Fact-finding mission to Batticaloa
We, the undersigned, undertook a visit to Batticaloa in the Eastern Province on 5 and 6 December to ascertain the current plight of the different communities affected by the Easter Sunday attacks.
The devastating impact of the Easter Sunday attacks on both Christians who belong to independent, non-denominational Churches as well as the Muslim community in Batticaloa is undeniable. We were conscious that meeting with the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks and inquiring about their experience of recovering from it might re-traumatize them, particularly given countless groups and individuals have already met and spoken with them about it. Hence, we spoke with persons in the Christian community who work with the victims. During these discussions we learnt of the continued challenges faced by the Christian community in exercising their right to practice their faith freely and without fear. This is due to both extra-legal state interference, as well as social discrimination by the Hindu community and the Catholic church. Christian pastors highlighted the phenomenon of Hindu groups that propagate Hindutva-like ideologies and have affiliations to the Shiv Sena in India, targeting the Christian community.
Other forms of discrimination, marginalization and harassment of the Christian community include denial of permission to establish places of worship, preventing them from using the public cemetery, denying their children admission to national schools, interruption of prayer meetings, including through the use of violence, and perpetration of violence against pastors. We were informed that complaints to the police often have no impact as the police do not take any action. The security agencies reportedly visit churches and request information about congregants, supposedly to ensure that those who are not part of the congregation are not allowed to enter the churches. The pastors however stated this only served to intimidate them and was contrary to the open and inclusive policy they practiced of welcoming persons of all faiths.
We also met with the wives and mothers of persons detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in relation to the Easter Sunday attacks. The arrested men are generally from poor families, and hence the women who have young children face severe socio-economic hardships, which has had a damaging impact on every aspect of their lives. Several arrests made in relation to the Easter Sunday attacks affirm the historical pattern of arbitrary arrests and detention. For instance, many persons were arrested prior to investigation, detained on detention orders for months and thereafter discharged as there was no evidence against them. By the time they were released they had lost their livelihoods and suffered reputational damage and psychological trauma.
Many arrests are alarming as they appear to have been made not for acts deemed offences in law, but for assumed opinions held. Persons who seemingly did not commit or aid or abet an offence have also been arrested. For instance, boys and young men who were either forced or were misinformed about the destination and purpose of an event organized by Zahran and attended for only one or sometimes two days were arrested. As a result, many were unable to sit for examinations and to date languish in detention. There are also concerns about persons being detained on detention orders for more than the stipulated period of 18 months. Families of detained persons mentioned of not being told of the place of detention, of arrest receipts being issued days after the arrest and not being informed when a person was transferred to a different place of detention. To date, the arrests continue.
The families of those detained for the Easter Sunday attacks have been shunned by other members of the Muslim community, which has exacerbated their struggle for survival. Visits by the security agencies to the families of detained persons, and being summoned to the police station for inquiries further isolates the families from the community, which views them with suspicion. At the same time, persons who assist families of detained persons are being subject to surveillance and even being interrogated by the security agencies, which prevents others from offering assistance to these families. This aggravates the severe psychological stress experienced by families struggling to cope with the multiple impacts of imprisonment of a family member, often the only livelihood earner. The families have no legal awareness, nor means of retaining legal representation and hence are vulnerable to empty promises and extortion.
Inter and intra-community tensions in the Eastern Province were not dealt with after the end of the thirty-year armed conflict but festered and were brought to the fore again by the Easter Sunday attacks, which seems to have worsened existing fissures. There are new groups emerging which have found new targets for discrimination and marginalization, thereby creating new centres of conflict and insecurity for vulnerable populations.
As a community leader succinctly stated, “wherever there is a majority, the minorities in that place are being oppressed”. Although there are efforts at the community level to deal with these cleavages, government action and inaction hamper rather than support these community efforts. Addressing these issues requires viewing national security as security for all. It requires the state to envisage a form of security that does not depend on demonizing and targeting certain communities, which leads to discrimination and marginalization of already vulnerable populations, thereby undermining social cohesion and community harmony.
A detailed report of the findings of the visit will be published.
10 December 2021