5 December, 2020

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Tamil Prisoners: Holding Them Indefinitely Defies Logic

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to face several issues connected to their struggle for greater regional autonomy even after the end of the war in 2009. One of them is the continuous imprisonment of what has been called the “Tamil prisoners.” The term “Tamil prisoners” in this issue is a misnomer because it does not mean the Tamil men and women who were convicted of various crimes. “Tamils prisoners” in this issue mean the people who were arrested by the armed forces or the police due to suspected links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the war. They were taken into custody for allegedly being members of the LTTE, helping or failing to provide information about activities of the rebels. They therefore could be called the suspected LTTE supporters or members.

Problem

The primary problem with the Tamil prisoners issue is that majority of them are in prisons without being charged in the court of law. Some of them have been in prison in this manner for over a decade. They have been staging periodic hunger strikes, sometimes on the rooftops of prison premises, for a long time. “Charge or release” was their demand. These campaigns failed to get the attention of the government and relevant authorities.

The Tamil leadership however should have taken the issue seriously as this has become sort of a humanitarian problem within the Tamil community. At least some of the prisoners were the sole bread winners of their families. The Tamil leadership should have responded to the calls of the prisoners and their families and should have undertaken an action program to get these people released, especially after the new government came to power. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) played a role in the election of this government and a segment of the TNA is extremely close to the present centers of power. That capacity was not used to resolve one of the problems of the community they represent.

Last Hunger Strike

However, the last hunger strike staged by the prisoners about two weeks ago has drawn the attention of the government and some of the leading personalities in the administration who have now made positive statements with regard to the release of the prisoners. According to news reports, president Sirisena has promised to take action to address the concerns of the fasting inmates. The change of attitude on the part of the government could be attributed to the prevailing political environment created with the change of administration in Colombo. Rajapaksa government would have simply ignored the issue or used heavy handed tactics to suppress the campaign. Sensing the positive response, Tamil leadership also got involved strongly probably for the first time. A recent statement by TNA leader Sambandan indicates that the prisoners will be released this week. One however, has to wait and see if they will really be freed in the near future by this government.

The point however, is that keeping these prisoners in the custody of the state even six years after of the end of the war defies logic. With the end of the war a large number of active LTTE members possibly including some hardcore members were taken into custody, rehabilitated and released. One of the best examples was Tamilini, leader of the Women’s wing. There is no reason to keep the people who failed to provide information and those who helped the LTTE in a nonmilitary manner when many of the hardcore members have already been released. The government needs to appreciate the fact that many of these people did not have the choice to defy orders of the LTTE, which would have been suicidal. Therefore, the prisoners who are suspected of helping the LTTE or failed to provide information should be released immediately.

Suspected Cadres

It is reasonable to deal with suspected members of the LTTE separately. However, one needs to understand that they have also been incarcerated for years. They have already been punished, if they were in fact actively involved in the violent campaign. One of the reasons why they were not charged in the court of law was that there was no concrete evidence against them. If necessary, they could be subjected to a rehabilitation program like the cadres who were captured or surrounded, with the end of the war. Also, they could be subjected to a monitoring program. They may be required to report to a nearby police station regularly for a while until doubts are cleared. Conditional release of the suspected LTTE cadres within the protesting prisoners cannot be unreasonable.

Keeping these prisoners imprisoned indefinitely without charging them amounts to injustice of serious nature. These injustices would perpetuate the conflict. Reportedly, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has stated that they may be released on bail, which means filing charges now. Filing chargers after so many years will not be reasonable. It would be an irony and in a way funny to get bail after spending for example ten years in prison.

The present government which came to power with the tacit support of the Tamil voters and the Tamil political leadership maintains that it is keen to promote ethnic reconciliation. Releasing the prisoners who have been languishing in the jail for too long could be a first step in this direction. Releasing the prisoners when the time is ripe could also mitigate pressure on the public purse.  Therefore, there are several reasons that could justify discharging the inmates sooner, rather than later. The government policy at this juncture on this issue should be release and monitor.

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.

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  • 3
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    Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

    RE: Tamil Prisoners: Holding Them Indefinitely Defies Logic

    “Tamils prisoners” in this issue mean the people who were arrested by the armed forces or the police due to suspected links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the war.

    Q. What is their “crime’? Suspected Links to LTTE and the Crimes Committed by LTTE. Any other crimes like Ethnic Cleansing, rapes etc? If none, release them.

    It was valid then. However, it is no longer valid now.

    However, what role did they play in the killings and other criminal activities of LTTE? Was being a Prisoner for the past 6 years sufficient punishment?

