Three months after Sri Lanka’s feared former security minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a shock presidential victory, rights groups say security forces and intelligence agencies have intensified surveillance and intimidation of activists and families of victims of his former regime.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the new government to end the intimidation of activists and families of those forcibly disappeared during the country’s 28-year civil war, including the 10 years in which the Rajapaksa family held power until its defeat in 2015.
HRW South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly told The Australian that fresh intimidation of activists and families of the disappeared, who were still seeking answers, had already had a chilling effect and many were now scared to speak up.
“Activists working in six locations in the northern and eastern parts of the country on behalf of relatives of the forcibly disappeared told Human Rights Watch that there has been a significant increase in government surveillance and intimidation,” HRW said in a statement.
The organisation cited one activist who said that before one recent victims’ meeting, “every one of the mothers received at least six telephone calls from different intelligence agencies asking, ‘Where is the meeting?’, ‘Who is organising the meeting?’, ‘What is being said?’ ”
Another activist said: “We can’t do any visible programs … We’ve stopped everything.”
“The families of Sri Lanka’s disappeared have spent years waiting for answers, but with the Rajapaksas back in power, security forces are threatening them to drop their demands for truth and accountability,” Ms Ganguly said.
“The government needs to stop the harassment immediately and abide by Sri Lanka’s pledges to the UN to uncover the fate of the disappeared and provide justice to victims’ families.”
Ms Ganguly also called on countries such as Australia, which has substantial military engagement with Sri Lanka, to press for human rights protections.
Jehan Perera from Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council said he, too, knew of many activists and partner organisations facing heightened scrutiny under the new government, and that the activity was having a chilling effect.
“The concern is that while today there are no explicit threats or punishment, that they’re gathering information” for after the April general elections in which the government was expected to secure a parliamentary majority, Mr Perera said.
The accusations come a week ahead of a UN Human Rights Council sitting in Geneva at which Sri Lanka must report progress made on a 2015 resolution obliging Colombo to address the mass disappearances, which human rights groups say numbered in the tens of thousands.
Gotabaya himself has been accused of running death squads and kidnapping gangs in which notorious white vans were used to “disappear” critics of the government. The former government under President Maithripala Sirisena, which lost office last November, set up an office of missing persons and an office of reparations, though was accused of dragging its feet on establishing a special court to investigate human rights violations.
Since Gotabaya’s election on a national security platform, following last year’s Easter Sunday bombings that killed 259 people, there has been talk of cancelling Sri Lanka’s commitment to the HRC resolution.
Two of his government’s most senior security figures, Defence Minister Kamal Gunaratne and Army Chief Shavendra Silva, have been accused of committing wartime violations as the former heads of the two main army divisions that prosecuted the brutal end of the civil war against Tamil separatists in 2009.
General Silva has been banned from entering the US because of “credible” accusations he presided over extra-judicial killings.