Myanmar, April 10, 2014: Archbishop Bo warns on state interference and hate speeches.
Myanmar Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Yangon said proposed laws on “the protection of race and religion” are unnecessary, and warned against the state interfering in an individual’s right to choose their religion.
Archbishop Bo told ucanews.com that such rules risked dialing back religious freedom in Myanmar at a time when citizens are gaining freedoms in most other areas.
A nationalist movement led by Buddhist monks last year had lawyers draft a package of legislation to regulate interfaith marriage, religious conversion and population growth, backed by a petition with more than 1.3 million signatures. The government of the country’s reformist president, Thein Sein, is now drafting laws based on the proposal, which is targeting the Buddhist-majority country’s Muslim minority.
At the heart of the movement, dubbed 969, is an apparent fear that Buddhist women are being forcibly converted to Islam, and that Muslims are growing in number and influence. Inter-communal violence has displaced tens of thousands of people in Rakhine State, where the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority lives, and elsewhere since mid-2012. The vast majority of those displaced are Muslims.
The most controversial law being proposed would require a Buddhist woman to have her marriage sanctioned by local authorities, her parents and in-laws before marrying a non-Buddhist. Her husband also would be required to convert to Buddhism.
Speaking at his Yangon residence, adjacent to the city’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, Archbishop Bo said such matters should not be legally restricted.
“Suppose if somebody wants to marry a Muslim, he would have to become a Muslim according to the [religious] laws. If he marries a Catholic girl, he must become a Catholic,” he said. “But it’s different. This is the law of the religion. But they want to enforce it in the state law.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch last month called for Thein Sein and Myanmar’s Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann to reject the proposal, saying it contained measures “seriously jeopardizing women’s autonomous decision making and their freedom to start a family of their choice”.
“It is shocking that Burma is considering enshrining blatant discrimination at the heart of Burmese family law,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director said in a statement. “This law would strip away from women their right to freely decide whom to marry, and would mark a major reversal for religious freedom and women’s rights in Burma.”
The Attorney General’s office and government ministries are expected to come up with final drafts of the package of laws in May. Since he has not spoken about the issue publicly, it is unclear how strongly Thein Sein supports the laws on “protection of race and religion,” but the large number of signatories suggests opposing it could be politically difficult with a landmark general election expected in late 2015.
However, Myanmar’s popular opposition leader, the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has come under international criticism for not strongly condemning anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, has called the proposed law a “violation of women’s rights and human rights”.
Also proposed is a measure to legally regulate conversion from Buddhism to another religion.
“Conversion is an individual freedom,” Archbishop Bo said. “They cannot force anybody to become one religion or the other. Even the pope said we have to respect even the atheist who doesn’t profess any religion. I think we have to respect the conscience of each one. We cannot force them to join one religion or the other; not the parents, not the state, not the monks.”
The proposed laws would also attempt to restrict population growth. The Myanmar government has already enacted policies aimed at limiting Rohingya families to two children.
“All these areas I don’t think anyone can impose on anyone,” said Archbishop Bo, adding that such laws could jeopardize new freedoms, mainly the newfound ability of Myanmar citizens, with some restrictions, to hold public demonstrations.
“If we restrict these, it’s not democracy,” he said.
The drafters also want laws to limit the number of wives a man can take, even though polygamy is already illegal under Myanmar law.
Archbishop Bo also warned of an increasing trend in Myanmar for hate speech, which is most commonly directed against Muslims. He said he had spent time in a rural area on the outskirts of Yangon recently and heard a Buddhist monk preaching anti-Muslim sermons though a loudspeaker day after day.
“This hate speech is occurring all over the country,” he said, singling out U Wirathu, a prominent Buddhist monk and the leader of the 969 movement.
He offered his support for a new campaign called Panzagar, or “flower speech,” founded this month by Myanmar blogger Nay Phone Latt, which aims to tackle hate speech in Myanmar, particularly on social media.
“Even the ordinary simple Buddhists are becoming definitely prejudiced against the Muslims. So if anything happens, they always go for violence. So I think the government should move against this hate speech,” he said. “So far the authorities have not made any statement on this hate speech.”
The archbishop said he would use his sermons this Easter to call for more religious tolerance in Myanmar, adding that a positive approach to promoting religion was needed.
“The religious leaders must preach the goodness of their own religion in order to attract them. It’s a sort of negative mind for the Buddhists to preach against,” he said.
