When freedom is assassinated

In a horrifying turn of events, five bodies were unearthed in the outskirts of Colombo on Friday, bound, blindfolded and dumped in a marsh. According to initial police reports, it is possible that the victims were all killed wearing blindfolds.
The incident brings to mind several more similar instances in which groups of persons have been brutally slain and left to rot by the wayside in the recent past. Some were more gruesome than others: there were cases of the assassins having severed the heads of their victims before dumping their bodies that were later discovered.

This latest multiple murder assumes grave significance in light of the large numbers of people being abducted in the capital and around the country on a daily basis.
According to statistics compiled by the Civil Committee on Disappearances, 78 people have been abducted in Colombo over the last four months, and 50 of them are still missing. Those who have been released have provided accounts of how the assailants arrived in white vans, were armed with sophisticated weapons and dressed in plain clothes.

All this is reminiscent of the 1987-89 era, when most of the disappeared never came back.
Sadly, the action on the part of the authorities to find and take punitive measures against the perpetrators has been paltry at best. Investigation after investigation has been suspended or abandoned, buried with the dead, providing no sense of closure or justice for the families of the dead. In a country where the citizen’s basic fundamental right to life is being violated, time and again, the state has remained mute, and therefore, culpable to some degree in each one of these slayings.

One of the biggest problems with conflict worldwide is that it provides the best possible smokescreen for all manner of criminals to roam free. In the case of Sri Lanka which has been ensnared in the throes of a civil war for over 20 long years, conflict has strangled and crippled us both socially and economically and in the meantime allowed a well armed, dangerous criminal world to flourish. Exacerbating matters are the paramilitary groups, whose heinous misdeeds are glossed over or well concealed from public glare.
One such simmering inferno in Batticaloa looks set to erupt in the near future, with Karuna’s TMVP running amok, setting themselves up to replace the tyranny of the Tigers in the same area not so long ago. It is a dangerous and vicious cycle.

Members of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights of the International Commission of Jurists recently concluded an inquiry on South Asia and “learned with grave concern about the recent deterioration of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including large scale human rights violations, such as extra-judicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.”
According to the Commission’s official website, “serious concerns were also raised regarding the re-introduction of counter-terrorism measures contained in the Prevention of Terrorism Act and in emergency regulations, including a wide arsenal of terrorism related offences that can be used to criminalise anybody connected to any broadly defined terror suspect or to a member of a terrorist group.”

The panel also highlighted the gross human rights violations by the LTTE in their preliminary findings. During the inquiry in India, the Panel also heard accounts of human rights abuses by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and “in particular efforts to silence dissent in territories under its control. The members of the Panel are concerned that these developments mirror the framework that has led to widespread and systematic abuses in the past and ultimately aggravated the conflict,” ICJ says.

There is more concern elsewhere. Following a recent visit to Sri Lanka by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Phillip Alston, he recommended the need for an international human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka, to address the rising number of extrajudicial killings and the grave human rights and humanitarian crisis in the island.

Mr. Alston’s visit came in early 2006, before tensions in the country had escalated to this degree or new anti-terror laws had come into effect, granting government agencies wide ranging powers of arrest and detention. His fact-finding mission in 2007 would tell a far graver story.
In light of all of this and most importantly because the lives at stake are those of Sri Lankan citizens, the onus is on the government to provide answers – and do it fast. Instead what is being allowed to prevail is the law of the jungle and with nobody being held accountable and police inquiries having become a joke, all that is achieved is the further slide towards anarchy and democratic failure.

In an era when the war allows all manner of criminals to take matters into their own hands, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where not only paramilitaries, underworld gangs and unscruplous politicians but even mushrooming organisations professing to be anti-terrorist, ‘patriotic’ et al, begin to see violence as a means to eradicate political and ideological opponents. It has become too easy to do away with one’s detractors and perceived enemies – child’s play virtually. It is time to make it harder. It is already too late for hundreds who have become mere statistics in UN reports, but it is early enough to protect those who remain.
Let the government act now, to uphold the rule of law, the rights of the citizen and the independence of the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. Then and only then, can we salvage some semblance of democracy.