Station with comparatively comfortable conditions than other places of detention and was permitted to give him daily meals from home. She met the OIC and other officers of the station who assured her once reports from several Divisions such as CID, TID etc. have been obtained he will be released. However she was informed that a Detention Order had been obtained.

Both Stephen and Mrs. Stephen were disappointed and anxious that no progress was made and had entertained suspicions that some unseen hand was preventing the release of Stephen by Police. In addition Mr. Upali the Officer in Charge of the Intelligence Unit of the Police Station had mentioned that all investigations had been completed and only the clearance by the Army was due.  On 30th April Police were preparing the paper work for Stephen’s release in Courts but for some unknown reasons the release did not materialize. Even the following Monday the 4th of May Mrs. Stephen was assured that her husband will be produced in court that day. When this did not happen and aroused by suspicion she spoke Mr. Upali and other Police Officers who gave lame excuses. But she realized that two Army Intelligence Officers in Civil were constantly present at the Police Station and were the ones responsible for preventing the release. Daily her Lawyers were present in courts but nothing happened as Stephen was not produced in courts. Ultimately due to the intervention of a Deputy Inspector General of Police the Detention Order was cancelled and Stephen was produced in Fort Magistrate Court Case No. B330/09 on 07.05.2009 and was released as there was no evidence to implicate him in any offence.

While returning from court in the vehicle of their lawyer Mr.K.S. Ratnavale, Mr and Mrs Stephen observed that the car was being followed by two persons travelling in a motor bike. Mr and Mrs Stephen identified them to be the two Army Intelligence Officers in civil who were constantly present at the Police Station preventing Stephen’s release. The car was being followed upto Kolupitiya Junction. Thereafter Mr and Mrs Stephen went to the office at Kollupitiya and got down their children from their home in order to stay at a friends place. At 6.00 p.m. they were travelling in the friend’s vehicle and on the way they stopped at the Kollupitiya Police Station to take back the mobile phone, passport and bank books belonging to Stephen. Thereafter while they were approaching the Town Hall Junction just past the Buddhist Ladies College and opposite Cinnamon garden Post Office, two persons travelling on a motor bicycle blocked their way and simultaneously a white van approached close to them from which alighted 4 to 5 persons in Army uniform. They were armed with pistol and forced open the door of the vehicle in which Stephen and others were travelling, took him by force, bundled him into the white colour van and sped off. They also took the starter keys of the vehicle so that the inmates of the vehicle could not move in addition to their already frightened condition.  Even the on lookers and those who were in the other vehicles on the road were stunned by the events unfolding before their eyes on a busy and crowded street. The Officers of the Cinnamon Garden Police came and took the vehicle together with the passengers to the Cinnamon Garden Police Station where their statements were obtained. The family and friends who witnessed this scene and the young children of Stephen are still in a dazed condition. The incident points out to systematic operation by several persons drawn from the Army, Police and Tamil paramilitary groups which are bent on targeting whomever they suspect and to settle old scores and for monetary benefits by way of ransom. The manner in which this operation was carried out with utter disregard for law and order highlights the extreme state of impunity prevalent in this country. The suspicion strongly points to the Army Intelligence Personnel who may have had assistance from the Kollupitiya Police Station to follow the vehicle in which Stephen was travelling and to relentlessly reach their target with nary a care for the order made by a court of law by which Stephen was set free.

In our previous statements and Urgent Appeals we have reported the abduction of Stephen Sunthararaj. He was abducted on 7th May and to date his whereabouts remain unknown. It is believed that a military intelligence unit, together with others is involved in his abduction.

We give here the reference to our last Urgent Appeal. Kindly support the call to find and save his life.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-104-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,