“Preaching the goodness of one’s religion, or holiness of one’s religion, should be emphasized, rather than attacking the other religion. If we have respect for the other religion, it’s positive.”
Pakistan, April 05, 2014: A Pakistani Christian couple have been sentenced to death for blasphemy after allegedly sending a text message insulting the Prophet Muhammad.The couple, named as Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, were found guilty of sending the text message to the imam of their local mosque. Allegations of blasphemy against Islam are taken very seriously in Pakistan.
Several recent cases have prompted international concern about the application of blasphemy laws.
The imam brought a complaint against the couple last July.
The couple’s lawyer told the BBC he would appeal against the sentences and said the trial had not been conducted fairly.
Pakistan has a de facto moratorium on the death penalty so it is unlikely the couple will be executed.
They come from the town of Gojra in Punjab, previously the scene of communal violence. In 2009 the rumoured desecration of a copy of the Koran led to a mob burning nearly 40 houses and a church in Gojra. At least eight members of Christian community died in the violence.
Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have been convicted for desecrating the Koran or blaspheming against the Prophet Mohammed.
While most of them have been sentenced to death by the lower courts, many sentences have been overturned due to lack of evidence.
Critics argue that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are frequently misused to settle personal scores and that members of minority groups are also unfairly targeted.
Muslims constitute a majority of those prosecuted, followed by the minority Ahmadi community.
In 2012 the arrest of a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, on blasphemy charges provoked international outrage. After being detained in a high security prison for several weeks she was eventually released and her family subsequently fled to Canada.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
After partition in 1947 Pakistan inherited offences relating to religion which were first codified by India’s British rulers in 1860
In the 1980s clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq
One clause recommends life imprisonment for “willful” desecration of the Koran, another says blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Muslims constitute a majority of those booked under these laws, followed by the minority Ahmadi community
A majority support the idea that blasphemers should be punished, but there is little understanding of what religious scripture says as opposed to how the modern law is codified.
China, April 01, 2014: It was shaping as a win in the Communist Party’s quest to contain a longtime nemesis, the Roman Catholic Church.
In July 2012, a priest named Thaddeus Ma Daqin was to be ordained auxiliary bishop of Shanghai. The Communist body that has governed the church for six decades had angered the Holy See by appointing bishops without Vatican approval. Known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, it was now about to install Ma, one of its own officials, as deputy in China’s largest Catholic diocese.
“The anticipation was he would be a yes man,” says Jim Mulroney, a priest and editor of the Hong Kong-based Sunday Examiner, a Catholic newspaper.
Instead, standing before a thousand Catholics and government officials at Saint Ignatius Cathedral, Ma spurned the party: It wouldn’t be “convenient” for him to remain in the Patriotic Association, he said. Many in the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. People wept. Ma had switched sides – and a crisis was under way.
The priest soon disappeared from public view, instructed by the late bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian to move to a mountainside seminary outside Shanghai, where he has been confined for 20 months. He was stripped of his new title, questioned by officials for weeks and required to attend communist indoctrination classes.
Ma’s renunciation of the association forced into the open a struggle that had been playing out for years. The Catholic Church in China is divided into two communities: an “official” church answerable to the Party, and an “underground” church that swears allegiance only to the pope in Rome. The most contentious issue between them is which side controls the ordination of bishops.
There are tentative signs a thaw may be possible. New leaders have been appointed in both the Vatican and China since Ma defied the Patriotic Association.
The Chinese government has privately signaled it could appoint Ma as the next full bishop of Shanghai, a position now vacant, and release two long-jailed bishops loyal to the Vatican, according to a source close to the Holy See. This person said several people had conveyed that message to a Vatican official in private meetings.
Any change in Ma’s status is likely to be gradual, the Vatican source said, given opposition from the Shanghai government, still furious over Ma’s repudiation of the official church.
The source declined to specify the identities of the people carrying the messages to the Vatican. Since the Vatican and China have no official ties, unofficial emissaries from Beijing pass messages to the Vatican either directly to Rome or through the Vatican’s Charge d’Affaires in Hong Kong. The emissaries are in contact with government or Communist Party authorities in China, said Father Jeroom Heyndrickx, from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, who has previously acted as an unofficial emissary between Rome and Beijing.
“I’m a little positive this time,” the Vatican source said. “If this will happen, certainly the Vatican will take some steps for China. After that I think it will be possible to start a dialogue.”
