By 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.
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.
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.