Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tamils risk all to flee Sri Lanka

The United Nations has welcomed the decision by Sri Lanka's government to announce the release of the remaining 130,000 Tamils kept in detention camps for the last six months.

About 250,000 people fled the final bloody phase of the civil war between the government and separatist Tamil Tigers.

They were ultimately housed in government-run camps in the district of Vavuniya.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamils' have been displaced in the fighting and are now living in hastily put together refugee camps that have been largely shut off from the outside world.

More and more Tamils have been risking their lives - spending weeks on the oceans - in the hopes of reaching Australia.

Al Jazeera's Step Vaessen, in Valaichchenai, Sri Lanka, reports that a new group of asylum-seekers are said to be preparing to board boats on the island's southeastern coast and sail directly to Australia's Christmas Island.

Irene Khan, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, says the international community should be more involved in finding a safe home for Sri Lanka's Tamils.

"These people are in search of protection, the international community is doing very little," she told Al Jazeera during an interview on Sunday.

"There isn't any resettlement of refugees taking place, refugee protection is very weak and, therefore, people are taking the situation into their own hands to desperately find a place where they can have safety.

"It is not people smuggling. I would call it a flow of asylum-seekers."

According to Khan, asylum seeking is a growing trend.

"The numbers of people seeking asylum are going up precisely at a time when borders are closing, which creates a very serious humanitarian situation," she said.

"For example, these people on rickety boats are putting their lives at risk to find safety. If they are not rescued at sea many of the boats will flood, if they are rescued at sea, they are then stranded as a lot of bargaining goes on as to where people can be disembarked."

Negative propaganda

Khan said the Australian authorities should speed up the processing of refugees for resettlement in the country and increase the number.

"There is a lot of fear and negative propaganda about refugees and asylum-seekers - that these are people looking for a better life, when really, in effect, they are fleeing to save their lives," she said.

"There has to be a change in public opinion. Political leaders, and governments in particular, need to take charge to change the way in which refugees and asylum seekers are viewed - these are desperate people in need of protection and it should be provided to them."

Interviewed on the same topic, Chris Lom, a regional spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, told Al Jazeera: "Sri Lanka has been going through a very bad period over the last 30 years of conflict that has impacted the economy quite seriously.

"Consequently, not only have there been a diaspora of Sri Lankans travelling to other countries around the world, but there's also been a fundamental lack of jobs and lack of economic growth that, we hope, will come to an end with the end of the civil war earlier this year."

In contrast to Khan, who says this is not a case of people being smuggled but a case of flow of refugees, Lom believes "this is a mixed flow of genuine refugees and economic migrants who are coming for a variety of reasons, but primarily economic reasons such as finding better jobs; supporting their families; getting better education for their children - which are all things they they expect to find in Australia.

"But what they don't necessarily take into account when coming to that decision is that the streets of industrialised countries are not necessarily paved with gold and that they are probably taking serious risks by putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers".

Rising numbers

At least 9,612 Sri Lankans applied for asylum in developed countries last year.

However, they are part of a far wider problem. The UN says more than 839,000 people worldwide went through legal channels to gain refugee status in 2008.

By contrast, an estimated four million migrants resorted to smugglers and traffickers, according to AI.

In Asia-Pacific, Australia is a prime destination for asylum-seekers - at least 13,000 refugees from across the world re-settled in the country last year.

That is an increase from just over 10,000 in 2007 - owing to conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

More than 4500 asylum-seekers arrived by air and were granted temporary status, which allowed them to live in the community while their applications were processed - compared to 161 people who reached Australia by boat.

Immigration figures suggest "boat people" are the ones with more genuine claims to refugee status. But in the period their claims are under consideration, they are kept in detention.

© Al Jazeera

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Media, journalists in Jaffna issued with death threat again

Two black-helmeted persons arriving on motor cycles Tuesday around 7:00 p.m to the offices of Yaazh Thinakkural, Uthayan and Valampuri Tamil dailies in Jaffna issued a letter threatening the lives of their journalists and officials for publishing false news about ‘terrorists’, causing confusion among the residents of Jaffna peninsula, sources in Jaffna said. The letters signed, ‘Alliance Protecting Tamils’, accused the media and its reporters in Jaffna for reproducing Indian media released photos of Pirapakaran and Pottu Ammaan taken in 2002 and warned them of drastic consequences if they continue in the same manner, the sources added.

