A key suspect held in connection with the the abduction and killing of human rights defender Pattani Razeek was released last week during a hearing at the Polonnaruwa Magistrate courts. Forum Asia have released a statement condemning the decision.
Pattani Razeek was a human rights defender and a leading member of a number of regional NGO networks. He was the managing trustee of the Community Trust Fund and an executive committee member of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development. He disappeared on February 11 2010, near a mosque in Polonaruwa, in the north central province of Sri Lanka.
A well known member within the community, his abduction and discovery of his body caused widespread anger and grief. On the day of his funeral, shops were closed in Puttalam and other nearby towns, with black and white flags displayed throughout the town and banners condemning his abduction. About 5,000- 7,000 people attended the funeral.
During the period of his disappearance, his family and colleagues received calls demanding a ransom of Rs.20 million be paid, and they received a parcel containing items such as Mr. Razeek’s spectacles, keys, watch and driving license..
For over a year following Razeek’s disappearance the police made little progress in investigating the case, despite several leads, while Community Trust Fund members and Muslim community leaders faced threats to drop the case into his abduction.
Amid calls from international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights division, Observatory to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Amnesty International, in July 2011,a glimmer of hope appeared a year later when the chief suspect, Shahadbeen Nowshaadh, was arrested despite being identified by police a year earlier, in May/June 2010. Nowshaadh is a former CTF employee, who police linked to Razeek’s disappearance through phone calls. Mushdeen, the second suspect, was arrested a few days after Nowshaadh’s arrest.
The information they provided led to the discovery of Razeek’s body, and its subsequent exhumation. The body was found inside a half built abandoned house belonging to Mushdeen’s aunt. It had been wrapped in a sheet and buried 4 and a half feet deep in a pit.
However, after this flurry of activity, proceedings on the case halted again. For several months the police failed to submit a post mortem report on the case, while the lawyer for Razeek’s family was not given access to the report.
Last week, Nawshaad was released during a hearing at the Polonnaruwa Magistrate courts, and Musdeen is out on bail.
It is not clear whether the Police asked to release Nawshaad or whether the order had come from Attorney General’s department.
Razeek’s family and the Puttalam Mosque committee suspect that Nawshaad may have been released because of influence from Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, who at the time headed the Resettlement Ministry, and with whom Nawshaad had admitted to be being closely associated with. Rishard Bathiudeen has been in the news recently for allegedly leading an assault on a courthouse.
Furthermore, human rights groups point out that there has been a failure to properly investigate the role of Mustafa Nihamath, a former CTF Trustee General, who is currently employed the World Food Program in Colombo. Riskhan, Razeek’s son, had written a statement in which he stated that he believed Nihamath to be responsible for his father’s killing. The Community Trust Fund was taken over by the Defence Ministry in June 2011, and human rights group believe the CTF inquiry and subsequent takeover are not independent of Mr. Razeek’s case.
At an inquiry in September 2011, the family was informed that there was insufficient evident to arrest or question Nihamath in connection withRazeek’s abduction and killing, stating that several witnesses put forward by the family had refused to make statements to the police. Yet Riskhan told the police that CTF staff had not been questioned by the police despite their willingness to make statements. At Razeek’s funeral, thousands of people chanted slogans calling for the arrest of Bathiudeen and Nihamath.
There have been attempts to divert attention from key issues related to Razeek’s killing through anonymous emails and documents sent to local and international groups, alleging that Razeek and the CTF were corrupt and questioning whether he was a human rights defender. In October 2010, SRM Irshad, parliamentary secretary to MP Bathiudeen, made a public statement accusing Razeek of being an intermediary through whom funds were transferred to the LTTE during the war. It was at this speech that he claimed that Razeek was being held in custody of the Ministry of Defence, but the claim was not investigated.
The release of this key suspect last week highlights the recurring themes in Sri Lankan law and order – impunity, corruption and intimidation – and show that very little has changed since Razeek was taken away in one of Sri Lanka’s now notorious ‘white vans’ two years ago.
Yet, the case is one of the few examples of disappearances where there is actually credible to convict criminals, because of the arrest of key suspects and the discovery of the body. Yet police and state reluctance to properly carry out procedures have cast a shadow over this process, making it increasingly difficult to uncover the truth of what happened to Razeek, and making it more probable that the state was involved in the abduction.
Razeek’s case mirrors the plight of thousands of disappearances that have not been investigated, from high profile human rights defenders and journalists such as Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda , to ordinary civilians whose family are unlikely to ever know their fate.
Despite a semblance of normality that Sri Lanka is trying to portray to the world and to its burgeoning number of tourists, little has changed within it.