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Sri Lanka tightens grip on media and civil society

Sri Lanka tightens grip on media and civil society

2010 Nov 11

 civil society Human Rights Watch international justice media freedom sri lanka tamil tigers truth commission
Colombo is limiting democracy and open debate by tightening its control on media and aid workers, rights group Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Foreign and local aid workers in Sri Lanka has been ordered to register with the powerful defence ministry on Wednesday. The 250 international and some 1,000 domestic aid agencies working in Sri Lanka would now have to obtain approval from the defence ministry following a change in the law.

Meanwhile, the BBC Colombo correspondent Charles Haviland said on Thursday that he has been denied access to attend public hearings of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in Jaffna.

Jaffna is situated in the northern part of the country, which was the stronghold of the rebel Tamil Tigers who fought a bloody civil war against the government for almost four decades. “The defence ministry is clearly keeping very tight control over the northern areas,” Haviland says.

“This is very worrisome,” HRW’s South Asia researcher Tej Thapa commented on these latest developments. “The Sri Lankan government seems to be limiting any kind of open democracy and debate.”

Sri Lankan authorities have long been suspicious of international and local non-government organizations, which were sometimes seen as sympathising with the Tamil Tigers. The conflict ended in May last year when the rebels were wiped out in a military campaign that has since been plagued by allegations of war crimes, which the government denies.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa established the LLRC in May 2010 in an apparent attempt to deflect calls for an international investigation into the alleged war violations. International parties, including the United Nations, have called for an independent probe into the allegations.

Last month, human rights organizations HRW, the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International said they refused to testify in front of the commission, saying it did not meet minimum international standards. They said the LLRC lacks mandate, credibility and independence and is proceeding against a backdrop of government failure to address impunity and continuing human rights abuses.

Rajapaksa dismissed the criticism as "colonial."

HRW’s Thapa, speaking from The Hague, said that she sees a “serious widening of control” by the government, adding that she expects “it’s going to continue for a while.”

Thapa particularly expressed concern over the fate of the thousands of former Tamil Tiger combatants who are under detention. “The ICRC (International Committee for the Red Cross) has had very limited access to these detainees. We don’t know under what conditions these people are being held.”

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