World spotlight on Sri Lanka 'disappearances'

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The Independent Online
BETWEEN 10 and 18 people still 'disappear' every month in Sri Lanka. Almost all vanish while in military custody or during search operations in villages, like 12-year-old Manikkam Siventhiran, who was picked up by the military a year ago; or Arulappu Aloysius, a 17-year-old fisherman, arrested on 29 August by soldiers; or Gregory Johnson, a young radio mechanic, taken during an army sweep of his village in September. Not one has been seen again.

The continuing high rate of 'disappearances', as well as numerous reports of torture and extra-judicial executions, are to be the subject of close scrutiny when Sri Lanka comes up on the agenda of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in the next few days. The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will be reporting on its second follow-up mission to Sri Lanka in October. To coincide with this focus on Sri Lanka, Amnesty International is issuing a special report today.

It notes that, despite Sri Lankan government promises, safeguards to protect prisoners from torture and 'disappearance' have not been implemented. While the number who 'disappear' is undoubtedly down from the worst days of 1990 and 1991, and the government is more willing to acknowledge that violations are occurring, several thousand political prisoners remain in jail without charge or trial. According to Amnesty, senior military officers have admitted that the army holds prisoners in secret, deliberately denying their existence to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Torture of detainees, carried out both by the military and various special task forces, is said to include electric shocks, burning with cigarettes, beatings with barbed-wire and submerging prisoners' heads in water. Delegates on an Amnesty International visit to Sri Lanka reported seeing prisoners in chains, one of them a 73-year-old man taken hostage by the army for the surrender of his son. More than 50 people are said to have been killed, and 15 others injured, early in January in the last in a series of attacks by Sri Lanka naval patrols on refugees fleeing across Jaffna lagoon.

Though new internal mechanisms to monitor and investigate reported human rights abuses have been established in the past 18 months, trials of security officers accused of atrocities seldom reach conclusions. The Human Rights Task Force, set up in August 1991, apparently remains virtually powerless. In only one case - the murder of 67 civilians in Kokkadicholai in June 1991 - has the government even acknowledged the responsibility of certain soldiers.

Some of the army's violations have to be seen in the context of the long-running battle against the armed seccessionist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which effectively controls parts of the north-east. LTTE, too, is guilty of torture and the killing of defenceless people.

While Sri Lanka heads the list of countries under scrutiny at the 49th session in Geneva, human rights abuses in at least another 20 countries are to be debated over the next few weeks.