“We will not just continue to issue warnings,” the threat letter said.

This threat has been issued in an atmosphere of fear among the media persons in Jaffna after witnessing thousands of copies of Tamil dailies published in Jaffna publicly burnt by another group calling itself ‘Alliance Protecting the Country’ on 25 June, media sources in Jaffna said.

Local media and their reporters publish false news confusing people while failing to bring out true news, the letter of threat further said.

News released by the Tamil Diaspora praising ‘terrorists’ creating an appearance as if they continue to be active, in their websites are being published in the local dailies destroying the self-confidence of the people, the letter pointed out.

“We continue to watch the news published by the local dailies giving prominence to ‘terrorists’ and we had issued severe warnings several times before. It is evident that our threats have been ignored,” the letter said.

The activities of certain persons abroad are being published as news in the local dailies without any evidence at all. Jaffna dailies should publish the news published in the other dailies published in Sri Lanka, it further said.

© Tamilnet

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

JVP to back former Army Chief in snap election

Sri Lanka's former military chief, General Sarath Fonseka, will challenge his ex-boss President Mahinda Rajapakse in elections next year, a key leftist opposition party announced Tuesday.

The JVP, or People's Liberation Front, which had earlier backed Rajapakse, said they secured agreement with Fonseka, 58, to stand against Rajapakse.

The president on Monday called a snap vote, which is due between January 11 and February 1.

"We came to an agreement last night (Monday) that he will be the common opposition candidate," JVP lawmaker Anurakumara Dissanayake said. "We will ensure his victory and the downfall of President Rajapakse."

He added: "He has accepted to be the 'apolitical' common candidate who will work towards the abolition of the executive presidency within six months of coming to power."

He said the JVP was confident that Fonseka would deliver on his promise, unlike previous presidents who also pledged to scrap the all-powerful presidency, which concentrates all executive power in the head of state.

Fonseka resigned as chief of defence staff last week following a rift with Rajapakse over who should take credit for crushing separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in a government offensive that ended in May.

A close aide said Fonseka, considered a war hero for his role in the defeat of the Tigers, was planning to secure broad opposition support before announcing his plans.

Fonseka declined to comment on the JVP announcement.

"I will tell you in two to three days," Fonseka told reporters when asked about his plans.

The JVP said they believed Fonseka was able to defeat Rajapakse, 64, who called the snap election to benefit from the government's popularity following the end of the military campaign.

Dissanayake said Fonseka had agreed to dissolve the current cabinet and appoint an interim government to conduct parliamentary elections, which are due by April.

The JVP as well as the main opposition United National Party have said they will support any move to oust Rajapakse, who has been accused of granting key state positions to family members and of wanton corruption.

The president's younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse is the defence secretary, who also played a key role in crushing Tamil Tigers and ending Asia's longest running ethnic conflict.

However, the Rajapakse brothers and Fonseka fell out after all three competed to take credit for crushing the rebels.


Related Links:
Sri Lanka general to mount poll bid - Al Jazeera

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eyewitness report from refugee boat in Merak

Anthony Main - On Friday November 20th I had the opportunity to visit the Tamil refugees in Merak. Prior to my visit I had been in regular phone contact with the refugees but to see the deplorable conditions on the boat first hand was indeed a shock.

The port has been in lock down for more than a week, even the media have been denied access. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have also withdrawn their services. Clearly there is a joint attempt by the Australian and Indonesian governments to deny these people basic necessities in the hope that it will wear them down and force them off the ship.

I was able to visit the boat as part of a delegation that included members of the Confederation Congress of Indonesian Union Alliance (KASBI), the Working Peoples Association (PRP) and a human rights lawyer. We were also accompanied by an official from the Indonesian Human Rights Commission.

