A Thankless Task

August 22, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
August 27, Sri Lanka Guardian, Sri Lanka, and and as ‘Thankless tasks: Rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan’ in Selected Articles on politics, human rights & the rule of law in South Asia, Article 2, Vol. 08 – No. 03, September 2009 (PDF)

As a truth commission secretary MCM Iqbal helped gathered evidence on thousands of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, only to see it disappear itself

As President Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks of ushering Sri Lankans into a new era of peace, a slight, bespectacled man in his sixties watches him from across an ocean with the weariness of a man who has tried and failed to call his bluff.

MCM Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s ‘truth commissions’, presidential commissions of inquiry into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late eighties and early nineties in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its course.  He knows more than most about the skeletons that are locked away in the governmental closet; enough, he believes, for him to no longer be safe in his home country.

“I still remember when Rajapaksa was on the way to a UN session with photos of torture victims and was caught going through customs,” he recalls, during a recent visit to the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. “You know as a minister he used to be at the front of the struggle against these incidents. Now I would consider his regime as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances.”

Back in 1994 Iqbal was working as a senior government administrator when he was asked aboard. It was the first commission of its kind – the result of an election pledge by new president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – and was split up to cover three zones. Iqbal’s job at the central zone inquiry force meant setting up a system that could allow a handful of officers to document thousands  of possible atrocities across four provinces. The team, made up of Iqbal, the chairman and some of their two dozen support staff, would travel around the country setting up shop for open questioning sessions. The idea was that they would compile a report for the president on the number and circumstances of the disappearances, who was responsible for them and how they should be charged, with a final analysis of how, legally, things had been allowed to get so bad. It was expected that the report would lead to legal action against the alleged killers; the public had been promised as much.

But the set up was grueling. For two years the small panel would spend two-week stretches in back-to-back interviews, and at night, away from their families they would dictate and record the cases they’d heard that day. “I had worked in public service for forty years, twenty of them in courts, so this procedure of listening to complaints was not new to me, but it was harder in the sense that some of them touched me,” Iqbal admits. “Sometimes  I felt like sobbing . But my task at the time was to lead the evidence: what happened, who came, was there enough light for you to identify them, did you try to stop them?”

Iqbal remembers many of the stories, but he gives one example; not one of the worst, he adds. According to a woman they heard from in Badulla in the nineties, local police had arrived at her house in the night and taken away two of her three sons; she remembers running, screaming after the jeep. At the police station the following morning the officers denied having arrested the boys, but the woman made such a commotion that her sons heard and started shouting. She waited all day on the verandah, hoping for access. Yet when the night shift officers arrived, they invited her back into the police station, and they gang raped her.

Iqbal says that the women said she could hear her sons shouting throughout the ordeal.  “I can still remember, she narrated what the five did to her, and after that she was almost dead from exhaustion,” he recalls. “But she went home and she complained to the elders who couldn’t help her, and then finally she came to us.”

This act cost her.  A few days after her testimony the same officers picked up her remaining son for a robbery.  Little could be done for her two older boys – by then almost certainly dead – but the commission chairman was able to contact the magistrate and help prove that the police were framing the 17-year-old for theft. “She came running to the commission with her son, crying, and laying on the floor shouting thank you,” he remembers. “All we could tell her was that she better take her son and get out of the area“.

This was one of the more rewarding outcomes. After two years in the central zone and more work with a follow-up commission, Iqbal helped write the report, and says that though some of the cases were clear cut, it was not made public (parts of it would be published in 2002, but without the names of those implicated). “We thought we had enough materials, we thought that this will at least send a signal to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future; that all victims would get compensation and at least  some perpetrators would be punished,” says Iqbal. “But the compensation paid was a pittance for most: 15,000 rupees for a young boy ranging to 150,000 for a public servant. Hardly any of the perpetrators were punished.”

Not yet disheartened, Iqbal took a job with the National Human Rights Commission and the US-based Asia Foundation, logging the same cases in a database and lecturing on human rights. Still, many of those implicated continued to hold high profile positions. The biggest blow then came when members of the National Human Rights Commission, considered relatively independent, were replaced.  The new staff were appointed by the Rajapaksa’s government, and according to Iqbal they had different priorities; the moved was also criticized in international press. “It had become a political commission,” he remembers. “I still remember the chairman, the late Justice Ramanathan, telling me to abandon [our work]. To use the exact words, he said: ‘why are you raking up all the muck?’”

At this point Iqbal resigned. But he would still receive calls from the families of the disappeared, telling him that they saw one perpetrator getting into a car, or that another was still officer in charge of the local police station. It appeared that the files had simply been put aside. “I believe the president did not implement our recommendations because she would have alienated the military and police on whom she depended – terrorism was at its height then and they protected her,” he says.

With no legal reforms made and very few held to account, disappearances continued in Sri Lanka. In 2006 17 locals working for a French NGO were notoriously massacred in a tightly controlled military zone. Scandinavian monitors pointed the finger at security forces but no one was charged. Iqbal refused the invitation to join another such inquiry.

However in 2007 when a group of international observers (the International Group of Eminent Persons) arrived to monitor the new commission’s work, the UN office in Sri Lanka suggested that they take on Iqbal as an adviser. He remembers dusting off his old files and indulging in a bit of straight talking. “I said, look at this list of perpetrators: So-and-so is now commander in chief there, So-and-so is minister of this district and the president knows and he keeps them there. Now he wants you to start making recommendations?” Three months later, when the observer’s released their support for these earlier, buried recommendations (not long before resigning), Iqbal remembers the shock and displeasure from the Attorney General and the higher ups. At that point the death threats started again.

“I’d had such calls in the past, but I didn’t take them very seriously, but these were too frequent and sounded a little more genuine, ” says Iqbal. “They came to me and my wife, and to me they would say you’ll be killed if you keep working there (with the monitors). Finally the observers’ security services monitored the calls and they said you need to leave immediately”. Late in 2007, without a word to anyone, the Iqbals locked up their house and left the country.

And now from a colder climate, with six months in a refugee camp behind him, a schedule of seminars and workshops ahead and his name carefully removed from the phone book, this reluctant keeper of grisly secrets watches the latest Sri Lankan leader with a weary, wary eye. He has no regrets about the path he took, though it essentially led to exile; but he doubts he can say the same for the president.
“When Rajapaksa came to power he had the option of doing something. He was a minister at the time of all this, he knew the contents of these reports and that nothing was being done,” he says. “He knew who was involved in all the killings, and yet he has put all those people around him, given them positions.”

Last month the president made a speech. In it, he declared that he only wants to look to the future now, that the past, essentially, is dead and buried. This, to MCM Iqbal, is eerily close to the truth.