China has yet to send any public signal that it is willing to resume a dialogue with the Vatican, and some hardliners in the Catholic Church oppose any accommodation with China.
Beijing’s impasse with the Catholic Church also coincides with a broader crackdown against dissident groups – including Christians who go to “house churches”, rights lawyers, academics and activists – that have resulted in a spate of trials and detentions.
China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Pope Francis has been silent on the standoff, but he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera this month he has exchanged letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first acknowledgment of communication since both men took office in late 2012. “There are relations,” Francis said, without elaborating on the exchange.
Pakistan, March 28, 2014: A court in Lahore (Punjab) sentenced to death a Christian man based on (false) blasphemy charges. The violence sparked by the case last year saw Islamic fundamentalists set fire and destroy more than 150 Christian homes and two churches.
Sawan Masih was convicted yesterday at the end of a trial that was held in the prison where he is detained. The authorities chose that venue in lieu of a public trial in a regular courtroom for security reasons. Police had warned them of a strong possibility that the accused might be attacked on his way to and from the prison.
Additional Session Judge Chaudhry Ghulam Murtaza found the defendant guilty under Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, and sentenced him to hang and pay a fine of 200,000 rupees (more than US$ 2,000).
He also ordered the release on bail of the 83 people who took part in the attack against Joseph Colony Lahore (pictured). For him, only the Christian man was indictable in a case that has deeply shocked public opinion.
Sawan’s lawyers announced that they are going to appeal the conviction because the charges against Sawan Masih are false. According to the evidence, the then 26-year-old Christian man (pictured) went to a Muslim barber, Imran Shahid, for a haircut. The latter refused to serve him, and the two then got into a heated argument with the Muslim man attacking Christianity with offensive language.
Eventually, Shahid and others went to a nearby police station to file a complaint against Masih under Article 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code, the so-called blasphemy law, claiming that the Christian man was drunk and had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Shortly afterwards, the police arrested Masih.
In the wave of violence that erupted in the aftermath of the incident, unidentified persons also desecrated the Shahbaz Bhatti memorial in the capital.
Contacted by AsiaNews Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi, said, “It is sad to see a death sentence imposed on patently false charges”. Sawan Masih “is not every educated, and does not even know what he has been accused of,” the prelate added. What is more, the attack on Joseph Colony “is a clear example of the abuse perpetrated under the blasphemy law.”
“Let us pray for Sawan Masih and Asia Bibi,” the prelate noted, “both of whom are waiting for justice.” Hence, “Next week we shall hold a day of prayer for the persecuted.”
For Fr John Arshad, who met Sawan’s defence lawyers, the young man was “framed”. For the clergyman, who is from the Diocese of Lahore, the court “completely ignored the facts and imposed the death sentence under pressure from extremists.” Sadly, he noted, “justice has been denied in Pakistan.”
Many civil society groups are also opposed to the conviction. For Rizwan Paul, general secretary of the Masih Foundation and Life for All Pakistan, “an indictment for blasphemy by itself is equivalent to a conviction.”
“The blasphemy law,” he explains, “has been used to settle personal scores. Some people got away scot free after making 150 families homeless whilst an innocent man is sentenced to death on false charges.”
He and others plan to hold a prayer and protest vigil this Sunday for both Asia Bibi and Sawan Masih,
“We shall raise our voice against injustice,” said Amir Agha, a human activist in Lahore who is going to take part in the rally to show solidarity with the Christian community.
Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five children, is another victim of the blasphemy law, and is currently waiting on death row for a court to hear her appeal.
In her case, the High Court seems to have finally set on a date, 14 April, for her first hearing (after two postponements). In the past, Islamist threats had pushed the court and the authorities to delay her trial.
For years, the Catholic and Protestant Churches have been calling for the repeal of the ‘black law’.
Adopted in 1986 by then dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to satisfy Islamist demands, the law imposes life in prison or the death sentence on anyone who desecrates the Qur’an or insults the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2009, AsiaNews promoted an international campaign to raise awarenessabout the law. However, no political party or government has ever dared change it. Anyone who did – like Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic – paid for it with their life.
According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, at least 964 people were charged under the blasphemy law between 1986 to August 2009. They include 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 people of no known religion.
In this same period, more than 40 innocent people fell victim to extra-judicial killings (by individuals or mobs). many of them mentally and physically disabled, or minors, like Rimsha Masih, who was saved from false charges after a massive campaign put pressure on Pakistani authorities.