These asylum seekers are all from the north and east of Sri Lanka. They include children, pregnant women and the elderly. All have been affected by the brutal war and have experienced their own hardships as a result of the oppression of the Tamil minority. As one women told me “We all have our own individual horror stories”.

On October 11th, on route to Australia, their 30 metre boat was intercepted by the Indonesian navy. It has been no secret that the Australian government pressured the Indonesian authorities to act before the boat made it into Australian waters. One man commented that “Kevin Rudd calls this the Indonesian solution, how can it be a solution if we are facing deportation or jail?”

As soon as we arrived at the boat people started to come out one by one. This old wooden ship is built to carry about 40 – 50 people, but more than 250 are crammed onto it. The first people to approach me were children. A girl of about 7 years old told me that she had written a letter to the Australian authorities. It was written in Tamil but she asked me if I could get it translated and show it to them. Several other children had also written letters, one of which was in English. (See text below)

After being in isolation for more than a week it was not surprising that the people on board the boat were desperate to hear news and discuss the dispute. One man, Nimal, started asking me some questions about the Australian Governments attitude to asylum seekers. Within seconds I was surrounded by dozens of people who all wanted know why Rudd would not allow them safe passage to Australia.

After a brief discussion with the refugees’ spokespeople Alex and Kumar, I was taken on board the boat. The tour of the boat took some time because in every corner of the vessel I met with people who wanted to tell me their stories. One of the first families I met had with them a baby who was only 6 months old. The father said to me “We have been here 50 days now. This child has spent more than one quarter of her life in these terrible conditions”.

Most of the people on the boat are sick in some way. Many have diarrhoea and some have Malaria. There are also 15 diabetics on board who have had no access to insulin for weeks. On several occasions people have needed urgent medical assistance which has been denied by the Indonesian authorities. There is also only one toilet on the boat, meaning people have to line up at all times of the day.

The weather in Merak is dreadful. The rainy season has begun, which means it is wet, windy and humid. The boat is covered by tarpaulins but in many areas these covers are torn and when the rain is heavy the decks get covered in water. This means people are sleeping in wet areas, often without enough clothes and blankets to keep them warm.

The Indonesian Navy keeps a close eye on the ship and they are responsible for delivering food and water several times a day. The food is of very poor quality and many say it is making them sick. They have no hot water and the fresh water they have runs out before the end of the day.

While the conditions are horrendous, most people were less interested in complaining and more interested in discussing the politics of the dispute. After being shown around the boat, as many people as could fit sat down on the main deck where we conducted a meeting. We discussed many issues including the political situation in Sri Lanka, the attitude of ordinary people in Australia to refugees and how to best build support for their struggle.

I started by telling them that while there are polarised views in Australia about refugees, there are many people who are supporting them. As well as the Socialist Party there are many progressive groups in the region who are campaigning for their rights. I reported about actions and protests that had already taken place and those that are planned in the next few weeks. I also told them about support that had come from trade unions in both Australia and Indonesia.

A few days prior to my visit it was reported that the Indonesian government was looking to deport the refugees back to Sri Lanka. But the day before my visit the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting that the Indonesian government had changed their mind and they would now allow them to be processed by the United Nations. Unfortunately no one on board had been made aware of this. Even if it were true it would not guarantee them safe passage to Australia.

All on the boat were fully aware of the deal that the Rudd government had done with another group of Tamil refugees who were on board the Oceanic Viking. While the situation for the refugees in Merak is slightly different, because they are not on an Australian vessel and were not intercepted by the Australian Navy, they are adamant that they should be afforded, at the very least, the same treatment.

“We are all fleeing the same persecution” one man said “We are all refugees, we should all be treated equally”. Another man said “We believe Kevin Rudd has both a legal and a moral obligation to take us. He is a signatory to the UN refugee convention. Indonesia is not. If he believes in human rights how could he possibly let us go to an Indonesian detention centre?”

“We are resilient people, we have escaped war, we have lived in camps. All we are asking is that we are treated as human beings. If we go back to Sri Lanka we will not be treated as humans. We will go to jail, be killed or just disappear” he said.

