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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United States & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > U.S. Department of State: Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996
United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam
Whatever may be said, who ever may
say it - to
determine the truth of it, is wisdom - Thirukural
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997.
Sri Lanka is a longstanding democratic republic with an active multiparty system. Constitutional power is shared between the popularly elected President and the 225-member Parliament. President Chandrika Kumaratunga leads the People's Alliance (PA), a coalition of parties, which holds a single seat majority in parliament. Both the Parliament and the President were elected in free and fair elections in 1994. The Government respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary.
The conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent organization fighting for a separate state for the country's Tamil minority, continued beyond its 13th year and intensified. A 6-month government military offensive captured the LTTE heartland of the Jaffna Peninsula in April, adding tens of thousands to the ranks of displaced persons. The LTTE inflicted a major military defeat on government forces at Mullaitivu army base in the north, killing upwards of 1,500 troops.
The Government controls all security forces. The 50,000-member police force is responsible for internal security in most areas of the country. The 80,000 member army, and the small navy and air force, conduct the war against the LTTE insurgents. The police paramilitary Special Task Force (STF) also battles the LTTE. The 5,000 strong Home Guards, an armed force drawn from local communities, provides security for Muslim and Sinhalese village communities in or near the war zone. The Government also arms and directs various Tamil militias opposed to the LTTE, though at times these groups act independently of government authority. During the year, some members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses.
Sri Lanka is a low-income country with a market economy that is based on the export of textiles, garments, tea, rubber, coconuts, and gems, and on earnings from tourism. The gross domestic product per capita is about $700. The economy grew in excess of 5 percent per year during 1990-1995. However, a severe drought coupled with the ongoing civil war, slowed economic growth to less than 4 percent during 1996. During the year, the Government made significant steps toward economic reform, including trimming subsidies, privatizing government enterprises, and promoting foreign investment and trade.
The Government generally remained committed to the human rights of its citizens. However, the intensification of the war with the LTTE was accompanied by a deterioration in the human rights record of the security forces in some areas.
In February the security forces were responsible for the extrajudicial killings of at least 50 Tamils, including the murder of 24 civilians in the eastern village of Kumarapuram by army troops.
At least 300 individuals are believed to have disappeared from security force custody on the Jaffna Peninsula, while 50 more disappeared elsewhere on the island.
Torture remained a serious problem, and prison conditions remained poor. There were an increase in detentions and short-term mass arrests, often accompanied by failure to comply with some of the protective provisions of the Emergency Regulations (ER).
Impunity for those responsible for human rights abuses remained a problem. Progress was made in some unresolved, high-profile cases of extrajudicial killing and disappearance. In others, however, the investigations or judicial processes were inactive, giving the appearance of impunity for those responsible for human rights violations.
At year's end concern was mounting over the failure of both the Government and the LTTE to take prisoners of war on the battlefield. From April to October, the Government censored all domestic news reports relating to military or police matters. Discrimination and violence against women, child prostitution, and child labor continued to be problems.
In positive developments, the Government took steps to control the abuses. Legislation was passed establishing a permanent human rights commission, although the commission was not yet operational at year's end. Prosecutions of security force personnel alleged to have engaged in human rights abuse continued, including that of 8 soldiers charged in the Kumarapuram massacre. There was no attempt, as in the past, to use the ER to cover up security force misdeeds.
Sixteen police and army personnel were arrested for the rape and murder of two young women in Jaffna. Through its rulings, the judiciary continued to uphold individual civil rights. Government security forces took effective measures to limit civilian casualties during the military offensive against the LTTE in Jaffna.
The Government also provided relief to those displaced by the conflict even though many were still under the control of the LTTE. Three regional commissions established to investigate disappearances continued their investigations. The Government ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The LTTE made terrorist attacks against civilians, although there were no reported attacks in the second half of the year. The LTTE regularly committed extrajudicial killings (including civilian massacres and assassinations), and was also responsible for disappearances, arbitrary arrests, detentions, and torture. The LTTE terrorist bombing of the Central Bank in Colombo in January killed 90 civilians. Seventy commuters in Colombo died in a train bombing in July.
LTTE guerrillas routinely used excessive force in the war. In the attack on Mullaitivu, which killed 1,500 government troops, the LTTE claims to have taken no prisoners. Though largely dislodged from the Jaffna Peninsula by government forces, the LTTE continued to control large sections of the north and east of the country through authoritarian military rule, denying the people under its authority the right to change their government, routinely violating their civil liberties, and severely discriminating against ethnic and religious minorities. The use of rape by the LTTE as a weapon of terror, first noted in 1995, did not reoccur.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
Police (mostly STF officers) and army personnel committed extrajudicial killings in both Jaffna and the Eastern Province. Most of these were associated with operations against the LTTE insurgents or interrogation of suspected rebels. In excess of 50 individuals were killed, although the exact number was impossible to ascertain due to a long period of censorship of news relating to military or police operations, and lack of access to the north and east where the civil war was being waged. In February army troops murdered 24 Tamil villagers, including 2 children under 12 years of age, in the eastern village of Kumarapuram. Eight soldiers were arrested and the Attorney General's office recommended to the High Court that they be indicted on 101 counts of murder and attempted murder. They had not yet come to trial at year's end.
In some cases these extrajudicial killings were reprisals against civilians for LTTE attacks in which members of the security forces were killed or injured. Several such reprisals occurred during operations by the STF. In many cases, the security forces claimed that the victims were members of the LTTE. However, human rights monitors have determined that these victims were civilians. With the exception of the Kumarapuram incident, the perpetrators of these killings had not been arrested by the Government at year's end. There were also a number of suspicious deaths attributed to the security forces, mostly involving detainees acting as government informants who died during operational missions against the LTTE.