Lao, March 28, 2013: HRWLRF activists denounce that Christians were under considerable pressures to abandon their faith . For the authorities, they left the village of their “own free will”. Now they have rebuilt a small community in a new, safer area, with full freedom of worship.
Six Lao Christian families victims of constant pressure have had to leave their native Buddhist majority village in the south of the country; residents wanted to force them to abandon their religion and convert.
This is denounced by Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (Hrwlrf), an NGO based in the United States, according to which members of the minority were “threatened with eviction”, if the “did not renounce their faith”. However according to officials of the province of Savannakhet, the families left Natahall village, Phin district, of their “own free will” to “avoid confrontation” with the other inhabitants.
In early March (but the story only recently emerged) some Christian families fled the village of Natahall, building new housing in an area about ten kilometers distant. In the past, the group had converted to Christianity, and this choice, over time, created growing discontent and impatience between the Buddhist majority and the group, in particular, village elders and heads. This year was marked by a continuing escalation of tension, which resulted in the decision to flee.
According to the Hrwlrf report , members of the Christian minority were the victims of persecution and abuse. In December, the leaders of Natahall village, with the support of the police, issued an eviction order against them, but the group resisted and refused, at first, to flee or convert. The authorities “acted to ban the Christian faith from the village and expel the inhabitants who continued to profess Christianity”.
The last episode was on 11 March when, during a public meeting community leaders offended the Christians, calling them followers of a “foreign American religion” and forcing them to convert to Buddhism. The families decided to abandon their homes, starting a new life in a safer area .
Since the Communists came to power in 1975, and the resulting expulsion of foreign missionaries, the Christian minority in Laos has been under strict controls, its right to worship limited.
In a country of six million people, most people (67 per cent) are Buddhist. Christians make up about 2 per cent of the total, 0.7 per cent Catholic.
Protestant communities have suffered the most from religious persecution, a situation AsiaNews documented in the past. Cases include peasants deprived of food for their faith and clergymen arrested by the authorities.
Since April 2011, tighter controls have been imposed, following a violent crackdown against protests led by some groups within the country’s Hmong ethnic minority.
Syria, March 27, 2014: The population of a Christian town in north-west Syria was forced to flee when it was besieged by Islamist rebels; 80 people were killed, at least 13 of whom were beheaded, churches desecrated and homes looted.
Militants from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham attacked Kessab on the Turkish border early on Friday 21 March.
Around 3,000 Armenian Christian residents fled for their lives, taking refuge in neighbouring Latakia and Bassit. Some are staying with relatives and friends, but the rest are sheltering in over-crowded church
A dozen or so families with members too elderly to leave remained in Kessab and were subsequently taken hostage.
Barnabas Fund partners in Syria have been helping the displaced Christian families, who fled empty-handed. We are providing food, clothing, hygiene materials and other essentials.
Following the Islamist takeover of Kessab, a strategically important town, the Syrian army launched a counter-offensive in an effort to regain control of the territory, and fighting has continued. Kessab was the last border crossing with Turkey still in Syrian government hands. It had previously been relatively peaceful and was full of refugees who had fled violence in other parts of Syria.
Turkey, which has sided with the rebels in the Syrian civil war and provided access for fighters, money and supplies, allowed hundreds of Islamist militants to cross its border on Friday to attack Kessab.
Tensions between the Syrian government and Turkey intensified when the Turkish military shot down a Syrian fighter jet that crossed its border on Sunday during a battle over the town.
The Armenian National Committee – International condemned the attacks on Kessab and Turkey’s role in them, adding:
For months, we have warned the international community of the imminent threat posed by extremist foreign fighters against the Christian minority population in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has written to US President Barack Obama calling on him to press NATO ally Turkey to stop facilitating attacks by foreign fighters associated with US-designated terrorist groups.
The ANCA said that Turkey’s actions were “a horrifying and bitter reminder” of the Armenian genocide; between 1894 and 1923, more than 1.5m Armenian and Assyrian Christians were killed by the Turks.
- barnabas team
Pakistan Punjab, March 25, 2014: A blasphemy case acquitted, Ashraf Gola , was gunned down near Pind Dadan Khan, some 250 kilometers from Lahore by unidentified men and died He was with a friend Iftikhar Ahmed in a car while they were traveling.
