Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Sri Lanka : a worst perpetrator of enforced disappearances." - M.C.M.Iqbal

Jo Baker / Aug 21, 2009 - As President Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks of ushering Sri Lankans into a new era of peace, a slight, bespectacled man in his 60s watches him on television from across an ocean, with the weariness of a man who has tried and failed to call his bluff.

M.C.M. Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka's "truth commissions", presidential inquiry panels into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late 1980s and early '90s in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its course. Mr Iqbal knows more than most about the skeletons that are locked away in the government's closet - enough, he says, for him to no longer be safe in his home country.

"I still remember when Rajapaksa was on the way to a UN session with photos of torture victims and was caught going through customs," he recalls during a recent visit to the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. "As a minister he used to be at the front of the struggle against these incidents. Now I would consider his regime as one of the world's worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances."

In Sri Lanka, disappearances seem to accompany armed conflict, Human Rights Watch says. Government security forces are believed to have been responsible for tens of thousands of disappearances during the insurgency by the left-wing Sinhalese nationalist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna from 1987 to 1990, and the two decade civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

In 1994, Mr Iqbal was working as a senior government administrator when he was asked to join a truth commission. It was the first body of its kind - the result of an election pledge by the newly elected president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It was split up to cover three zones, and Mr Iqbal's role was to set up a system enabling just a handful of officers to document thousands of possible atrocities across four provinces in the centre of the country.

The team was to travel around for open question sessions. They were to compile a report for the president on the number and circumstances of the disappearances; who was responsible and to give opinions on charges; and deliver a final analysis of how things had been allowed to get so bad. Promises to the public had raised expectations that the report would lead to legal action against the alleged killers.

For two years, the small panel spent two-week stretches holding interviews, and at night, away from their families, its members would dictate and record the cases they heard that day.

"I had worked in public service for 40 years, 20 of them in courts, so this procedure of listening to complaints was not new to me, but it was harder in the sense that some of them touched me," Mr Iqbal says. "Sometimes I felt like sobbing."

He remembers many of the stories, but singles out one, which was not the worst, he adds. According to a woman whom the commission heard from in Badulla, the capital of Uva province, local police arrived at her house one night during the '90s and took two of her three sons. At the police station the next morning, the officers denied arresting the boys, but the woman made such a commotion that her sons heard her and they started shouting. She waited all day on the verandah of the station, and when the night-shift officers arrived, they invited her back inside and then they gang-raped her.

Mr Iqbal says the woman said she could hear her sons shouting throughout the ordeal. "She was almost dead from exhaustion, but she went home and she complained to the elders, who couldn't help her, and then finally she came to us."

A few days after her testimony, the same officers picked up her other son, a 17-year-old, over a robbery. Her two older boys were almost certainly dead, but the commission chairman was able to contact a magistrate and help prove the police were framing the 17-year-old. "She came running to the commission with her son, crying, and laying on the floor shouting 'thank you'," he says. "All we could tell her was that she had better take her son and get out of the area."

That was one of the more rewarding outcomes for Mr Iqbal's team. After two years in the central zone and more work with a follow-up commission, Mr Iqbal helped to write the report, and says that although some of the cases were clear-cut, it was not made public. Parts would be published in 2002, but without naming the accused.

"We thought we had enough materials; we thought that this would at least send a signal to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future, that all victims would get compensation and at least some perpetrators would be punished," Mr Iqbal says. "But the compensation paid was a pittance for most ... Hardly any of the perpetrators were punished."

Not yet disheartened, Mr Iqbal took a job with the National Human Rights Commission and the US-based Asia Foundation, logging the same cases in a database and lecturing on human rights. Still, many of those implicated continued to hold high-profile positions.

The biggest blow came when members of the commission, which was considered relatively independent, were replaced. The new members were appointed by the Rajapaksa government, and, Mr Iqbal says, they had different priorities. The move was criticised in the international press.

"It had become a political commission," he says. "I still remember the chairman, the late Justice P. Ramanathan, telling me to abandon [our work]. To use the exact words, he said: `Why are you raking up all the muck?'"

Mr Iqbal resigned, but he would still receive calls from the families of the disappeared, telling him that they saw one of the perpetrators getting into a car, or that another was still the officer in charge of the local police station. It appeared that the files had simply been put aside.

"I believe the president did not implement our recommendations because she would have alienated the military and police on whom she depended - terrorism was at its height then and they protected her," he says, referring to Ms Kumaratunga.

With no legal reforms and very few people held to account, disappearances continued in Sri Lanka. In 2006, 17 locals working for a French non-governmental organisation were massacred in a military zone. Scandinavian monitors pointed the finger at security forces but no one was charged. Mr Iqbal refused an invitation to join another such inquiry.

However, in 2007, when a group of international observers arrived to monitor the new commission's work, the United Nations office in Sri Lanka suggested they take on Mr Iqbal as an adviser.

"I said, 'Look at this list of perpetrators: so-and-so is now commander in chief there, so-and-so is minister of this district and the president [Mr Rajapaksa] knows and he keeps them there. Now he wants you to start making recommendations?'"

Mr Iqbal recalls what he describes as the shock and displeasure of the attorney general and the higher-ups three months later when the observers publicly backed the earlier recommendations. That was when the death threats started again.

"I'd had such calls in the past, but I didn't take them very seriously. But these were too frequent and sounded a little more genuine," Mr Iqbal says. "They were made to me and my wife, and to me, they would say: `You'll be killed if you keep working there'. Finally the observers' security services monitored the calls and told him he needed to leave immediately.

Late in 2007, without a word to anyone, the Iqbals locked up their house and left the country.

And now, from a colder climate, with six months in a refugee camp behind him, a schedule of seminars and workshops ahead and his name kept out of the phone book, this reluctant keeper of grisly secrets watches the latest Sri Lankan leader with a weary, wary eye.

He has no regrets about the path he took, although it essentially led him into exile, but he doubts he can say the same for the president.

"When Rajapaksa came to power, he had the option of doing something," Mr Iqbal says.

"He was a minister at the time of all this, he knew the contents of these reports and that nothing was being done. He knew who was involved in all the killings, and yet he has put all those people around him, given them positions."

Last month the president declared that he only wanted to look to the future now, that the past, essentially, was dead and buried. To Mr Iqbal, this is eerily close to the truth.

© South China Morning Post

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