In October 1995, 22 members of the STF were arrested and detained under the ER on suspicion of murdering 23 Tamil youths whose bodies were found floating in Bolgoda Lake and other bodies of water near Colombo. The suspects were released on bail and resumed their police functions in February. In July the charred body of a Tamil textile merchant who had been detained under the ER was found at Giribawa in North Central Province. Six police officers, including the officer in charge of the police countersubversive unit in Vavuniya, were arrested and detained under the ER. In both cases, the police investigation was submitted to the Attorney General's department, which had not yet made any recommendations to the High Court by year's end. In the case of the Bolgoda Lake killings, problems with the Government's evidence have reportedly contributed to the delay.
A presidential commission was established to investigate torture and murder in the late 1980's at a government-run detention center at Batalanda Housing Estate near Colombo. In August five police officers were arrested for alleged complicity. The investigation was continuing at year's end.
In November, 16 police and army personnel were arrested for the rape and murder of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, the murder of her family member, and the rape and murder of Rajini Velayuthapillai in Jaffna. The 11 accused in the Kumaraswamy case were brought before the magistrate's court in Colombo and charged with rape and murder.
The PA Government came to power in 1994 promising to bring to justice the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings from previous years. In 1994 it began prosecutions of suspects in several extrajudicial murders allegedly perpetrated by members of the security forces. The trial of 21 soldiers, accused of massacring 35 Tamil civilians in 1992 in the village of Mailanthani in Batticaloa district, was transferred to the Colombo High Court. The Attorney General recommended to the Court that the suspects be indicted on 40 counts of murder. The trial of 4 police officers indicted in 1994 for the 1990 murders of 12 civilians in Wavulkelle was still ongoing at year's end.
There were no developments in the government investigations into the mass graves at Sooriyakanda, which contain an estimated 300 bodies, or the grave at Ankumbura, which is thought to contain the bodies of 36 people killed by the police in 1989. In addition, there were no developments in the Nikaweratiya army camp incident in which 20 youths were allegedly killed by soldiers in 1989.
In April the ER, which had previously been in force only in areas of the north and east directly affected by the insurgency and in Colombo, was reimposed nationwide. There was no evidence that the Government was using them, as in previous years, to conceal extrajudicial killings or disappearances. However, crucial safeguards built into the ER were being routinely ignored by the security forces--especially those provisions requiring receipts to be issued for arrests and ordering the security forces to notify the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF) of any arrest within 24 hours. The HRTF is a quasi-independent government body established by an ER to register detainees held under the ER and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and monitor their welfare. Although security force personnel can be fined or jailed for failure to comply with the ER, none was known to have been punished during the year.
In the east and in Vavuniya in the north, the military wing of the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Mohan Group, and the Rasheek Group--progovernment Tamil militant organizations--were responsible for the killing of a number of people. Though armed and nominally under the control of the security forces, these groups frequently acted independently of government authority. It was imposible to determine the number of victims because of the secrecy with which these groups operated. However, those killed included both LTTE operatives and civilians who failed to comply with extortion demands.
Violence between supporters of the major political parties worsened during the year. Politically motivated attacks resulted in a number of deaths, including eight people in the coastal town of Negombo in September.
There were no developments in the October 1994 suicide bombing that killed the United National Party's presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, and 58 other people, although it is generally believed to be the work of the LTTE.
The LTTE continued to commit extrajudicial killings. In January a midmorning bomb blast at the Central Bank in the heart of Colombo killed more than 90 civilians. In July, 70 commuters in Colombo died in a train bombing. In the same month, an attempted assassination attempt against the Minister of Housing by a suicide bomber in Jaffna left 25 dead, including an army brigadier. Numerous assassinations of political opponents in the east were perpetrated by "pistol gangs", who successfully carried out their attacks using motorcycles and revolvers. Massacres of civilians continued. In June, 14 Sinhalese villagers were killed in Puttalam district. In September, 11 Sinhalese travelers were murdered in an ambush on a bus in Ampara district. The LTTE continued to execute suspected government informants. In the past, the LTTE has killed university professors, members of nonviolent Tamil opposition parties, and human rights monitors.
Disappearance at the hands of the security forces increased alarmingly, especially in the east and north, though some occurred in Colombo. Most of these were associated with the arrest of suspected LTTE insurgents. In excess of 300 individuals are believed to have disappeared on the Jaffna Peninsula in the second half of the year, and more than 50 elsewhere in the country throughout the year. As with extrajudicial killings, the exact number was impossible to ascertain due to censorship of news about security force operations, and lack of access to the north and east.
There were 34 confirmed cases of disappearance in 1995, and 10 cases in 1994, the lowest number on record in at least a decade. Those who disappeared in 1996 and in previous years are presumed dead. The disappearances involved persons last known to be in police or army custody. The Commander of the Army and the Inspector General of Police have both issued directives condemning disappearances and stating that perpetrators would be called to account. In November, the Ministry of Defense established a Board of Investigation to look into disappearances in the north and east and review security forces procedures. However at year's end, the Government had not identified or charged those responsible for disappearances during the year.
The Government continued investigations into past disappearances. The three regional commissions set up in November 1994 to inquire into disappearances occurring after January 1, 1988, worked throughout the year. Through August the commissions received 61,300 complaints. Most of these cases date from 1988-90, when a terrorist insurrection organized by the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) threatened to plunge the country into chaos until it was put down by a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. Of these, they were able to review 38,000 individual cases, leaving 23,000 outstanding.
