Human Rights Under Spotlight In Sri Lanka

Human rights violations continue in Sri Lanka despite the end of the war: 250,000 Tamils are still incarcerated. In the last week, a journalist has been jailed for 20 years of hard labor, a U.N. official has been expelled for criticizing the government, and a dispute has broken out over TV footage broadcast on television that purports to show a Sri Lankan soldier executing Tamils.

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When the civil war ended in Sri Lanka, many in the world exhaled in relief. They hoped the Indian Ocean island would move towards harmony, peace and prosperity, but the aftermath of the conflict is proving difficult. NPR's Philip Reeves is following developments there and here is his report.

PHILIP REEVES: It's nearly four months since Sri Lankan government forces finally crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels and wiped out their leaders. That victory ended an ethnic war that dragged on over three decades, claiming more than 80,000 lives. But it did not end the tensions within the island. Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council, an independent non-governmental group, says Sri Lanka is still grappling with the conflict's legacy of mistrust and fear.

Mr. JEHAN PERERA (National Peace Council): This fear and this bitterness and memory of what happened over the last 30 years, it continues.

REEVES: The Sri Lankan government is still enforcing an intense security clampdown, particularly in areas inhabited by the Tamil minority. It's actually considering increasing the size of its army, even though the war is over. More than a quarter of a million Tamils displaced by the war are still detained in government internment camps. The media is still living in fear. During the civil war, Sri Lanka's government banned journalists from independently visiting the conflict zone.

Both sides waged a ruthless publicity war. Sri Lankan journalists were threatened, abducted, beaten, even killed. The media is still feeling under pressure. It's easy to see why. A week ago, a Sri Lankan journalist was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in prison for violating government anti-terrorism laws. He'd written two articles during the war about the harmful impact on civilians of the government's military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. His sentence was greeted with dismay by Jehan Perera and the National Peace Council.

Mr. PERERA : We were very shocked and disappointed at the verdict. This very harsh verdict also would put a dampening effect on media freedom, because other journalists would realize that if they cross a certain line, they could be penalized very heavily.

REEVES: That certain line doesn't only apply to journalists. James Elder is head of communications for Sri Lanka for the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF. He's been highlighting his organization's concern about the Tamils detained in camps. During the war, Elder spoke out about the suffering of children caught up in the conflict. The Sri Lankan authorities have just revoked his visa. Sara Crowe is UNICEF's regional spokesperson.

Ms. SARAH CROWE (Spokesperson, UNICEF): It's quite clear that it is indeed an expulsion and we regret this very, very vigorously. We find it most unfortunate that it has come to this.

REEVES: Officials have suggested Elder was spreading pro-Tamil Tiger propaganda. Crowe disputes this.

Ms. CROWE: We completely and unequivocally deny and reject those allegations. All statements that James had made throughout the conflict have been statements that he made as UNICEF.

REEVES: The expulsion of Elder has deepened the concerns of rights groups and others about the direction Sri Lanka is taking. The government is unapologetic. Rajiva Wijesinha is Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights.

Mr. RAJIVA WIJESINHA (Secretary, Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Sri Lanka): This is a practice that has been followed in the past with regard to foreign nationals who have perhaps been saying things that seem to us inappropriate and damaging to the good relations that should exist between Sri Lanka and the U.N.

REEVES: What of the quarter million people still detained in camps? The Sri Lankan authorities say they're holding these people while they weed out those with ties to the Tamil Tigers. They say they plan to release most of them within six months. That won't allay the worries of international aid officials who say life within the camps will likely soon get a lot worse. The monsoon is on its way to Sri Lanka and with it the risk of flooding.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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