SRI LANKA: Murder of Sri Lankan journalist exposes government inability to address assassinations aimed at causing instability

This April 28, 46-year-old Sivaram Dharmeratnam became the latest victim of abduction and murder in Sri Lanka. Sivaram, a highly-respected journalist for the Daily Mirror newspaper–where he was known by his pen name, Taraki–was abducted while coming out of a restaurant in front of the busy Bambalapitiya Police station. The perpetrators allegedly parked their vehicle at the station’s boundary wall. They dumped his gagged and shot body within sight of the parliament complex, in the heart of the capital. His killing prompted the promise of a prompt and thorough inquiry by the government and many expressions of serious concern by journalists and others.

This is the latest in a series of killings that the Sri Lankan government has proven unable to address due to its historical ambivalence to such murders. Assassination became an express part of government policy in the early 1980s. The period of terror that followed ended only with the political defeat of the incumbent government. The explicit use of the police and armed forces as political killers ended, yet there were no attempts to address the effects of this time. In fact, the condoning of limited assassinations has continued from time to time. Coupled with the inability of the state to improve the law and order situation, this has contributed to an environment in which anyone can get away with murder. 

Today, the security of no Sri Lankan citizen is reasonably guaranteed. As the victim of the latest attack was also sympathetic to the militant Tamil viewpoint, and on the editorial board of a prominent website espousing this position, his assassination will be attributed to retaliation against the backdrop of persistent violence in the north and east. However, assassination is carried out with ease against any target in the country, and the government has been incapable of doing anything about it. This was evidenced in November 2004 with the killing of a High Court judge, allegedly on the orders of a man he was trying in court. There was also the killing of a torture victim who was due to give evidence of his torture in court against a group of police officers who were allegedly behind the murder. Although the shock generated by these two events led to speedy investigations and arrests of suspects, nothing has been done since to address the deteriorating rule of law in Sri Lanka. As a result, the first months of 2005 have witnessed many killings of alleged criminals around the country, many allegedly while fleeing custody. These killings also speak to the tacit approval of murder as a means to deal with somehow undesirable persons in Sri Lanka. Even the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has in the last year expressed a wish to visit in order to investigate and report on the situation. 

While it is convenient to attribute killings to the persistent bloodshed in the north and east of Sri Lanka, this will in no way help to pull the country back from its slide towards anarchy. Even the emissaries from Norway and others working on the peace process have given too little regard to the effect that several decades of violence have had on all of Sri Lanka. However, no lasting solution to the conflict in the north and east will be found without due consideration to the exceptional collapse of the rule of law across the country as a whole. 

With local and international concern being expressed over Sivaram Dharmeratnam’s death, it is time for sober and sane reflection on the collapsed rule of law in Sri Lanka. The Asian Human Rights Commission again warns that until this central issue receives the attention it deserves, talk about bringing stability to the country will mean little, and the assassinations will continue. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-47-2005
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Freedom of expression,