Charged with producing final reports for President Kumaratunga, including recommendations for legal action, the commissions were believed to have accumulated sufficient information to prosecute as many as 200 members of the security forces for human rights violations. No final reports were produced, as the mandates of the commissions were extended into 1997. The November 1995 final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal of Persons was made available to the three regional commissions. The Commission was formed in 1991 to investigate disappearances after that date.
The trial of 11 suspects, including an army brigadier general, in the disappearance of 32 school boys from the southern town of Embilipitiya in 1989 and 1990 continued at year's end. However, there were no developments in the Vantharamulle case, in which army troops allegedly abducted 158 Tamils from a refugee camp in Batticaloa district in 1990. Observers maintain that there is credible evidence identifying the alleged perpetrators. There were also no developments in the case of 31 youths who allegedly disappeared following their arrests in Divulapitiya in 1989.
The Government continued to give the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) unhindered access to detention centers, police stations, and army camps. This played an important role in enabling the ICRC to monitor the human rights practices of the security forces, as did the work of the HRTF. However, at year's end the HRTF had not yet established operations on the Jaffna Peninsula, in part because government approval had been delayed until October.
Progovernment Tamil militants in the east and north, acting independently of government authority, were also responsible for disappearances. As in the case of extrajudicial killings, it was impossible to determine the exact number of victims because of the secrecy with which these groups operated. The Government has taken no clear public steps to condemn the militants' actions or to stop them.
The LTTE was responsible for an undetermined number of civilian disappearances in the northeastern part of the island. Most of the 400 to 600 police officers captured by the LTTE in 1990 are believed to be dead, as are over 200 security force personnel captured at a battle in Pooneryn in 1993. Although the LTTE denies taking any prisoners following the Mullaitivu battle in July, it is suspected of holding some. The vice chancellor of Eastern University, who was kidnaped by the LTTE in November 1995, was released in January.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
In 1994 the Government acceded to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Parliament also enacted legislation to implement the Torture Convention by making torture a punishable offense. However, the Government has not yet developed effective regulations under the new legislation to prosecute and punish military and police personnel responsible for torture, although it has ceased paying fines incurred by security force personnel guilty of the offense.
Members of the security forces continued to torture and mistreat detainees and other prisoners, both male and female, particularly during interrogation. Although the number of torture reports was somewhat lower than in previous years in the Colombo area, the situation in Eastern Province did not improve. Torture also emerged as a problem in the newly recaptured Jaffna Peninsula. In November a Supreme Court judge stated publicly that torture continued unabated in police stations in spite of a number of judicial pronouncements against its use. Progovernment Tamil militants in the east and north, directly responsible to the security forces, also engaged in torture. Most torture victims were Tamils suspected of being LTTE insurgents or collaborators.
Methods of torture included electric shock, beatings (especially on the soles of the feet), suspension by the wrists or feet in contorted positions, burning, near drownings, placing of insecticide, chili powder, or gasoline-soaked bags over the head, and forced positions. Detainees have reported broken bones and other serious injuries as a result of their mistreatment. There were no reports of rape in detention.
Under fundamental rights provisions in the Constitution, torture victims may file civil suit for compensation in the Supreme Court. The Court granted awards ranging from $200 to $2,000. Most cases, however, take 2 years or more to move through the courts. Moreover, because the new antitorture law imposes a heavy minimum punishment of 7 years' imprisonment, the Court is scrutinizing fundamental rights cases more carefully than in the past, since findings would weigh heavily in criminal prosecutions of torturers. During the year, no one was convicted of torture under the antitorture law.
The LTTE reportedly used torture on a routine basis. However, because of the secretive nature of the LTTE, no first-hand information was available.
Prison conditions are generally poor and do not meet minimum international standards because of overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities. An increase in the number of detentions associated with the war with the LTTE caused a significant deterioration in already poor standards in short-term detention centers. However, the Government permitted representatives from the ICRC to visit more than 400 places of detention.
Conditions are also believed to be poor in prisons operated by the LTTE.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
Under ordinary law, authorities must inform an arrested person of the reason for arrest and bring that person before a magistrate within 24 hours. In practice, persons detained under ordinary law generally appear before a magistrate within a few days of arrest. The magistrate may authorize bail or order continued pretrial detention for up to 3 months or longer. Under the ER and the PTA, security forces may detain suspects for extended periods of time without court approval. The ER, in force throughout the nation, allow pretrial detention for a maximum of four consecutive 3-month periods. A magistrate must order further detention. Detainees may challenge their detention and sue the Government for violating their civil rights in the Supreme Court.
In spite of government announcements that it would close all secret detention centers, there were continued reports that the security forces held people in such a manner, especially on the Jaffna Peninsula. Tamil militant groups, ostensibly under the direct control of the security forces, were known to be operating illegal--and unmonitored--detention centers in the east and in Vavuniya.
Detention of Tamils continued to increase as a result of the continuing hostilities with the LTTE. At year's end the Government held as many as 1,500 detainees under the ER, up from 380 at the end of 1994 and 940 at the end of 1995. Many of these detainees were arrested during operations against the LTTE. Between June and September, 460 suspected members of the LTTE were detained on the Jaffna Peninsula. The Government continued to detain up to 300 individuals under the PTA, which permits detention without charge for up to 18 months. A hunger strike in June by Tamils detained without charge under the PTA highlighted the fact that some had been so incarcerated for up to 4 years.
