14 Nov 2013

Who are Sri Lanka’s disappeared?

Sri Lanka’s civil war is officially over, but people are still being “disappeared” – vanishing without a trace, often, allegedly, in the state’s unmarked white vans.

After Iraq, Sri Lanka has the highest number of enforced disappearances in the world, the United Nations has said.

The latest report from the UN’s working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, set up in 1980, says that there are 5,676 outstanding cases of enforced disappearances, though the actual number of disappeared could be much higher.

The majority of cases date back to Sri Lanka’s civil war between the government and the LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, which ended in 2009. However, enforced disappearances in the country continue to be reported.

Amnesty International said that during 2012 there were reports of more than 20 alleged enforced disappearances. Victims included political activists, business people and suspected criminals.

White vans

On Thursday night, Channel 4 News will air a documentary, White Van Stories, which explores the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and the fear it instils in the population.

Leena Manimekalai, director of White Vans, said there is “absolutely no news” of people ever returning once they have been “disappeared.”

The families of the disappeared face the torture of “not knowing” what has happened to their loved ones – and also further alleged harassment from the state.

Disappearances have been a feature of Sri Lankan life since the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency of the 1980s – when many young Sinhalese men were allegedly abducted.

The practice continued during the Sri Lankan civil war, and has been attributed to both government forces and the Tamil Tigers.

The Sri Lankan government consistently denies any allegations of war crimes or human rights abuses.

The disappeared

Sri Lanka's disappeared: Prageeth Eknaligoda (picture: Getty)

Prageeth Eknaligoda

The journalist and cartoonist disappeared whilst going home from his office on 24 January 2010 near Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. The alleged abduction took place two days before Sri Lanka’s presidential elections. Eknaligoda worked for a website that supported the opposition candidate to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Local residents reported seeing a white van without number plates close to his house around this time.

Sivasooriyakumar Sanaraj

A 15-year-old Tamil boy went missing after leaving home in the morning on 13 June, 2013, in northern Sri Lanka to go to school. His aunt went to the local police to file a report, but the police refused to take the case seriously.

Around midnight on 28 June, a family friend was waiting at a bus stop and saw an auto-rickshaw drive by carrying three men and a young boy in the back with his hands tied behind his back. He called Sanaraj’s father to meet him and together they waited for the rickshaw to return. A little while later it did, but it was carrying only one of the men. The auto-rickshaw stopped, dropped the man off and left.

The family friend and Sanaraj’s father grabbed the man and took him to the police. On the way to the station, the man boasted of his connections to senior police officials. The police turned them all away, saying it was too late at night for them to deal with the matter.

The family friend and Sanaraj’s father questioned the man themselves; the man described the boy as having a red scar on his ear and lip, just like Sanaraj.

Despite having identified this man as a suspected abductor, the police have not called him in for questioning and have failed to conduct any investigation to date.

Sri Lanka's disappeared: Lalith Weeraraja and Kugan Muruganandan (picture: Getty)

Lalith Weeraraja and Kugan Muruganandan

Weeraraja and Muruganandan were allegedly arrested by members of the Sri Lankan army on 9 December 2011.

Weeraraja was the coordinator of the Jana Aragalaya (People’s Struggle) movement in the northern city of Jaffna, and was an executive committee member of We Are Sri Lankans, a student-based organisation which works to defend the rights of Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

In the past, Weeraraja had been threatened several times by the army and police in relation to his protests against enforced disappearances and illegal detention, and had been taken into military custody in early 2011 where he was allegedly threatened and interrogated.

Ramasamy Prabaharan

A Tamil businessman of Indian origin, Prabaharan was allegedly abducted by seven men in civilian clothing, thought to be security forces agents, in February 2012.

He was reported to have been grabbed around the neck by the men, who were hiding at his home, and thrown into the back of a white van.

It has been reported that at the time of his alleged abduction, Prabaharan had filed a case against the police in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka for alleged torture and unlawful arrest. He had been detained by police between May 2009 and September 2011 on suspicion of being a member of the Tamil Tigers.

Vasanthamala Pathmanathan

The woman was allegedly arrested at a bank near Vavuniya, in Sri Lanka’s northern province, by agents of the feared Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police on 21 August 2012.

Watch an exclusive preview clip of White Van Stories, below. The documentary will be shown on Thursday night, at seven, on 4.