Monday, January 7, 2008

Sri Lanka court limits arrests as rights concerns mount

COLOMBO (AFP) — Sri Lanka's Supreme Court slapped restrictions on search and arrests by security forces amid mounting international concern over the country's human rights record.

Chief Justice Sarath Silva ordered authorities halt the night-time operations where areas are sealed off and searched after human rights groups accused authorities of harassing and intimidating residents.

The order came after international human rights groups expressed concern about civilian safety and threats to civil liberties after the government announced it was formally quitting a truce with Tamil Tiger rebels next week.

Monday's ruling marked the first time the court has intervened to impose limits on military action in carrying out the cordon-and-search operations, court officials said.

Last week the London-based Minority Rights Group International said Colombo's decision to withdraw from the ceasefire deal would result in more violence and rights abuses against minority Tamils and Muslims.

"There is now going to be a greater void in the monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses in the conflict zone," Minority Rights Group's director Mark Lattimer said at the weekend.

The court also ordered the swift release of 198 people rounded up by police last Sunday as it screened 75,000 people entering Colombo, a city of 650,000 people.

"The court ordered police to release the suspects at the earliest," a court official said. "The police were also told there should be no night-time search operations in neighbourhoods unless there are extraordinary reasons.

"The authorities were also told there should be at least one police officer when the army conducts search operations."

Sri Lanka has been under emergency rule since December 2006 when president Mahinda Rajapakse's defence secretary brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse survived a suicide bomb attack blamed on Tamil Tigers.

The emergency gives sweeping powers to security forces to arrest and detain suspects for long periods without trial in a country where fighting has been escalating between the rebels and government forces.

Meanwhile, fighting along northern frontlines left at least 25 rebels and government troops dead, the defence ministry said, as peace monitors began winding down operations before the 2002 Norwegian brokered-truce ends on January 16.

In a series of attacks across the island's north, the military said it killed 22 Tamil Tiger rebels, losing three soldiers in the past 24 hours that ended on Monday afternoon .

According to government figures, 95 rebels and six soldiers have died in fighting since the start of the month. Independent verification of casualty figures is not possible as journalists are not allowed into rebel-held areas. Both sides are known to make sharply varying casualty claims.

The Supreme Court issued its order while hearing a petition filed by a minority Tamil political party against mass arrests last month in Colombo.

In June, authorities evicted 400 minority Tamils from low-budget hostels in Colombo and took them to the troubled northern and eastern regions where Tamils are concentrated in the majority Sinhalese nation.

The expulsion was internationally condemned.

Rights groups have said the arrests were a "collective punishment" for minority Tamils for attacks by Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for an independent homeland in the island.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the 35-year-old conflict, one of Asia's longest-running wars.