Arrests and detentions by the police increasingly took place in violation of the legal safeguards built into the ER, particularly regarding requirements that receipts be issued and that the HRTF be notified of any arrest within 24 hours. Due to censorship and lack of access, it was unclear what happened to detainees on the Jaffna Peninsula.
Security forces continued to conduct mass arrests of young Tamils, both male and female, especially following the LTTE assassination attempt in Jaffna against the Minister of Housing, and the LTTE attack on Mullaitivu in July. Major sweeps and arrests occurred in Colombo, the east, and increasingly, on the Jaffna Peninsula. Although exact numbers of arrests were impossible to determine, they clearly numbered in the thousands. Upwards of 1,000 Tamils at a time were picked up during police actions. Most were released after identity checks lasting several hours to several days. The Government justified the arrests on security grounds, but many Tamils claimed that the arrests were a form of harassment. In addition, those arrested, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, were detained in prisons together with hardened criminals.
The HRTF continued to investigate the legality of detention in cases referred to it by the Supreme Court and private citizens. Although the HRTF is legally constituted under the ER to exercise oversight over arrests and detentions by the security forces and to undertake visits to prisons, members of the security forces routinely breached the regulations and failed to cooperate with the HRTF. Moreover, following the capture of Jaffna in April, the HRTF was not given permission by the Ministry of Defense to set up operations on the peninsula until October, in spite of provisions in the ER legally requiring the security forces to assist the statutory body. At year's end the HRTF had not yet opened an office on the Jaffna Peninsula.
There were unconfirmed reports that the LTTE was detaining more than 2,000 civilians in the northern part of the island. The LTTE did not permit the ICRC or any other humanitarian organization to visit its detainees--aside from 22 security force personnel, 17 Sinhalese fishermen, and 8 crew members of a civilian ferry hijacked in 1995.
The Government does not practice exile. There are no legal provisions allowing or prohibiting its use.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects these provisions in practice.
The President appoints judges to the Supreme Court, the courts of appeal, and the high courts. A judicial service commission, comprised of the Chief Justice and two Supreme Court judges, appoints, transfers, and dismisses lower court judges. Judges serve until mandatory retirement age, which is 65 for the Supreme Court and 62 for judges on other courts.
In criminal cases, defendants are tried in public by juries. They are informed of the charges and evidence against them, may be represented by the counsel of their choice, and have the right to appeal. The Government provides counsel for indigent persons tried on criminal charges in the high courts and the court of appeal but not in other cases; private legal aid organizations assist some defendants. There are no jury trials in cases brought under the PTA. Confessions, which are inadmissible in criminal proceedings, are allowed in PTA cases. Most convictions under the PTA rely heavily on them. Defendants bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that their confessions were obtained by coercion. Defendants in PTA cases have the right to appeal.
The Government claims that all persons held under the ER and the PTA are suspected members of the LTTE and therefore legitimate security threats. There is insufficient information to determine whether these detainees or members of the now legal Sinhalese Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), similarly detained in past years, were political prisoners. Between 200 and 300 of those previously detained--mostly JVP members--have been convicted under criminal law and remain incarcerated. In many cases, human rights monitors question the legitimacy of the criminal charges brought against these people.
The LTTE has its own court system, composed of young judges with little or no legal training. The courts reportedly impose severe punishments. However, the courts operate without codified or defined legal authority, and essentially operate as agents of the LTTE rather than as an independent judiciary.
The LTTE also holds a number of political prisoners. The number is impossible to determine because of the secretive nature of the organization.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The Government generally respects the constitutional protections of individual privacy and the sanctity of the family and home. The police obtain proper warrants for arrests and searches conducted under ordinary law. However, the security forces are not required to obtain warrants for searches conducted under the PTA. The Secretary of Defense is responsible for providing oversight for such searches. There is no judicial review or other means of redress for alleged illegal searches under the PTA.
The Government is believed to monitor telephone conversations and correspondence on a selective basis. The security forces routinely open mail destined for the LTTE-controlled areas and seize contraband.
The LTTE routinely invades the privacy of citizens. It maintains an effective network of informants. In 1990 the LTTE evicted thousands of Muslim residents from their homes in the north. They currently live in refugee camps.
g. Use of Excessive Force and Violations of Humanitarian Law in Internal Conflicts
Hostilities between the Government and the LTTE continued throughout the year. However, the security forces generally exercised much greater restraint in the use of excessive force than they had previously. From October 1995 through April 1996, the Government conducted coordinated military attacks on LTTE-held territory in the Jaffna Peninsula, resulting in the capture of Jaffna City in December 1995 and the remainder of the peninsula by April. Government forces also captured the town of Kilinochchi in September. Altogether, the fierce fighting in the north resulted in many casualties on both sides and upwards of 480,000 displaced persons.
The Government, however, took measures to limit the number of civilian casualties in the war. Notices were dropped warning civilians to congregate in schools, churches, and temples to minimize risk. In addition, during the Jaffna offensive, shelling in advance of troops attacking through populated areas was kept to a minimum in order to spare civilians, though Kilinochchi was shelled to a much greater extent in the July advance. Civilian casualties were also reduced due to the relatively slow and methodical manner in which government security forces pushed forward, which enabled civilians to flee well in advance of troop movements. The Government, assisted by international relief organizations, continued to channel emergency food and limited medical supplies to the civilians displaced in the fighting, including those living in areas controlled by the LTTE. The security forces also continued to carry out human rights instruction as part of their training courses (see Section 4).
Nonetheless, a massacre of villagers by army troops occurred at Kumarapuram in the east (see Section l.a.). In an incident in December 1995, members of the STF in Batticaloa district in the east commandeered a civilian bus to move quickly to defend an STF camp at Pudukudiirippu that was under attack by the LTTE. They forced the civilians to remain on board, resulting in several civilian deaths when the bus came under LTTE fire. There has been no investigation into this incident.
