We write this letter expressing our deep concern about the arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders Mr. Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesh. We are troubled they might face trumped up charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which allows for them to be held for up to 18 months without trial. We demand that they are immediately released and that they are not subjected to any further harassment.
Mr. Fernando is one of Sri Lanka’s leading human rights defenders, working on disappearances, freedom of expression, attacks on human rights defenders, land grabbing and the rights of displaced and resettled people. Father Praveen is a Catholic reverend and former Director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation (CPR), a church-affiliated organization in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, whose stated focus is mending Sri Lankan society in the aftermath of the civil war. Both Mr. Fernando and Father Praveen have worked tirelessly to build a just and tolerant Sri Lanka and combat extremism. They have no criminal or terrorist links, only a track record of standing up for victims of human rights violations.
On 16 March, Mr. Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesh were detained and questioned by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) in Kilinochchi. Their detention comes on the heels of the arrest of human rights defender Ms. Balendran Jayakumari and her 13-year-old daughter, Vithuskaini, who have been campaigning against enforced disappearances. Mr. Fernando and Father Praveen were on a fact-finding mission on this very case when they were detained. They were questioned separately for over three hours by around fifteen officers of the TID. Lawyers acting on their behalf were given contradictory information about the reasons for their detention. On 17 March, Mr. Fernando and Father Praveen were transferred to Colombo and are held by the TID. Family members and lawyers have to apply for permission to visit them.
We urge the Sri Lankan government to accord Mr. Fernando and Father Praveen their full rights while in detention. Under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Sri Lanka is a state party, persons who are detained under the law must be promptly informed of the reasons for their detention, be given prompt and regular access to lawyers and be promptly brought before a judge or judicial officer.
We are deeply concerned about the safety of Mr. Ruki Fernando, Father Praveen and Ms. Balendran Jayakumari as they face particular vulnerability and risk of further harassment under extended periods of custody.
Therefore, we call on your government to:
1. Take immediate action to release Mr. Ruki Fernando, Father Praveen and Ms. Balendran Jayakumari unconditionally;
2. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. Ruki Fernando, Father Praveen and Ms. Balendran Jayakumari as well as of all human rights defenders in Sri Lanka;
3. Refrain from any kind of harassment against Mr. Ruki Fernando, Father Praveen and Ms. Balendran Jayakumari and against all human rights defenders in Sri Lanka; and
4. Ensure in all circumstances an enabling legal and safe environment for all human rights defenders in the country to carry out their legitimate work without any hindrance and fear of reprisals.
We respectfully thank you for your consideration and express our sincere hope that your Excellency will take these recommendations into account.