    • 5
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      “Was being a Prisoner for the past 6 years sufficient punishment?”
      It is not last six years, it is more than 20 years.

      • 8
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        “Tamil Prisoners: Holding Them Indefinitely Defies Logic”

        More appropriate would be: Holding Them Indefinitely Defies laws.

        • 3
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          Releasing the ‘Tamil Prisoners’ on the day of Ven Sobitha’s Funeral, would be the Biggest Dane’ the Government could give HIM!

      • 0
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        Ajith

        “It is not last six years, it is more than 20 years.”

        If so, they must have been involved in a lot of crimes, including the war crimes of Ethnic Cleansing of Tamil Speaking Northern Muslims.

        S, what is the proper punishment? Many of their victims have been dead for 20 years, but they were living.

        Any release should be on an individual case-by-case basis.

    • 0
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      Over thousands of Tamils been detained and some are tortured in Army held torture camps. Journalist Ehaliyagoda was abducted, tortured, detained in a in a Army held torture camp and later dumped in the sea.

      The Govt. should immediately release these Tamil youths and hand them over to the UN representatives to avoid any deaths from their hunger strike. Some detainees been held for over 15 years without any charges.

  • 8
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    It is not a question of logic. It will not be long before President Sirisena is branded as guilty of crimes against humanity for holding so many persons without trial for so long. He is having a honey-moon period but, soon, he will be branded as a violator of human rights of his people just like his predecessor was. This will include his ministers, the Attorney General and other leading public officials. It is in the interests of all these people to act to end this charade. If there is no evidence to try them, the political prisoners must be freed. There is no legal basis for indefinite custody without trial. The Committee on Enforced Disappearances is visiting Sri Lanka this week. The eyes of the world are on these violators of human rights on the basis of a systemic discrimination practised agains those of Tamil ethnicity. There is continuation of the genocidal policy of previous regimes. It must stop.

  • 14
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    The history of this country since 1948 tells Sinhalese political leadership used Tamil political leadership wisely promising political solutions to the problems of Tamils but never made an effort after they took over the power. The Sinhalese political leadership clearly understands that it is illegal, unlawful and immoral to keep those innocent civilians in the jail. I can remember one case where one of my neighbour who came to Colombo with his son to send him to abroad was taken away by Sinhala Police was and kept him under police custody telling that he had a grenade and later put him in the jail for nearly two years. But he was released after paying 500,000 rupees. There are number of cases like this during this period of war and during the period of Mahinda regime. Even number of innocent Sinhalese were faced similar fate.

    This is Srilanka and I don’t expect something different.

  • 0
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    Keethaponcalan

    What is the purpose of writing this article when the Government and TNA are not interested in solving this issue. Do you really believe these politicians will grant amnesty to the Tamil political detainees. Haven’t you read the contradicting statements coming from govt ministers and TNA members during the last 4 to 5 weeks. No one, including the minister in charge of Prisons, says exactly how many Tamil political detainees are kept in each prison; how long each has been in detention; how many charged; how many not charged; how many forced to make confession under duress; how many of them are LTTE members; how many civilians etc. Figures of detainees vary from 200 to 300 according to the statements released so far. Why TNA is not interested in finding out these basic information from the minister concerned or by sending their members to each prison and find out from the detainees. How could any one argue the detainees case when these basic facts are not known. Only God knows how TNA argued with President, PM and Ministers.

    TNA having failed to get any detainees released by 7th , has now arranged a hartal on Friday. This is purely to pacify the Tamil public and for nothing else. If they are genuine and sincere in getting the release they should engage in a fast unto death in front of magazine prison as promised. I believe you would have read Abraham Sumanthiran’s statement after meeting Tamil detainees in magazine prison to the effect that ” if all political prisoners are not released by 7th we will be forced to do fasting” . This appeared in CT.

    Shall I remind you what Dudley has told during the district council bill debate:

    ” The tragedy of the Tamil race is the existence of a set of self seeking sycophants making sweet speech of saviours. If the Tamils are ever to regain their birth right in Ceylon they should send away the present saviours of the Tamil congress and the federal party”

    • 2
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      Maya. Dont blame the TNA. blame the Tamil voter. TNA has done nothing to solve problems of the Tamil people in the last 5 years. What happened? Tamil voter rewarded them with 2 more seats. Then why should they work? People like keethaponcalan should write. Dont be silent.

      • 0
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        Except for one or two competent people at leadership level the rest are useless.
        TNA does not have an efficient secretariate consisting of a network of trained staff for unearthing facts and and figures and to collect relevant details of those detained and their families in each district it represents in the N&E of thcounstitituacies on the number imprisoned.