The Government held only three LTTE cadres as prisoners of war (POW's). All were captured in previous years. In the past the number of POW's was limited by the guerrilla tactics of the LTTE, the LTTE practice to make every effort to remove wounded cadres from the battlefield before they fell prisoner, and the proclivity of LTTE cadres to choose suicide over capture. However, at year's end concern was mounting over the army's failure to report new POW's in spite of large offensives that resulted in heavy battlefield casualties for the LTTE, although there were no specific reports that POW's had been killed. Some observers were worried that a take-no-prisoners policy was in effect. The LTTE admits that it kills security force personnel rather than take them prisoner. It admits to holding only 22 security force prisoners. The LTTE is believed to have killed most of the police officers and security force personnel it has captured in recent years.
The LTTE used excessive force in the war, killing an undetermined number of civilians. It was accused of using church and temple compounds (where civilians are instructed by the Government to congregate in the event of hostilities) as shields for the storage of munitions. In the July attack on the army base at Mullaitivu, the LTTE killed upwards of 1,500 government troops, reportedly killing even those troops who attempted to surrender. During the government offensive on the Jaffna Peninsula, LTTE cadre forced some civilians to abandon their homes and retreat with them, allegedly as human shields, in the face of advancing government troops. The LTTE also reportedly recruited children into its military forces. The bodies of dead LTTE insurgents recovered by the Government following a major battle at Weli Oya in July 1995 were found to be as young as 14 years of age. Reports that the LTTE was conscripting children were impossible to verify.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, restrictions are permitted on national security grounds.
The Government controls the country's largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. However, there are also a variety of independent newspapers, journals, radio, and television stations. Independent journalists reported that from the death of United National Party (UNP) President Premadasa in 1993 until September 1995 their freedom to report openly and critically about the Government had improved markedly. They had been able to provide an unimpeded range of views and openly criticize the Government and political parties. However, from September to December 1995, and from April until October, the Government abridged press freedom. Under the ER, it subjected all news relating to the conduct of the war by the armed forces and the police to government censorship. Journalists believe that the Government's implementation of the censorship regulations was arbitrary and overly broad.
A number of other government actions during the year were also of concern to the media. The Government failed to reform the Press Law and privatize government-owned media as promised during the election campaign. Two defamation of character suits stemming from news stories filed by President Kumaratunga in 1995 against leading editors were still pending. They were viewed by journalists as frivolous, intended only to harass and intimidate the media. Journalists were also concerned about the fierce nature of political attacks on the local press by leading politicians. In August the President charged newspapers with publishing deliberate lies and threatened those that published false reports on the war effort with closure.
In an incident that called the Government's commitment to press freedom into question, four Danish journalists were detained under the ER in November. The journalists came to Sri Lanka to cover the story of a teenage Tamil girl deported from Denmark. According to the Government, their detention was necessary because of their close association with the girl, who allegedly had ties to the LTTE. The Government also claimed that they failed to register with the Department of Information and lied on their airport disembarkation cards about the purpose of their visit to Sri Lanka. After a brief detention, the four were deported. A local journalist was also arrested in connection with the incident and was scheduled to appear in court in January 1997. On December 31, in another incident, the police arrested Ishini Perera, news director of an independent television and radio company, charging her under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with broadcasting erroneous news. Most journalists regarded the use of the PTA in this matter as heavy handed harassment.
The Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act stipulates an unlimited fine or up to 2 years' imprisonment for anyone who criticizes a Member of Parliament (M.P.). Although the Government has not invoked the law since 1992, journalists and civil libertarians complain that the act is an unjustified infringement on freedom of the press.
The Government generally respects academic freedom. During 1996 the ER were not used, as in the past, to control students.
The LTTE does not tolerate freedom of expression. It tightly restricts the print and broadcast media in areas under its control and has often killed those who oppose it. The LTTE also does not respect academic freedom and has repressed and killed intellectuals who criticize it, such as Thiagarajah Selvanithy, a Jaffna poet and women's rights activist killed in 1991 for her views. In November 1995, the LTTE kidnaped a university vice chancellor; he was released in January. It has severely repressed the University Teachers for Human Rights, which was formerly based on the Jaffna Peninsula; most former members of this group have been killed.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. Although the PTA may restrict such freedoms, the Government did not use the Act for that purpose in 1996. The Government generally granted permits for demonstrations, though it banned May Day processions. In spite of this ban, the police allowed a political party supporting the Government to march on May Day, while they broke up an attempted procession by an opposition group.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution establishes Buddhism as the official national religion, but it also provides for the right of members of other faiths to practice their religions freely. The Government respects this right in practice. Foreign clergy may work in Sri Lanka, but for more than 30 years the Government has prohibited the entry of new foreign Jesuit clergy. It permits those already in the country to remain.
Evangelical Christians, who constitute less than 1 percent of the population, have expressed concern that their efforts at proselytization are often met with hostility and harassment by the local Buddhist clergy and others opposed to their work (see Section 5). They sometimes complain that the Government tacitly condones such harassment. However, there is no evidence to support this.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Constitution grants every citizen "freedom of movement and of choosing his residence" and "freedom to return to Sri Lanka." the Government generally respects the right to domestic and foreign travel. However, the war with the LTTE prompted the Government to impose more stringent checks on travelers from the north and the east and on movement in Colombo, particularly after dark. These security measures had the effect of restricting the movement of Tamils, especially young males.
