Can Justice be done to the unlawful detain on Tamil political prisoners?

The tragic death and the suicided note that accompanied the body of the 18 year old student, Senthuran Rajeswaran of Kopay North of Jaffna has helped bring the intensity of the issue of the releasing of Tamil political prisoners, back into the agenda. As a result students at the University of Jaffna have reportedly launched a protest against the Sri Lankan State soon after this tragic incident.

The recent TNA organised protests demanding the release of Tamil political prisoners in the north and east of the Lanka island brought the topic of the Sri Lanka’s political prisoners into media attention. The hunger strikes and protests that resulted in harthal in the north and east, earlier this month, and the eventual cessation of hunger strikes, are said to resume in December if an agreement is not reached.

Sri Lankan Tamil political detainees commenced a hunger strike on 12th October and had vowed to fast until death to demand their immediate release. Protests and fasting had also been organised in Colombo, Vavuniya and Jaffna in support of the prisoners. Many of them, held under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), have been imprisoned without trial since 2009 when the civil war ended. The prisoners called for a Presidential pardon and said that they will not suspend their fast unto death till they get an acceptable solution. The prisoners at the notorious Welikada prison were also among those who are taking part in the fast.

The PTA, which allows for detention for 18 months, in police custody, without the suspect being brought before the courts, also allows for so-called confessions to be used in court to extend the imprisonment. The police are notorious for using torture to extract such confessions. Although there are some graphic and uncomprehendable reports to confirm that torture has been used, nothing has yet been done to stop this, and despite the end of armed conflict, the government still finds the necessity in continuing with the present state of the PTA and does not appear to be calling for ‘amendments’ either. Some prisoners are reported to be held for upto long as 15 years, notably if they had had their hearing and served their times they might have even been released by now.

According to government figures, there are 273 Tamil prisoners, of whom, only 54 have been imprisoned after court cases, 60 have been detained without charge and the remaining 159 are involved in court proceedings that have dragged out for months and years. Even as late as last year, five years after the end of armed conflict LTTE’s suspects were being arrested and detained. This, however, does not include the Sri Lankan state’s secrets camps. Earlier this year, proof of about 700 prisoners being detained in secret camps in Trincomalee emerged with reports of many other camps being dotted across the north and east of the island. The whereabouts and the conditions of these detainees are still unknown to the outside world, many of whom we don’t know if are dead or alive.

Whilst, media coverage claimed that the hunger strikes stopped after a written letter from Sirisena that he would act on the issue by the 7th of November, nothing has been done so far. On the contrary, the Sri Lankan cabinet spokesperson and government minister Rajitha Senaratne later that month reiterated that there are no political prisoners being kept in Sri Lankan jails. Mr Senaratne stated that prisoners who have been involved in “terrorist activities during and after the conflict” would be prosecuted as soon as possible. And he added that some of the prosecutions would be “fast tracked” where the Attorney-General felt there is “strong evidence” against the accused. In addition, Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe also declared “there are no political prisoners in the country’s prisons”. Mr Rajapakshe, the government’s justice minister and minister of the Buddha Sasana, told reporters: “The prisoners are ones who are held for aiding and abetting the activities of LTTE terrorists. They are not political prisoners.”

For the Sirisena government taking decisive action on this matter would at least give the Tamil community some hope that the government may be serious about other issues, including accountability and creating a lasting political solution to the longstanding ethnic conflict. However, we must not set an illusion, it will not be the first time that his government has made big promises but delivered very few them.

Even though the issue of the disappeared of Lanka, has not been spoken of it will soon emerge as old wounds would get picked on as the talks of the prisoners surround them. The protests of the families demanding to know the whereabouts of their loved ones were seen in april this year, may soon be left with no choice but be repeated. The cry of a woman pleading to David Cameron the he finds her son, during his CHOGM visit, can still be heard in our ears, this lady, however, was later imprisoned under PTA – the crime she committed was to ask for justice.

In the past Welikada and Vavuniya jails have been the witnesses to violent riotings and this too may replay in other prisons as the tensions spread in the coming months

Tamil Solidarity condemns any unlawful detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and inhumane torture of prisoners. We recognise this attempt to inflict terror amongst Tamil and minority groups and deter any attempts by individuals to speak up against and unlawful actions by the state. We demand the immediate shutdown of all secret camps and the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

By Bharathi