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An Attempt to Intimidate? Sri Lanka Releases Human Rights Activists

Categories: South Asia, Sri Lanka, Citizen Media, Human Rights, Law, War & Conflict
Screenshot of Ruki Fernando from an interview with Vikalpa.org [1]

Screenshot of Ruki Fernando from an interview on YouTube with Vikalpa.org

A little more than two days after the terrorist unit of Sri Lanka's police arrested two human rights activists and drew international condemnation, the pair was released.  

Ruki Fernando, human rights adviser to NGO Reform, and Praveen Mahesan, a Catholic priest, were detained [2] March 16, 2014 and accused [3] of selling information abroad, attempting to damage the national harmony between communities, and aiding and abetting the rebuilding of the Tamil Tigers [4], a militant separatist in the north and a principal player in the island's decades-long civil war.  

Blogger D. B. S. Jeyaraj [5] wrote that “both were in good health and had not been bodily harmed during detention and interrogation.”

Some speculated that the pair's arrests were an attempt to intimidate human rights defenders. Fernando himself told news network CNN [6] in an interview that he was asked who he was sharing information with outside of Sri Lanka. “It seemed very clear they took great care for other nations not to hear any alternative information or perspectives from within Sri Lanka,” he said. 

Sri Lankan born novelist Roma Tearne [7] remembers conversations with Ruki:

Ruki talked of the people in Sri Lanka who desperately needed his help. There was the widow whose cartoonist husband had vanished because of his work. And her children, deeply traumatised by their father's disappearance. There were the men and women who were gang raped, and tortured, the people who had lost loved ones simply because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tamil people, Sinhalese people, Muslims, anyone really, who spoke of Human Right's Abuse going on in Sri Lanka.

The arrests come as a resolution sponsored by the US, UK and other countries calling for an independent international investigation into war crimes during the civil war [8], which ended in 2009, as well as any government abuses afterward is expected to be tabled in the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka has faced accusations before of silencing critics at home of its alleged human rights records related to its civil war.

After his release, Fernando said [9] that he still fears for the safety of himself and other human rights defenders.

At the time, Fernando and Mahesan's detention sparked widespread condemnation in Sri Lanka and abroad. Fred Carver, the campaign director at the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, told University of York's student newspaper [10] Nouse about their alumnus Fernando:

Ruki and Fr. Praveen have worked tirelessly to combat extremism and build a more tolerant Sri Lanka. It is bitterly unfair that they should be charged with promoting ethnic discord.

Ruki, as one of the Sinhalese activists most ready to take up the cause of Tamil victims, and Fr. Praveen, a half-Sinhalese, half-Tamil activist for intercultural understanding, do the exact opposite. And the idea that they, renowned campaigners for peace, could have any links to terrorism is patently absurd.

Activist Prabu Deepan [11] questioned the charges against the two:

Mohamed Hisham from Colombo was worried:

Netizens also noted that another human rights defender, Balendran Jayakumari, and her 13-year-old daughter who were arrested at their Killinochchi home [16] in northern Sri Lanka on March 13, are yet to be released.