Current affairs

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…

Continue Reading Share

Civil Action

July 5, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
Reprinted in human rights periodical Article 2, Hong Kong

In Sri Lanka, victims of police torture are harassed, intimidated and even killed for speaking out against their tormentors. But a new witness protection bill may make walking the legal path a little safer.

Caught on a rare tea break, Father Nandana Manatunga bats at the ‘tsunami’ flies that whirl around his head and ponders a Sri Lankan newpaper headline: “Witness protection bill boost to human rights”. You get the feeling he’d like to be batting at something – or someone – else.

Manatunga and his small team at the  Kandy Human Rights Office are preparing for a  biannual “victims’ get-together”, a mix of Buddhists and Christians, ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil, refugees from sexual abuse and police brutality – far from the conflict-ridden north of the country. Because many of the party-goers are youngsters, presents are being wrapped in brown envelopes: Mickey Mouse mugs,…

Continue Reading Share

Inside Burma

June 26, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in the Burma Digest, and Euro-Burma

Fred Taino is a Burmese-speaking human rights defender who regularly visits Burma. Following a recent trip to Burma’s biggest city, Yangon, he describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, how locals are fighting repression, human rights abuses and how tourists have deserted the country.

Yangon looks different after Nargis. About 70% of the big trees collapsed so the view of the city has changed; much more is revealed. The tragedy is remarkable for the fact that many either lost their entire families in the cyclone, or they lost no one. I haven’t come across anyone who just lost an uncle or grandfather because in the places that were hit nearly everyone was swept out to sea and drowned. I asked about one monastery I have stayed in and was told that two of the monks had lost relatives, and for both it was their entire extended families. One man’s entire village was wiped off the map.

The psychological…

Continue Reading Share

Can Sri Lanka’s Civil Society Be Rebuilt?

May 20, 2009, Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong

Murders and assaults allegedly perpetrated by an increasingly authoritarian government make it look unlikely.

With the rebel Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran finally dead and the military declaring total victory after 26 years of war, Sri Lanka’s traumatized citizens are hoping that their society can finally be regenerated. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a Tuesday speech in Parliament, promised the formerly Tiger-controlled areas would be reconstructed and that the rights of Tamils would be respected and protected.

Probably 100,000 of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people have been killed since the war began in 1983, a pace that picked up considerably in the past few weeks as the army closed in on the Tiger rebels, blasting civilian and refugee areas with artillery. Huge numbers of people were driven from their homes. Healing this nation in one of the world’s bitterest civil wars seems almost impossible, particularly because,…

Continue Reading Share

‘It was a whole traumatised society’

May 21, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
May 29, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

International criminal lawyer Carla Ferstman works for human rights organisation Redress. She talks about her experience of seeking justice for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the rights of torture victims, and why she prefers not to talk about work at weddings.

I was a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver for two and a half years after graduation and I was looking for a little bit of a diversion, and a friend of mine told me they were looking for prosecutors to go work in Rwanda. I went out in ‘95 with the UN High Commission for Human Rights without any international experience. I’m from Montreal and they were looking for criminal lawyers that spoke English and French, but had no associations with France, which was a Rwandan preference then for political reasons. I expected to go for three months and ended up being there for two years.

When I was there the genocide had ended…

Continue Reading Share

Raising the Bar

May 18, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Jo Baker meets a lawyer who backed Pakistan’s rebel judiciary, and lost more than his freedom

People have given up all kinds of things for their country, but Pakistani lawyer Muneer Malik’s forfeit was both brutal and peculiar. The more predictable sacrifices had already been made – his family were harassed, his colleagues beaten and his freedom temporarily taken away – but in solitary confinement in Pakistan’s notorious Attock Fort last November, Malik’s jailers chose to deprive him of one more thing: working kidneys. Who exactly was behind his poisoning, whether it was deliberate and whether, as some people believe, it was a murder attempt, has yet to come to light.

Earlier that year the Pakistan courts had been in disarray. Cases for ‘disappeared’ persons were piling up, corruption scandals were rife and Supreme Court judges were growing uncomfortably close to the cabinet of General Pervez Musharraf. It was unhappiness…

Continue Reading Share

Hope for Sri Lanka’s child victims

January 1, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK

Torture has become a familiar feature of criminal investigations in Sri Lanka, where children as young as seven have experienced abuse under interrogation. At a small human rights unit in Kandy city, a Catholic priest has created a vital support system for the victims of police brutality. Father Nandana Manatunga relates the – often tragic – cases he has tried to help with.

Our torture act passed 1994, but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture in Sri Lanka. I opened my human rights office five years ago and since then we have cared for about 22 victims – most of them children, ranging from seven years to 20. Many of them were quite young when they came to us, and now some are young adults. Cases here take years.

The torture is mostly done by the police or the armed forces. Victims are often too scared to fight back, but now a lot of them are trying to – they want to do something…

Continue Reading Share

Election pledges a matter of life or death for inmates

October 22, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

There will be little sleep tonight for the inmates of Adiala jail’s death cells, but though the rooms in Pakistan’s notorious northern prison are concrete, cold and small –they measure about eight by five feet – discomfort is currently a side issue. This is because for the first time in years the men and women on Pakistan’s death rows have been given some hope about their futures.

On 25 August a letter reached a Pakistan news agency from the prisoners at Adiala. It warmly congratulated the new President on his appointment and it carried the reminder of a promise. “You had spoken on the floor of National Assembly that our government wants to commute death sentences,” they wrote to President Zardari, and to Prime Minister Gilani. “We are now alive since then … Please, once again look in to our matter.”

The reminder was badly needed. On June 21 Yusuf Gilani announced that, in tribute to its…

Continue Reading Share

Losing Ground

October 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong,

150,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights

Losing Ground

In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.

“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re…

Continue Reading Share

Courage under Fire

July 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

A Catholic priest is helping to give hope to young human rights victims

With a rakish side parting and a smile behind his eyes, it’s hard to imagine Father Nandana Manatunga at work, not because his job involves kids – for that he seems well suited – but because of the situations his wards come to him in. Dancing eyes seem at odds with the grim task of torture rehabilitation.

The small island nation off the coast of India often hits the news for the long-waged and bloody war between its government and the Tamil Tiger separatists, but there are domestic issues that affect the populace even more deeply. Father Nandana runs the Kandy Human Rights Office, a young, independent organisation in Kandy, Sri Lanka that takes care of child victims of police brutality and sexual abuse, and helps them and their families take their cases through the courts. His story brings to light a collapsing legal system and a police…

Continue Reading Share