Focus/Spotlight

Political prisoner issue stalls

By Easwaran Rutnam

The Tamil political prisoner issue has stalled once again, resulting in concerns being raised within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) over the deafening silence of its own party leadership on the issue.

President Maithripala Sirisena last week pardoned over 700 prisoners, convicted and jailed for minor crimes, to mark Vesak. However, Tamil political prisoners were not among the inmates set free.

TNA Parliamentarian S. Sritharan said that some TNA members were frustrated over the failure of the Government to address the issue.

He told The Sunday Morning that despite several assurances given since 2015, the Government had failed to release all the political prisoners arrested under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The TNA had supported the Unity Government in 2015 on the condition that Tamils would be given a political solution to their concerns and that political prisoners would also be freed.

As early as last October, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had also obtained the support of the TNA during the political crisis on the assurance that the political prisoners would be freed.

“How can the Government talk about reconciliation and not consider the plight of Tamil political prisoners? We are really getting frustrated at how this issue is being treated,” Sritharan said.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Morning also learnt that there is growing dissent in the TNA over the continued, informal support given to the Government by the TNA leadership.

TNA sources said that some alliance members have expressed their outrage at the silence of the TNA leadership when promises made by the Government were not met.
TNA MP Charles Nirmalanathan said that the ball was in the President’s court and he needed to act now on the political prisoner issue.

“More than the Government, it is the President who needs to act, as it is he who has the authority to free the prisoners,” Nirmalanathan told The Sunday Morning.

Asked if the failure by the President to free the Tamil prisoners would affect future collaboration between the TNA and the Government, Nirmalanathan said that only time would tell.

Meanwhile, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan insisted that it was not factually correct to say that Tamil political prisoners have not been freed. He said that most Tamil political prisoners had been freed while the others had not, owing to some concerns.

Sampanthan said that one concern was that these inmates, if freed, may get dragged into politics and be misled by politicians, ultimately posing a threat to the stability of the country. “However, our efforts to secure the release of all political prisoners will continue,” he said.

TNA under fire

The National Movement for Release of Political Prisoners has been pushing for the release of the Tamil political prisoners for several months.

Convener of the movement Fr. Marimuthu Sakthivel questioned if the TNA had really pressurised the Government to address the issue.

He told The Sunday Morning that the TNA never made use of the opportunities it had to secure the release of the prisoners.

“I say this emphatically, that anyone released was not released because of the TNA, but only because of the legal procedure. The TNA never pushed to get them released. All they did was issue statements,” Fr. Sakthivel said.

According to human rights groups, there are over 100 Tamil political prisoners at various prisons in the country. Protests were staged in the North and East last October, demanding the release of the political prisoners.

The hunger strike by the detainees, which lasted for days, was called off last year after the TNA gave an assurance that it was in talks with the Government on the issue and that there was progress on reaching a solution.

The TNA had urged that the issue was to be given political importance and steps taken by the Government was to be a deciding factor on the TNA’s support for the 2019 Budget.

However, before the matter could be resolved, a political crisis developed with the President sacking Wickremesinghe and issuing notice to prorogue Parliament.

LTTE leaders out

Former LTTE cadres said that it was not justifiable for former LTTE leaders to be living a good life while others accused of being LTTE members were behind bars.

Crusaders for Democracy Media Spokesman K. Chandralingam, alias Thulasi, told The Sunday Morning that Tamils arrested on the suspicion of being LTTE members should be freed.

He said that the Government could not continue to delay the process of releasing the prisoners, especially when those who gave orders to the LTTE cadres were free.

“If they have been arrested for being LTTE cadres, then their leaders must also be arrested and jailed. The people who gave the LTTE cadres orders are living a very comfortable life,” he said.

Thulasi also said that the Government must not sit back and watch as the families of the Tamil political prisoners suffer without any support.

A spokesperson to the President’s Office told The Sunday Morning that the issue was not likely to be resolved any time soon, with other issues taking the spotlight.