Prior to the government military offensive on the Jaffna Peninsula in 1995 and 1996, an estimated 600,000 citizens had been displaced by the insurgency. Most live in camps financed by the Government and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). The Jaffna offensive, in addition to the military advance on Kilinochchi in the Vanni region in July, resulted in the displacement of 480,000 people in LTTE-controlled areas of the Vanni. Some lived with friends or relatives, or in "welfare centers" in schools, religious institutions, and other public buildings. Many others lived in makeshift shelters or camped out under trees. The Government continued to supply them with food, medicine, and other essential supplies.
Prior to 1996, the LTTE severely restricted the movement of Tamils under its control, often levying a large "exit tax" on persons wishing to travel to areas under government control and requiring travelers to leave all their property in escrow. In addition, it would usually grant permission to only one family member to travel at a time. However, following the Government capture of Jaffna, the LTTE began to allow people to move more freely into government-controlled areas. About 16,000 people are estimated to have moved out of LTTE-controlled regions into Vavuniya during the last 3 months of the year. About 6,000 persons moved on to the government-controlled Jaffna Peninsula or returned to the LTTE-controlled Vanni. The remaining 10,000 displaced persons were effectively detained under substandard conditions in camps in Vavuniya pending security clearances which had not been granted at year's end.
In response to the military action in the north, upwards of 6,000 refugees are believe to have fled LTTE-controlled areas to Tamil Nadu in southern India as of October 1. An estimated 69,000 Tamil refugees were already estimated to live in camps there. Another 100,000 refugees are believed to have been integrated into Tamil society in southern India.
The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The issue of the provision of first asylum did not arise in 1996. The Government does not permit the entry of refugees into the country, nor does it aid those who manage to enter to seek permanent residence elsewhere. There were, however, no instances of forcible repatriation.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Citizens have the constitutional right to change their Government through periodic multiparty elections based on universal adult suffrage. This right was last exercised during parliamentary elections in August 1994, when the People's Alliance party ended the 17-year rule of the United National Party, and during the presidential election in November 1994, when PA presidential candidate Chandrika Kumaratunga won 62 percent of the vote. International election monitors judged the elections to be free and fair.
Local elections for municipal, urban, and village councils, which should have been held by June under existing legislation, were postponed by the President under the ER, at least temporarily denying the people the right to change their local government bodies. The Government cited an adverse security environment. The opposition charged that the Government initiated the delay to gain political advantage. The elections were rescheduled for 1997.
In January the Government attempted to dissolve two legally elected provincial councils controlled by the opposition UNP, citing mismanagement and malfeasance. The opposition claimed that the move was politically motivated and that it denied the electorate due process. In March the Court of Appeal overturned the dissolution, stating that the Government had not acted in accordance with the law.
In November the Government announced and set in motion mechanisms to hold elections for local government bodies on the Jaffna Peninsula in early 1997.
The Commissioner of Elections recognizes 26 parties; 9 hold seats in the 225-member Parliament. The two most influential parties, the PA and the UNP, generally draw their support from the majority Sinhalese community. Historically, these two parties have alternated in power. There are 27 Tamil and 21 Muslim M.P.'s.
Although there are no legal impediments to the participation of women in politics or government, the social mores in some communities limit women's activities outside the home. In August 1994, voters elected a female prime minister for the third time in Sri Lanka's history. In November 1994, for the first time, a woman was elected president. Eleven women hold seats in the Parliament. In addition to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Transport, Environment, and Women's Affairs, four deputy ministers are women.
The LTTE refuses to allow elections in areas under its control.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
In July Parliament passed the Human Rights Commission Act, which created a permanent human rights commission. The five-member body is empowered to monitor government human rights practices, to ensure compliance with constitutional fundamental rights provisions, and to investigate complaints of human rights abuse. The legislation also provides safeguards for people detained under the PTA and ER, and gives the commission the power to monitor the welfare of detainees. Although the legislation was passed, the commission had not yet been established by year's end.
The Cabinet ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in September. The Protocol provides for the right of individual petition and permits individuals to submit complaints about governmental violations of Sri Lankan obligations under the Covenant, i.e., any citizen of Sri Lanka has the right to petition individually to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in the event that he or she has been the victim of human rights violations as set out in the Covenant, and has not received justice. As a party to the Optional Protocol, Sri Lanka is obliged to recognize the competence of the Committee to receive and adjudicate such petitioons.
There are several local human rights groups, including the Movement for Interracial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), the University Teachers for Human Rights, the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), and the Law and Society Trust (LST), which monitor civil and political liberties. There are no adverse government regulations governing the activities of local and foreign NGO's.
The Government continued to allow the ICRC unrestricted access to detention facilities. The ICRC provided human rights training materials and training to the security forces. The UNHCR, ICRC, and a variety of international NGO's assisted in the delivery of food, medical, and other essential supplies to the northern war zone. However, following the capture of the Jaffna Peninsula in April, the army seriously restricted the movement of supplies by international organizations and NGO's to LTTE-controlled areas. Restricted supplies include materials the LTTE might use in its war effort, such as surgical supplies and antibiotics, building and shelter materials, well-drilling and water purification equipment, diesel fuel and gasoline. There have also been serious delays in approving the movement of many other medical supplies into LTTE-controlled areas.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution guarantees equal rights under the law for all people in Sri Lanka. The Government generally respects these rights. The Supreme Court regularly upholds court rulings in cases in which individuals file suit over the abridgement of their fundamental civil rights.
