Over two months on from the disturbance at Jaffna University we understand two of the students arrested are still in detention. And so we thought now would be a good time to re-tell the story, and ask for your help securing their release.
Over three and a half years since the conclusion of the Sri Lankan Civil War, civilians in Northern Sri Lanka continue to face stringent restrictions on their right to freely assemble, express opinions and practice religion.
On 27th November 2012, students from the University of Jaffna were once again prevented from undertaking the annual observance of “Martyrs/Heroes Day” (or, Maaveerar Naal) – a remembrance event first initiated by the Tamil Tigers. This coincided with the appearance of “well-produced pro-Tiger posters” “in various parts of the formerly Tiger-held territory”.
Military forces proceeded to storm the University of Jaffna’s male and female student hostels in order to prevent any commemorations – typically observed with the lighting of oil lamps – from taking place Commemorations were interrupted in the female hostel and lamps were extinguished. Intimidation of female students “by putting guns to their head, threatening to shoot” is also reported to have taken place, resulting in some students fainting out of fear and shock.
Moreover, whilst attempting to cover the raids by taking photographs, the editor of the local Uthayan newspaper was assaulted by a senior policeman in civilian dress. The assault was only stopped following the intervention of a local MP.
On the 28th November 2012, students from the University of Jaffna responded with a silent protest within the University grounds before attempting to leave for a short protest march whilst holding placards condemning the restrictions placed on their freedom of expression. The planned route would have taken them outside the university grounds, approximately 100 meters along the main road before re-entering the university at another entrance.
However, on attempting leave the university grounds, the unarmed students were baton charged by the Riot Police Unit. Reports from both Sri Lankan and International media seem to indicate that some students were beaten. Whilst the military maintain that it had acted to restrain stone-throwing youths, university staff contest that the security forces initiated the violence by baton charging the students and only after that were stones thrown.
On 1st December, four students were arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) and taken to Vavuniya, before being transferred to the Welikanda military camp, which became notorious for torture following the conclusion of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. The camp currently holds around 600 ex-LTTE cadres; and it is feared that the students will suffer mistreatment, or torture in the course of their interrogation.
Moreover, reports also indicate that the practice of religion was also curtailed. In 2012, the Hindu religious holiday celebrating the festival of lights (Karthikai Deepam) also fell on the 27th November and is celebrated with the lighting of oil lamps. Despite publicized assurances from the Deputy Inspector General for Jaffna, that the Hindu religious festival could be celebrated with the lighting of oil lamps and religious activities could occur without interference, reports indicate the opposite occurred. Not only were oil lamps lit by locals of Jaffna extinguished, reports indicate the interference & curtailing of religious services by the security forces in smaller towns surrounding Jaffna, and further a field in Kilinochchi & Mannar with Christian Mass services also being subject to interference.
Such is the concern for the welfare of the four arrested students and more generally of the prevailing human rights situation in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International has issued an Urgent Action notice calling on its members to send appeals to the relevant authorities including the Inspector General of Police, Defence Secretary and the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission.
The four students in question were P. Tharshananth (Secretary of the Jaffna University Students’ Union) Sanmugam Solaman (a Science Faculty Student Union member) Kanesamoorthy Sutharsan (a medical student), and K. Jenemajeyamenan (President of the Arts Faculty Student Union).
Two students were subsequently released, but there is little clarity as to what is to happen to the remaining two students in detention – who have now been held by the military for months without charge.