Sharafat Gola, his brother told the police that Ashraf Gola got threats of dire consequences by those who pursuing him, even after acquittal from blasphemy. Police have registered a case against the unidentified killers. The incident highlights how blasphemy accused are not safe in Pakistan even after being acquitted.
Advocate Sardar Mushtaq Gill,a human rights defender said that Pakistan’s blasphemy law is often misused to settle personal scores and grudges specially against the weaker minority (Christians) of Pakistan. Last April, Younis Masih acquitted of blasphemy, who was languishing in jail since his arrest on 10 September 2005, was declared innocent by Lahore High Court by the DB of Justice Khaja Amtiaz Ahmed and Justice Khalid Mehmood Khan. Masih had suffered a heart attack on 8 January ,2013 and he is still a heart patient. Masih said that he was still getting threats of dire consequences and was once also attacked by some unidentified men.
Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of 5 children convicted under the law of blasphemy in 2010 remains on death row in Pakistan and a cleric in Peshawar had offered a reward of 5,000 euro to anyone who kills her. For now, the uphill struggle continues, the Pakistani court has reopened her appeal against the blasphemy conviction and death sentence which is fixed for tomorrow 26 March 2014 in The DB (Double Bench) of Lahore High Court Lahore.
“We are hoping for the best for Asia Bibi. However, her life will be in danger anyways, as extremist foot-soldiers will try to kill her if she is freed”, said Gill. “We also have the examples of two brothers, Rashid Emmanuel and Sajid Masih Emmanuel, both Christians accused of blasphemy, killed in cold-blood in front of the Court of Faisalabad, during their hearings, in July 2010.”
Here is an appeal to pray for Younis Masih ‘s safety, besides Asia’s acquittal and their safe relocation. It is also a request to to pray for all who are suffering in different Pakistani jails under allegations of the blasphemy law.
Iran, March 18, 2014: Eight Iranian Christians were rounded up during a social picnic and subjected to interrogation, as a new UN report raised “serious concern” about the state of human rights in the country.
Amin Khaki, Hossein Barunzadeh, Hossein Etemadifar, Rahman Bahman, Mohammad Bahrami, Saiede Rahimi, Fatemeh Bagheri and Amineh Moalla were arrested near the city of Shush-e-Daniel on 5 March.
They were taken away, blindfolded and interrogated for several hours by armed intelligence and security agents. Most of the group was subsequently released, but three, Amin Khaki, Hossein Barunzadeh and Rahman Bahman, were held.
The arrests came as Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, released his latest report. At a press conference in Geneva on 14 March, Dr Shaheed said:
I report with deep regret that despite overtures and announcements emanating from the newly elected Iranian government, and perhaps even in spite of modest attempts to take steps towards reform, the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic ofIran remains of serious concern.
The report says that as of January, at least 49 Christians were detained in Iran, and that in 2013 alone, at least 42 Christians were arrested, 35 of whom were convicted for participation in “house churches”, association with churches outside Iran, perceived or real evangelical activity, and other standard Christian activities; they were sentenced to between one and ten years’ imprisonment. Christians most commonly prosecuted are converts from Islam or those who evangelise or minister to Iranian Muslims.
Dr Shaheed called for the unconditional release of individuals imprisoned for exercising peacefully their rights to expression, association, assembly, belief and religion.
The report is critical of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s proposed charter of citizens’ rights, which it says fails to address laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities and insufficiently addresses discrimination against women; it also fails to address the use of cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, including flogging, hanging, stoning and amputation, and concerns about the use of capital punishment.
The draft charter is problematic because it frames rights within the context of the country’s existing legal framework, which, the report says, has been “a source of concern for the United Nations human rights machinery for decades”.
The election of the so-called “moderate” President Rouhani in June 2013 was hailed with optimism and expectations of change. He had promised to uphold justice and civil rights and to release political prisoners; 80 were set free ahead of his address at the UN General Assembly in September, but hundreds continue to languish in jail.
Despite the lack of significant progress in Iran, Dr Shaheed, who has asked for talks with the Iranian government, expressed confidence that improvements were possible:
The road ahead is long and bumpy, but with cooperation and determination, I believe that real change can still occur.
- barnabas team
Vietnam, March 20, 2014: No health or spiritual care for 61 prisoners of conscience. No decent food and their human rights are not respected. Many of them are sick and in some cases their condition is serious. The cases of Lê Quŏc Quân and Maria Tạ Phong Tần.