Sexual assault, rape, and spousal abuse (often associated with alcohol) represent serious and pervasive forms of societal violence against women. However, new amendments to the Penal Code were introduced in 1995 that specifically addressed sexual abuse and exploitation. Rape laws were modified to create a more equitable burden of proof and to make punishments more stringent. Marital rape is now considered an offense in cases of spouses living under judicial separation, and new laws govern sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual molestation. While the new Penal Code may ease some of the problems faced by victims of sexual assault, many women's organizations believe that greater sensitization of police and judicial officials are also required. Laws against procuring and trafficking were strengthened in 1995, facilitating the prosecution of brothel owners. Police statistics indicated that there were 31,241 crimes against women during the period from January to June, compared with 24,766 crimes during the same period in 1995.
The Constitution provides for equal employment opportunities in the public sector, but women have no legal protection against discrimination in the private sector, where they are sometimes paid less than men for equal work and often face difficulty in rising to supervisory positions. Women constitute approximately one-half of the formal work force.
Women have equal rights under national civil and criminal law. However, issues related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated by the customary law of each ethnic or religious group. In 1995 the Government raised the minimum age of marriage for women from 12 to 18 years, except in the case of Muslims, who continue to follow their customary marriage practices. The application of different legal practices based on membership in a religious or ethnic group often results in discrimination against women.
During massacres of civilians in the east in October 1995, the LTTE raped a number of the victims. This marked the first time in the ethnic conflict that the LTTE deliberately used rape as a weapon of terror. However, such abuses was not reported in 1996.
The Government is committed to protecting the welfare and rights of children but is constrained by lack of resources.
The Government demonstrates a strong commitment to children's rights and welfare through its widespread systems of public education and medical care. Education is compulsory to the age of 12 and free through university. Health care, including immunization programs, is also free.
There is a significant problem of child prostitution in certain coastal resort areas. The Government estimates that there are more than 2,000 active child prostitutes in the country, but private groups claim that the number is much higher. Many of these prostitutes are boys who sell themselves to foreign tourists. The Penal Code was amended to strengthen punishments for trafficking of persons. In 1995 the Ministry of Media, Tourism, and Aviation created a task force specifically to study the problem of sex tourism and related offenses, but no new legislation has resulted.
During the first half of 1996, police recorded a total of 3,687 crimes (of all types) against children, an increase from 1,997 crimes in the first half of 1995. NGO's attribute the problem of exploitation of children to the lack of law enforcement rather than inadequate legislation.
Upwards of 20,600 children are known to be fully employed. Additional thousands of children are believed to be working in domestic service. There have been reports that rural children working as domestic servants in urban households--often given into service by poverty stricken parents--have been abused by their employers. Some of these children have reportedly been starved, beaten, sexually abused, and forced into prostitution. The Government does not have sufficient resources to protect these children from such exploitation (see Section 6.d.).
People with Disabilities
The law does not mandate accessibility to buildings or government services for people with disabilities. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 percent of the population is disabled. Most disabled people who are unable to work are cared for by their families. The Department of Social Services runs eight vocational training schools for the physically and mentally disabled and sponsors a program of job training and job placement for graduates. The Government provides some financial support to NGO's assisting the disabled, subsidizes prosthetic devices and other medical aids for the disabled, makes some purchases from disabled suppliers, and has registered 74 schools and training institutions for the disabled run by NGO's. In December an act of Parliament was passed forbidding discrimination against any person on the grounds of his or her disability.
The indigenous people of Sri Lanka, known as Veddas, number less than a thousand. They prefer to maintain their isolated traditional way of life and are protected by the Constitution. There are no legal restrictions on their participation in the political or economic life of the nation. However, some Veddas complain that they are being forced off their traditional land and not allowed to live according to their own culture and traditions. For the first time in 1996, Veddas were allowed by the Government to participate in the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous People in Geneva, where they were able to air their grievances.
Discrimination based on religious differences is much less common than discrimination based on ethnic group or caste. In general, the members of the various faiths tend to be tolerant of each other's religious beliefs. However, evangelical Christians have, on occasion, been harassed by Buddhist monks for their attempts to convert Buddhists to Christianity (see Section 2.c.).
In the northern part of the island, LTTE insurgents expelled some 46,000 Muslim inhabitants from their homes in 1990--virtually the entire Muslim population. The LTTE has expropriated Muslim homes, lands, and businesses and threatened Muslim families with death if they attempt to return.
There are approximately 1 million Tamils of comparatively recent Indian origin living in Sri Lanka. About 85,000 of these people do not qualify for either Indian or Sri Lankan citizenship and face discrimination, especially in the allocation of government funds for education. Without national identity cards, they are vulnerable to arrest by the security forces. However, the Government has stated that none of these people will be forced to depart the country.
Tamils maintain that they have long been the victims of systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, and in other matters controlled by the Government. However, in recent years there has been little clear evidence of overt discrimination in university enrollment or government employment, although some groups continue to assert that it exists.
In January the Government established a parliamentary select committee to consider a "devolution" package originally proposed in August 1995, which is designed to devolve wide-ranging powers to local governments, thereby providing ethnic minorities greater autonomy in governing their local affairs. The devolution proposals were still being debated at year's end.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The Government respects the constitutional right of workers to establish labor unions. Any seven workers may form a union, adopt a charter, elect leaders, and publicize their views. About 75 percent of the plantation work force is unionized. Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the nonagricultural work force (about 25 to 30 percent of the total work force) is also unionized. Most workers in large private firms are represented by unions, but those in small-scale agriculture and small businesses usually do not belong to unions.
Most large unions are affiliated with political parties and together play a prominent role in the political process. More than 30 labor unions have political affiliations, but there are also a small number of unaffiliated unions.
