Sri Lanka: Ruki Fernando
September 4, 2014, 10:19 am

Rukshan Fernando

Ruki Fernando is from Sri Lanka and has been working on various human rights and social justice issues since 1997. He has worked with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) as coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders Department. In early 2007, he moved back to Sri Lanka while the war and attacks on human rights defenders was intensifying. Since then he has been at the forefront of defending human rights in Sri Lanka, particularly in war affected areas. He has been working with local organizations such as the Law & Society Trust; INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre as well as Rights Now– Collective for Democracy.

Restrictive laws: Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in Sri Lanka

The PTA was signed into law in 1979, and has remained in force despite the 2011 lifting of emergency rule in Sri Lanka. The law is set in very broad terms, which makes its application in a wide variety of contexts easy: it allows for arrest for “unlawful activities” without a warrant and permits detention for 18 months without laying charges or bringing the suspect before a court. The law also grants immunity to government officials who have committed illegal acts such as torture as long as they have acted “in good faith,” or in “pursuance of any order made or direction given under this Act.”

In 2013, the Report (A/HRC/22/38) of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out that many provisions of the PTA curtail key human rights, particularly related to due process.

Since 2007 his work has largely centered on monitoring human rights abuses related to the conflict in the North and East of Sri Lanka. He has been publicizing human rights violations through various means of communication – through his writings, interviews, by formal reports and also providing information to other organizations and journalists. Ruki is also directly involved in lobbying and advocacy with government ministers and officials, diplomats, UN staff and other experts. In addition, he has worked closely with victims of human rights abuses and their families, supporting them in their struggles for justice.

His direct involvement with victims of human rights abuses and other human rights defenders has put him at risk. On one occasion, he briefly had to leave his own country due to harassment and intimidation by the Sri Lankan government.

Human rights violations: Enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka

“Some men arrive. They force their way into a family’s home, rich or poor, house, hovel or hut, in a city or in a village, anywhere. They come at any time of the day or night, usually in plain clothes, sometimes in uniform, always carrying weapons. Giving no reasons, producing no arrest warrant, frequently without saying who they are or on whose authority they are acting, they drag off one or more members of the family towards a car, using violence in the process if necessary”.
By International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, UN

This is often the first act in the drama of an enforced disappearance, a particularly heinous violation of human rights and an international crime. Enforced disappearance is often used as a strategy to spread terror within a society. It occurs when people are arrested, detained or abducted against their will and when governments refuse to disclose the whereabouts of these people.

In Sri Lanka, human rights NGOs and many families of disappeared persons have submitted complaints to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. The Working Group, which is the leading global authority on the subject, has received the 2nd largest number of complaints in its 33 year old history from Sri Lanka – 12,473 cases reported and 5,676 unsolved (as of August 2013).

The most recent case of harassment happened on 16 March 2014 in Kilinochchi, Northern Sri Lanka. He was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) even though he has no criminal or terrorist links. He was held at Kilinochchi police station along with other human rights defender. While he has been only standing up for victims of human rights violations, the Sri Lankan government falsely accused him of “creating instability among communities, promotion of separatism, and spreading ‘false’ information about Sri Lanka”.

His arrest immediately drew the attention of international human rights communities as well as diplomats and academics around the world. (Please see the press release on Ruki’s arrest by FORUM-ASIA along with Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch). There was also an international campaign calling for the Sri Lankan government to release Ruki immediately through online and off line communications. Collective efforts from around the world contributed to his release on 19 March on the condition not to speak to any international media or other human rights groups abroad.

Like many defenders, Ruki is often harassed, placed under surveillance and restricted in his travel due to his work to promote and protect human rights. This is the reason why human rights defenders like Ruki need support and protection.

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For more information about human rights defenders, please see this document, known as the UN Declaration on human rights defenders.