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Sri Lanka: Church and Civil Society Activists Call for an End to Disappearances

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At an event organised by Law and Society Trust, a FORUM-ASIA member, civil society gathered to honour Reverend Father Jim Brown, one year after his disappearance. Consequent to this meeting, an open letter was written to urge the President to take immediate action to solve the spate of disappearances in the country.
On 12th August, villages sought refuge at the Allaipiddy Church, (Jaffna diocese) in the face of intense shelling. Fr. Jim Brown, readily offered the church as a sanctuary to people. But breaking all international humanitarian norms, shells also hit the church in the early hours of 13th August, and more than 20 are reported as killed that night and hundreds injured. Having miraculously escaped death and injury himself, next day morning, he was at the forefront in trying to lead the people, particularly the injured, to safety, pleading with the Navy who didn’t want to let the people leave. Fr. Jim Brown didn’t want to leave the people at the mercy of the Navy.

He succeeded to a certain extent, but was a marked man and received death threats from the Navy Commander of the area. He was last seen at a Navy checkpoint on 20th August 2006 at Allaipiddy, with Vimalathas, a father of 5 children, in an area tightly controlled by the military. Despite constant requests from Church leaders, local and international human rights activists and the United Nations, no one knows to date where Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalathas are or what happened to them. No one has been held accountable, either.

Exactly one year after, more than 100 people from around the country came together at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) Colombo, to honor the life and work of Fr. Jim Brown, at an event organized by the Christian Alliance for Social Action (CASA) in collaboration with the Law & Society Trust (LST). Amongst the participants were the parents and family members of Fr. Jim Brown, The Catholic Bishop of Jaffna, several church leaders from the Catholic and other churches from around the country, religious sisters and human rights activists.

“Fr. Jim Brown is only one case. There are hundreds more who have disappeared. The best tribute we could pay to Fr. Jim Brown would be to stand up against disappearances and other human rights violations, and demand for the truth” was a common sentiment that ran though the meeting. It was also noted that several religious leaders had been killed in the North and East of the country, while 54 staff of humanitarian agencies had also been killed or disappeared since 2006.

Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Saundaranayagam, Catholic Bishop of Jaffna recalled his last conversation with Fr. Jim Brown, the day before he disappeared, and described the 34 year old young priest as someone who loved the people and wanted to serve them, being fully aware of the dangers involved to his own life, in a highly militarized situation characterized by attacks and counter attacks and threats by armed parties to the conflict. “We grieve for Fr. Jim Brown, but its important for the truth to be known and we don’t want this to continue in our country” said the Bishop.

Mr. Siritunga Jayasuriya, Chairperson of the Civil Monitoring Commission, which had taken the leadership in highlighting cases of disappearances locally and internationally, referred to enforced disappearance as a heinous crime which was even worse than an assassination, as the agony and despair for family members and friends of a disappeared person will never end. He noted that the pattern of disappearances and other human rights violations indicated that these are deliberate and systematic violations with the support or complicity of the government.

One priest from Colombo noted that most people, including some Catholic priests, seem to be of the mindset that war and human rights violations are inevitable and should be tolerated in Sri Lanka today. Several participants also highlighted the efforts by the Church in the North and East to address human rights violations, including specifically Fr. Jim Brown’s disappearance, and that there doesn’t seem to be much concern from the Church in the rest of the country, particularly Sinhalese Catholics. One priest from Jaffna, who had been actively involved in Fr. Jim Brown’s case and human rights violations, questioned whether Sri Lankan Catholics were infact practicing one Catholic faith and stated that they relied more on the support from local and international human rights groups than the Sinhalese speaking Southern Church.

The case of Fr. Jim Brown had received wide publicity locally and internationally. Despite the intimidating presence of the military, the Jaffna diocese had engaged in a series of initiatives to pressure authorities to get to the truth on what happened to Fr. Jim Brown, including several letters to the President, the last of which had been sent last week by the Bishop of Jaffna. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka and the Apostolic Nuncio had also written to the President. Local and international human rights groups and the Jaffna diocese also appealed to Pope Benedict the 16th to take up this case when he received the Sri Lankan President in April this year at the Vatican.

Fr. Jim Brown’s case is amongst the 16 high profile cases the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate grave human rights violations since 2005 has mandated to address. But 9 months after its appointment, during the meeting, one of the commissioners admitted that they had not made any progress on the case.

This case is also amongst the more than five thousand cases taken up with the government of Sri Lanka by the United Nation’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which remains unresolved. Since 2006, the number of cases being received by the UN body had dramatically increased.

The event in Colombo was amongst the series of events organized around the anniversary of Fr. Jim Brown’s and Vimalthas’s disappearance. Fasting and prayer services were also observed in Jaffna and Mannar diocese today.

Another group of religious, laity and social activists are organizing a Eucharist and discussion on the life and mission of Fr. Jim Brown on next Saturday, 25th August, in Negombo.

Ruki Fernando, 20th August 2007

Please read the open letter to President Rajapakse.