The Department of Labor registered 96 new unions and canceled the registration of 12 others. The Department of Labor is authorized by law to cancel the registration of any union that does not submit an annual report. That requirement is the only legal grounds for cancellation of registration.
All workers, other than civil servants and workers in "essential" services, have the right to strike. By law, workers may also lodge complaints with the Commissioner of Labor, a labor tribunal, or the Supreme Court to protect their rights. Before September 1994, the Government controlled strikes by declaring some industries to be essential under the ER. Subsequently, this practice largely ceased. However, the President retains the power to designate any industry as an essential service. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has pointed out to the Government that essential services should be limited to services where an interruption would endanger the life, personal safety, or health of the population.
Civil servants may collectively submit labor grievances to the Public Service Commission but have no legal grounds to strike. Nonetheless, government workers in the transportation, telecommunication, and ports sectors have staged brief strikes and other work actions in past years. In May government power sector workers walked out. The President declared the government-run power sector to be an essential service and ordered the workers back to work to end a 3-day nationwide power outage. During 1996 there were 187 strikes.
The law prohibits retribution against strikers in nonessential sectors. Employers may dismiss workers only for insubordination. Incompetence or low productivity are not grounds for dismissal.
Unions are free to affiliate with international bodies and many of them have done so.
In September 1995 the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training released a "workers' charter" designed to provide a basis for legislation to strengthen worker rights. The proposed charter consolidates existing labor legislation and reaffirms the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. It also proposes new amendments to the Labor Law that would guarantee the right of workers to join unions, ensure that employers recognize and bargain with unions, establish a national wages commission to review minimum wages in all industries, ensure that all workers are covered under relevant labor laws, and establish a social security scheme. It is opposed by business leaders, largely because of the provisions that compel management to recognize all unions, collect union dues, and pay above-market wages. The charter had not become law by year's end.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law provides for the right to collective bargaining, and it is widely practiced. Large firms may have employees in as many as 60 different unions. In enterprises that do not have unions, including those in the Export Processing Zones (EPZ's), work councils--composed of employees, employers, and often a public sector representative--are often the forums for labor/management negotiation. However, the councils are not mandatory outside the EPZ's and do not have the power to negotiate binding contracts.
The law currently does not require management to recognize or bargain with unions, and in some cases, employers have declined to recognize the unions in their factories. However, the law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Employers found guilty of such discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities but have the right to transfer them to different locations.
There are 95,464 workers employed in the EPZ's. Under the law, workers in the EPZ's have the same rights to join unions as other workers. However, few if any unions have been formed, in part because employers in the EPZ's offer higher wages and better working conditions. In the past, there have been allegations that the Government's Board of Investment (BOI), which manages the EPZ's, has discouraged union activity. Work councils in the EPZ's are chaired by the BOI and consist of equal delegations from labor and management.
In most instances, wage boards establish minimum wages and conditions of employment, except in the EPZ's, where wages and work conditions are set by the BOI.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law and is almost nonexistent. However, according to some reports, a few rural children are employed in debt bondage as domestic servants in urban households. The Government does not have sufficient resources to protect these children from such exploitation.
The LTTE continues to conscript high-school age children for work as cooks, messengers, and clerks, and in some cases, building fortifications. Children as young as 10 are said to be recruited and placed for 2 to 4 years in special schools that provide them with a mixture of LTTE ideology and formal education.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The minimum age for employment is 15 years of age. However, the law permits the employment of younger children by their parents or guardians in limited agricultural work. It also permits employment in any school or institution for training purposes.
Persons under the age of 16 may not be employed in any public enterprise in which life or limb is endangered. Children are not employed in the EPZ's, the plantations, the garment industry, or any other export industry. About 85 percent of children below the age of 16 attend school. The law provides that the employment of such persons is permitted for not more than 1 hour on any day before school.
Despite legislation, some child labor still exists. A 1995 labor department survey found that 20,600 children between the ages of 10 and 14 were fully employed. This included 13,700 males and 6,900 females. Additional thousands of children were believed to be employed in domestic service, though this situation was undocumented. A significant portion of employed children work outside their families. In addition to domestic service, regular employment of children occurs mainly in the informal sector and in family enterprises such as family farms, crafts, small trade establishments, eating houses, and repair shops. Children are also involved in the manufacture of coconut fiber products, fishing, wrapping tobacco, street trading, domestic service, and farming. Government inspections have been unable to eliminate these forms of child labor (see Section 5.).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Department of Labor effectively enforces the minimum wage law. While there is no universal national minimum wage, some 38 wage boards set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry. According to the Statistics Department of the Labor Ministry, current minimum wage rates average $36 (2,000 rupees) per month in industry, commerce, and the service sector; and $1.40 (75 rupees) per day in agriculture. The minimum wage in the garment industry is $36 (2,000 rupees) per month. These minimum wages are insufficient to support a worker and the standard family of five, but the vast majority of families have more than one breadwinner.
Most permanent full-time workers are covered by laws that prohibit them from working regularly more than 45 hours per week (a 5 1/2 day workweek). Such workers also receive 14 days of annual leave, 14 to 21 days of medical leave, and some 20 local holidays each year. Maternity leave is available for permanent and casual female workers. Employers must contribute 12 percent of a worker's wage to an employee's provident fund and 3 percent to an employee's trust fund. Employers who fail to comply may be fined.
Several laws protect the safety and health of industrial workers. However, the Department of Labor's small staff of inspectors is inadequate to enforce compliance with the laws. Workers have the statutory right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health, but many workers are unaware of, or indifferent to, health risks