The government has recently announced that police powers will be granted to the military by way of further emergency regulations. When the BBC Sinhala Service questioned the government spokesman, Minister Keheliya Rambukawella, as to whether the giving of police powers to the military will not result in the re-emergence of torture chambers inside military camps as it happened in the late 1980s the minister did not directly reply to the question, but answered that certain measures have to be taken due to the security situation. This was the same argument used in the late 80s under the pretext of the suppression of the activities of the JVP.
The numbers of disappearances as a result of these certain measures has been officially listed at over 30,000. In fact there are claims that the real number is even higher.
To what extent detention in army camps can degenerate into is demonstrated by the famous case of the Ambilipitiya school children where around 24 children were made to disappear inside the military camp after being taken into custody due to a private complaint by a school principal. There had been no documentary evidence kept in the military records about these arrests and detentions, although the parents testified that their children were kept inside the detention centre for a considerable period of time. Two emergency regulations of the time that made large scale disappearances possible are giving powers to law enforcement officers above a particular rank to dispose of dead bodies without any reference to any judicial authority, and to detain persons outside places of detention authorized under the normal law. By allowing these two emergency regulations the government at the time gave license to torture, carry out extrajudicial killings and dispose of bodies.
Such laws are a sinister ploy designed to allow activities which are otherwise illegal such as torture and killing. In the recent decades in many places around the world there have been many such sophisticated strategies to erase all legal responsibilities for illegal arrest, detention and anything that may follow thereafter. Implied in such a process is the right to arrest arbitrarily, detain without any safeguards and to erase any records kept relating to all such matters.
The re-emergence of such a situation should be frightening to the citizens of a country which has seen such a situation in the past. Under the present circumstances the emerging situation can be even worse. The hysteria that has been generated on ethnic considerations can make any ethnic Tamil a vulnerable victim of this process.
Disappearances in the 80s showed the entrenched habit in the country for people to write anonymous petitions against their rivals with false information being one of the causes of the disappearance of many persons including children. From the total number of disappeared persons in the south around 15 percent were persons below the age of 19 according to the reports of the commissions on enforced disappearances. Further, given the manner in which emergency regulations are now being used to arrest and detain political opponents there is nothing to prevent these military camps being used also in order to suppress political dissent within the country. Given the fact that prominent politicians have already been arrested and more are facing threats of arrest, senior journalists have faced threats of arrest or death threats it would be no great surprise if this is extended to many others with the expansion of emergency powers.
The psychological climate is such that raising public outcry if such arrests, detentions and other acts take place would be an uphill task. The judicial process has become even more retarded during the recent decades. Under these circumstances the possibility for families or others to seek an effective remedy by way of the courts is extremely difficult.
Perhaps to appease public concern relating to the re-emergence of this traumatic experience of the military enjoying police powers the government also had some propaganda exercises on the 24th stating that the presidential instructions regarding the rights of the Human Rights Commission relating to detentions of persons should be respected by the police and the armed forces. These instructions issued on July 7, 2006 are of no legal validity and this is demonstrated by the fact that they did not prevent the increase of abductions and disappearances after their issue. Mere reiteration of such instructions is unlikely to have any effect other than being a public relations exercise and an argument before the international community that some measures have been taken to dilute the rigour of the emergency regulations giving wide powers of arrest and detention.
What was not pointed out is that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to intervene inside military camps to watch the treatment of those detained in such camps.
Under these circumstances the Asian Human Rights Commission urges the international community as well as all concerned persons in Sri Lanka to exert pressure on the government to desist from the repetition of the issue of police powers to the military which in the past has resulted in gross abuses of human rights which in turn amounted to crimes against humanity under modern international law. Though this experience of the late 80s did not result in bringing Sri Lanka before international justice it would certainly be very difficult for the country to avoid such a predicament if it happens again under the glaring publicity that the modern communication systems have made possible.