SRI LANKA: The obligations of the one-man commission to reveal information regarding alleged returnees who were reported to have disappeared

Recently Mahanama Tilakaratne, the Chairman of the Commission to Investigate Killings, Disappearances, Abductions and Unidentified Dead Bodies (the one-man commission) was quoted in the press as saying that 1,425 out of the 1,992 people thought to have disappeared since September 2006 to June 2007 had returned. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has earlier commented that the figure of over 500 persons who have not returned could be presumed to have disappeared. Please refer to the following links:

What the AHRC questions in this statement is, what did this one-man commission do regarding those 1,425 who he alleged have returned? It would have been the duty of any responsible commissioner to interview all persons who were once reported to have disappeared and who later returned. Given the long career of this commissioner as a judicial officer it is hard to believe that he would not be aware of such an obligation. 

To complain of a disappearance is a very serious matter. Once such a complaint is received the state is compelled to conduct inquiries and to explain the whereabouts of the person. This is an obligation the investigators owe to the state and not just to the victim and the families of the disappeared. The state is under obligation to account for each and every complaint of a disappearance. The mere fact that some person may return after an alleged disappearance does not imply that there had been no abduction. If the people who carried out the abduction achieved their objective, for example, succeeded in intimidating a person and ensuring that he would not engage in functions in which he has legitimately done so in the past, then the abductors have achieved their end. Such abduction does not cease to be a crime by the mere fact of his return. There had been some instances where some journalists who returned after such abduction stated how they were abducted, what they were questioned of and told about. If there are instances of this sort it would be the obligation of the one-man commission to report the matter and to take appropriate legal action against the perpetrators. 

This particularly applies to cases where persons have been abducted for the purpose of obtaining ransom. In such instances, once the ransom has been paid the people are released. If it is to be presumed that the one-man commission does not have any obligation in these cases this would be a strong incentive and direct encouragement to the abductors. The one-man commission, if he had carried out his obligations must be able to say which of the cases relate to abductions for the purpose of ransom, detail the actions he has taken to investigate the matter and those he has taken to pursue the enforcement of the law on these issues. 

There may be other reasons for abductions. Any unscrupulous group of persons can use abductions as a means of recruiting collaborators. Such instances are quite well known from the experiences of many countries. The abductors may demand the abducted person to carry out certain obligations such as passing of information and even to participate in more serious and grave crimes. If there are instances of this sort it would naturally be the function of any agency dealing with such disappearances to interview the returnees to ensure that such persons are not a security threat to the state or others. 

When the one-man commission made this statement about 1,425 persons returning it has to be presumed that he had some reliable information on each of these returnees. Since he is aware of each of these cases then his obligation is even higher. He is under obligation to interview all such persons and to make available to the state and society details relating to each of these persons. The state can take appropriate action on alleged disappearances on the basis of such information and society itself can be better informed about what is really taking place. Such knowledge on the part of the state can lead to actions by itself and society as well to develop actions on the basis of such information.

Now that the one-man commission is claiming that such a large number of persons have returned after alleged disappearances he must be held responsible by the state and by society to reveal details of what he knows. In particular, is he aware of what type of intimidation is being used on the victims and if so, for what purpose? As there is a tremendous scare about abductions for ransom it is his obligation to reveal instances where this has happened; that can lead to the identification of the abductors and thus prevent this very same person or persons from doing it all over again. Whatever information is available in this area is likely to reveal the nature of organised crime that exists in the country. To withhold information on such matters is both legally and morally impermissible. 

If people have reported disappearances for fun or for some ulterior motive then also it is the duty of the one-man commission to investigate the matter and to pursue a course of legal action against such persons for making frivolous complaints or misleading the commissions of public inquiry. Such conduct, if it exists needs to be exposed and suppressed. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission therefore calls upon the Chairman of the Commission to Investigate Killings, Disappearances, Abductions and Unidentified Dead Bodies to live up to the obligations of his office and to reveal details about those cases where he claims that the persons have returned after allegedly being reported to have disappeared. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-216-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Enforced disappearances and abductions,