    • 0
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      Maya,

      “Why TNA is not interested in finding out these basic information from the minister concerned or by sending their members to each prison and find out from the detainees. How could any one argue the detainees case when these basic facts are not known. Only God knows how TNA argued with President, PM and Ministers.”

      I believe that the TNA leaders Sumanthiran and Sampathan know the facts of the prisoners. They are lawyers and understand what the legal situation is for the different categories of prisoners. The NP Chief Minister also understands.

      For political purposes the TNA is feeding misinformation for the ignorant masses.

  • 4
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    Release prisnors on REverand sobithas funeral day.

  • 3
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    There is no fair governance while there is PTA and Tamils are eternal prisoners in Sri Lanka. The Government and UN are scared for the truth. And do not want to be transparent and succumb to fear of truth. Try to save all the criminals.

  • 6
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    Sirisena should have had the good sense to have released these long suffering Tamils languishing in the prisons a long time ago if he was serious about reconciliation.

    If KP and mass murderer Karuna could be excused it does defy logic why these unfortunates are still being held.

    But then we now have a ‘yamapalanaya’ and not ‘yahapalanaya’. Logic or no logic, yama rajjuruwo will do only what his fancy takes and perhaps is enjoying inflicting continuous pain on some unfortunates.

  • 0
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    Keethaponcalan,

    According to official government sources most of the 200-300 “prisoners” (I don’t know their legal status) have been charged and many even convicted. I believe that your facts are wrong. Please provide your source. I should of course provide my sources but I expect you to do it first since you have published an article without giving your sources and I am only commenting.

    “One of the reasons why they were not charged in the court of law was that there was no concrete evidence against them.”

    Some yes others not.

    According to the Daily Mirror 32 Tamil prisoners were re-remanded today. I maybe am wrong but a person has to be charged in a court to be remanded by a judge. These 32 must have been charged and remanded earlier to be re-remanded today. Correct?

    “The Colombo Magistrate’s Court today re-remanded 32 ex-LTTE inmates till November 24 as the Attorney General’s Department had not yet instructed the prison authorities to release them.”

    http://www.dailymirror.lk/94873/32-ex-ltte-inmates-remanded

    “If necessary, they could be subjected to a rehabilitation program like the cadres who were captured or surrounded, with the end of the war. Also, they could be subjected to a monitoring program.”

    I agree.

    My understanding from the media is that many of them refuse rehabilitation and demand an amnesty instead.

    • 0
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      It is the duty of attorney general’s department to release the status of the inmates not of the journalist.
      The prisoners do not seem believe in rehabilitation program because it was used by the relevant authorities to harass the released prisoners rather than real rehabilitation.

      • 0
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        KOW,

        “It is the duty of attorney general’s department to release the status of the inmates not of the journalist.”

        Any competent journalist or writer checks facts before publishing. It looks like I only see people repeating the “fact” of 300 Tamil political prisoners who have never been charged and have spent 20 years in prison. Mostly not true.

  • 0
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    Keethaponcalan,

    “According to the Commissioner General of Prisons, 116 individuals have been filed charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act at the High Court while further 52 have been filed charges at the Magistrates Court.”

    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/no-release-today-tamil-political-prisoners-further-remanded/

    In addition we have the ones who have already been convicted and the ones who have never been charged. These are maybe 100 persons.

    My humble understanding is that under the PTA=High Court there is never bail. They have to be cleared of charges by the High Court, Prosecutor drops charges or they are sentenced.

    For the convicted ones there exists presidential pardon.

    The 52 charged at the Magistrates Court (not PTA) can be bailed but the cases will continue.

    The ones not charged should be charged or released.

    What do you think?

  • 0
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    Its appears like the America’s Guantanomo bay logic.

  • 0
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    former Black tigers who refused to obey the Sung god by Biting the Cyanide capsule and the former Suicide bombers who were raped by LTTE caders brain washed them to be raped by the Sinhala army are living a good life inside the prison.

    what do they do when they come outside.

    Get discriminated by their won vellalah masters and stay unemployed without foods ?

  • 0
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    The Government cant hold persons as prisoners indefinitely. It is a violation of the persons human rights. So suggest the Government release them on on a bond where the party agrees to report monthly to the Terrorist Prevention Department of the Police . I understand they cant be released because there could be charges against them. Yes but even murderers are entitled to bail until they are tried. Perhaps they could be released without the passport which will be retained by the authorities. We cannot violate human rights of any of our citizens for what is done today to one person will be repeated tomorrow against another Let us uphold human rights at least now that we have reasonable peace and stabillity.

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