Tamil political prisoners languishing in Colombo prisons–release them now!

Demonstration in London in January 2009 against the Sri Lankan army massacre of Tamil civilians
Demonstration in London in January 2009 against the Sri Lankan army massacre of Tamil civilians

ALMOST none of the 230 Tamil political prisoners currently languishing inside Colombo prisons had command responsibilities in the Tamil Tigers or even contributed to the ‘crimes’ they are accused of.

So insists Tamil political prisoner Jeneevan Sivarasa, who was released after being ‘pardoned’ by Sri Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena on January 8th. Most of those already detained for decades and those given prison terms beyond the scope of their lifetimes, are all innocent, like AG Perarivalan of Tamil Nadu, Sivarasa declared.

The day after his release, the 36-year-old Tamil political prisoner paid a visit to the family of 18-year-old Senthuran Rajeswaran, who sacrificed himself by jumping in front of a speeding Sri Lankan train on 26 November to demand Sri Lankan President Sirisena releases all Tamil political prisoners.

The continued imprisonment of these people constitutes a crime against humanity, Sivarasa told TamilNet in a video interview this week. There are no former LTTE (Tamil Tigers) people with command responsibility among these prisoners as the Sinhala media claims, he added.

Almost all of them have been forced to sign false confessions written in Sinhala not their own language Tamil, he said. Sivarasa is the only prisoner to be released, and that is only due to a PR campaign launched by Maithiripala Sirisena to conclude one year of his presidential term.

The SL military intelligence was behind three cases against Sivarasa, two of which were fabricated cases of conspiracy to assassinate Maithiripala Sirisena, then an SLFP politician, in 2006. ‘These were far-fetched. I was arrested while I was travelling in a bus,’ said Sivarasa.

‘I didn’t have any explosive material as the false convictions produced in an unknown language to me at the time of the so-called confessions claimed. I didn’t know Sinhala at that time but I was forced to sign the papers. Similarly, almost all the political prisoners I have met inside prison have been detained indefinitely for years or decades without any concrete evidence.

‘Even those who were given prison terms beyond the scope of their lifetime – like 300 years jail – by the SL courts, had no connection to these “crimes”. They are all innocent’ Sivarasa said. The other case against him under investigation in Jaffna was about receiving armed training from the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).

However, Jeneevan Sivarasa didn’t wish to comment on this ‘crime’ for which he has been given presidential pardon. He stressed that commenting on the false accusation on which the pardon was based would be detrimental to the possible release of other prisoners facing the same charges so he didn’t wish to go into details.

‘Nobody among those sitting behind bars had command responsibility in the LTTE. Those who did have command responsibility are those like Karuna, Pillayaan and KP who are outside prison,’ he added, urging Tamil politicians and activists to step up the campaign to release all the political prisoners.

‘There should be a principled and collective decision to release them all,’ he said.

While rights groups highlight the continued torture and rapes of Tamils, even after President Sirisena came to power, the 217 political prisoners languishing in Sri Lanka’s high security jails expose another dark side of the country’s failed criminal justice system.

The predicament of Valayuthan Varatharajan from Karava’nai South, Karaveddi, who had been on remand for nearly 16 years in the New Magazine Prison but was hurriedly given a sentence for ‘conspiring to carry out a suicide attack’ on the then President Kumaratunge – a verdict given just three days before a UN resolution on Sri Lanka was passed on the 25th of September 2015, highlights Sri Lanka’s judicial bankruptcy, legal sources in Colombo said.

The main evidence the prosecution was able to assemble against Varatharajan was a coerced confession signed in the Sinhala language by the defendant, they said. The Colombo legal sources added that currently there are 217 Tamil political prisoners either serving sentences or on remand awaiting cases to complete or to be filed.

Of these, 46 are serving short sentences of two to three years after accepting a guilty plea, mainly due to lack of financial resources to continue to defend themselves in the court of law. Fourteen are serving 20 years or more, with cases pending appeals to a higher court. Tamil prisoners have been on hunger strike demanding early release.

Promises made by the Sinhala politicians to expedite justice and/or allow early release have not been kept, and the prisoners say that they will continue their struggle. Besides Varatharajan’s own ‘confession’, there was hardly any other evidence to convict him, his relatives said.

According to informed sources the 231 witnesses and 73 exhibits presented by the Attorney General for this case are too remote from the crime to even legally qualify as material evidence. The overwhelming majority of the Tamil prisoners were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), with judicial evidence standards for arrest lower than even ‘reason to believe’ watchdogs observing Sri Lanka’s judicial process said.

Police arrested 15 suspects in an overnight sweep after the December 18, 1999 attack on the then Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunge. Varatharajan, Sakthivel Ilangeswaran, Chandra Iyer Ragupathy Sarma (a priest), and Vasanthi Ragupathy (wife of the priest) were among those arrested in the sweep and in the ensuing days.

Sakthivel is already serving a 30-year sentence after accepting a guilty-plea, believing he would be given a smaller sentence. Vasanthi was acquitted. Colombo High Court Judge Padmini Gunathilaka sentenced V Varadaraja and Ragupathy Sarma to ‘290-to 300-years Rigorous Imprisonment to be served in 30-years’.

The Court refused to consider the nearly 16-years already served in prison in reducing the final sentences. Although Sri Lanka has ratified core international human rights instruments, including the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of all forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the judicial system has failed to uphold basic equality in dealing with Tamil defendants.

This has created a two-tier justice system, one for Sinhalese and another for Tamils, Tamil legal sources in Colombo said. The UK-based International Bar Association (IBA) has noted that ‘the judiciary is currently vulnerable to two types of political influence, from the Government and from the Chief Justice himself. The extent and type of influence oscillates between the two and depends on the relationship between the Chief Justice and the Government,’ IBA said in its Sri Lanka report.