They can not go to mass, have the spiritual comfort of a priest nor even a Bible. This is the condition of 61 (data dating to 2013 ) prisoners “of conscience” in Vietnam, a situation that becomes even more unbearable during Lent, confirmed by a letter from a blogger.
Prison guards in Hanoi and Thanh Hoa province, in a clear violation of human rights and religious freedom will not allow the lawyer Lê Quốc Quân, or bloggers Maria Tạ Phong Tần and Paul Trần Minh Nhat receive a Bible from their relatives.
The latest denunciation of the situation is contained in a letter written by blogger Paul Trần Minh Nhật to the former Archbishop Nguyễn Văn Nhơn, who was also president of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam. ” … We could not even attend Mass on Sundays, nor read the Bible. We had a great desire to receive the sacraments and spiritual support from a priest, but the prison heads forbid us this”.
The case of blogger Maria Tạ Phong Tần is of serous concern. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison and is now imprisoned in Yên Dinh camp no. 5, Thanh Hoa province. It is renowned as one of the harshest labor camps. She would like to have a Bible to hear the Word of God. Her younger sister reports: “The guards used activist prisoners to beat my sister. They insulted my mother, though my mother died, setting herself on fire in front of the People’s Committee in Bac Lieu province, July 30, 2012 , to protest against this injustice”.
Currently prisoners of conscience are denied health care and spiritual care, they are denied decent food and their human rights are not respected. Many of them are sick and in some cases severely so. Miss T., a relative of a prisoner of conscience is called ”crushed by the regime. The mother is dead, but still they will not leave her in peace. Perhaps they fear the truth and prisoners of conscience”. “It’s really horrible – reports the blogger Thanh Nghien – when someone offends the dead. This is the dirty work of prison guards and managers of local prisons. A while ago I was in jail and I know that the guards admire and fear the prisoners of consciousness”.
Why? Maybe because they don’t need permission to believe in God
Ruki Fernando of the Inform Human Rights Documentation Center and Oblate Father Praveen Mahesan, director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation, were detained separately for questioning.
The two men were visiting the area investigating the arrest of Tamil human rights defender Balendran Jayakumari on March 13.
Fernando informed his colleagues via text message that he and Fr. Mahesan were being detained and questioned, according to Groundsview, a citizens’ journalism Web site based in Sri Lanka.
Police spokesman Ajith Rohana confirmed the arrests and said the two men would be brought to Colombo as part of an investigation.
The arrests of the activists provided further proof that human rights workers were being targeted and harassed by government authorities, the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka said in a statement.
“The arrest and detention of Balendran Jayakumari under controversial circumstances raises the question whether those who persevere to openly advocate on behalf of the victims of the war are being targeted for punitive action,” the council said.
The council also said that Jayakumari’s 13-year-old daughter has been placed in the custody of the government’s probation service, “as other families are afraid to take her in”.
Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar said that the detention of Fernando and Fr. Mahesan was undemocratic and unwarranted.
“Ruki and Fr. Praveen are human rights defenders, who always come to the forefront when there is a human rights problem,” the bishop told ucanews.com.
The bishop said the two men traveled to Kilinochchi to check on the status of Jayakumari.
“Where is democracy and the rule of law in the country? We need to live in peace with protection of our peoples’ rights,” he said.
Brito Fernando, convener of the Families of the Disappeared and co-convener of the Platform for Freedom, said that the arrests represented an escalation of a campaign to intimidate into silence families of those still missing after the country’s civil war.
“A number of human rights activists have been arrested, detained, and are being interrogated,” Fernando said.
Jayakumari is an active member of the Mannar Citizens’ Committee, a coalition of families seeking information on the whereabouts of missing loved ones. She was arrested on suspicion of harboring a criminal who allegedly shot and wounded a policeman last week.
The council said that the arrest of Jayakumari ”highlights the need for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and better protective mechanisms for citizens who campaign for human rights and justice.”
The council also called for Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission to investigate the case “in view of the disputed and controversial nature of the facts.”
Sri Lanka was embroiled in a brutal civil war from 1983 to 2009. The military and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam both stand accused of a wide range of war crimes. According to UN statistics, as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed during the final stages of the war.
Member countries of the UN Human Rights Council are scheduled to vote March 28 on a US-sponsored resolution that could call for an investigation into alleged war crimes that occurred during the final phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war.