Only a few hours after I left the ship one of the refugees sent me a text message saying that they had just received news that a relative of one of the asylum seekers had been kidnapped by the Sri Lankan Army. A 19 year old man was pushed into a white van and has not been seen for several days. It is quite possible that, along with hundreds of others, he will never be seen again.

This is the reality of life for Tamils in Sri Lanaka. But despite their concern about the future, the one thread that ran through all of the discussions was that they are prepared to stay on the boat as long as it takes. This brave stance should be acknowledged by all workers and poor people in the region. As one man said to me as I was leaving “We are just ordinary people, not different to people in Australia. We did not start the war, we are the victims. All we are asking for is support.”

The Socialist Party and our sister parties in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) will do all we can to build support for this group of Tamil refugees and to campaign for the rights of all workers and oppressed people in Sri Lanka.

Socialist Party National Organiser Anthony Main is currently in Indonesia. On Friday he visited the 254 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees currently moored at the port in Merak.

© Tamil Solidarity

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Anniversary of Gerald Perera's murder: The ASP who was never prosecuted

By Basil Fernando - Gerald became a friend of mine through unfortunate circumstances. He was the victim of torture at the hands of an Assistant Superintendent of Police and a group of policemen attached to the Wattala police station.

Further misfortune was to follow. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, presided over by late Justice Mark Fernando, granted him all the relief that he claimed by holding against all police officers and awarding a recorded sum as compensation in a fundamental rights case.

It was only at this stage that Attorney General’s department thought of launching a criminal investigation against the police officers, which finally led to the filing of an indictment under the Convention Against Torture Act.

A short while later, a week ahead of giving evidence before the High Court of Negombo, he was shot dead while travelling to work at the harbour.

One of the accused police officers in the torture case, together with an accomplice, has been charged with the murder. Other accused officers have been made witnesses. His wife attributed the death to delayed investigation.

Does one murder case matter in the sea of murders washing across Sri Lanka? Rationally, it is impossible to say that it does not matter; however, if we are honest with ourselves then we must conclude that in reality it no longer matters.

I am trained as a lawyer. I recall that in my first year of training I and other students spent many weeks studying the Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code by concentrating mainly on the offence of murder. Take away murder from the statute books and there would hardly be any point in studying the criminal law.

No one has removed murder from the statute books. It is there as before. But it has lost its significance. With it, the criminal law has also lost significance.

If the criminal law still had some significance then Gerald's case would be highly publicized and treated as extremely strange, as a blot on the system.

That is because the police officer most responsible for his death, the ASP who gave the order for his arrest without having any evidence, has never been held to account or even questioned.

The ASP was fishing for evidence of a triple murder for which he had been assigned six officers. After ten days he had not come up with any leads. He went after Gerald because of mistaken identity.

To find Gerald, the police took his wife into custody with a child. They forced her to telephone her husband and have him come for her. They arrested him on arrival and took him to Wattala police station, where they hung him from a beam and beat him with iron and wooden polls, hoping that he may divulge something.

At this stage, the police got a telephone call, which seemed to communicate that they had got the wrong man. They took him down and kept him till next morning, when they released him with full knowledge of the ASP. The family took him to hospital, where he entered a coma, only to recover after 14 days.

If the criminal law had any significance in Sri Lanka then it would be remarkable that throughout the criminal inquiry into this incident, no one questioned the ASP. Apart from the actual perpetrators of the torture, this ASP knew more than anyone about the events. He should have been made an accused in the case, as the CAT Act is broad enough to have accommodated him.

However, it is not in our legal culture to bring officers above the rank of OIC to be questioned, let alone indicted. As a result, this case has dragged on farcically over the last five years, to the present day. There are many other cases like it that similarly have been reduced to absurdity.

So long as higher ranking of state officers cannot be brought to justice for murder and serious crime, realistically, one more murder is nothing; neither is the Penal Code or the criminal law of which it is a part anything of significance.

© Sri Lanka Guardian

Related Links:
Sri Lanka: A Young Man Under Life-Support System After Tortured by Police - AHRC
Witness killed before case against police - BBC Sinhala

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