News

Office on Missing Persons comes under fire

  • Families of the Disappeared organisation alleges insincerity of OMP leadership
  • Also plans to stage protest over charges against Karannagoda being dropped

By Dinitha Rathnayake

The President should immediately revoke the appointment of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) Chairman Justice Upali Abeyratne, urged Families of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka organisation Chairperson Brito Fernando.

He stated: “There are no accurate statistics yet related to missing persons in Sri Lanka. Various parties state different statistics, while the OMP itself doesn’t have the relevant information. Only missing-in-action personnel from the armed forces are displayed on the website. What about the 14,000 applications received during the previous Government’s tenure? Why can’t the OMP include those statistics? We have no faith in former Supreme Court Judge Upali Abeyratne and his commitment to the OMP. He should be removed from his post.”

Fernando also commented on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa having recently informed United Nations Secretary General António Guterres that the Government would take immediate action regarding missing persons and expedite the relevant efforts, such as issuing death certificates to the families of missing persons.

“We note with concern the statement of the President referring to issuing death certificates to the families of the missing and the disappeared. Prior to providing them with the death certificates, it is important that circumstances related to the disappearances be investigated, based on the information provided by families. The issuance of death certificates is a complex issue. Even families in the South whose loved ones disappeared in the 1989 era are contesting the death certificates they have received.”

Fernando further charged that the current Government has failed to facilitate the granting of the interim relief of Rs. 6,000 approved in October 2019 by the previous Government, as recommended by the interim recommendations of the OMP.

“Requests made to the authorities to also include the families of the disappeared under the Covid-19 relief package have gone unanswered. Letters sent to the Ministry of Justice, which is the line ministry responsible for the payment of Rs. 6,000, remain unanswered.”

Meanwhile, it was also reported that the Parliamentary Committee on Public Finance approved a proposal to increase the salaries and allowances of members of the OMP, including its Chairman. The proposal was rejected at the last Committee meeting, but has now been approved after taking all factors into consideration, the Parliament media unit said.

Victims and rights activists, including Ahimsa Wickrematunge, the daughter of slain Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, have also expressed dismay over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to name former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Jayantha Wickramaratne as Commissioner to the Office on Missing Persons.

On her official Twitter account, she had said: “As IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne derailed investigations into my father’s murder. Appointing him as OMP Sri Lanka Commissioner proves Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s contempt for victims of atrocities.”

Meanwhile, Fernando had noted: “In 2016, the Yahapalanaya Government agreed to reveal the truth, do justice and compensate the families, and to make the disappearances not happen again. They created the Office on Missing Persons to reveal the truth and a Reparation Commission (RC) to look into a compensation package for the affected during the civil uprisings and due to the war. Based on a proposal included in an interim report released by OMP and the campaign conducted by Families of the Disappeared, the Government agreed to pay Rs. 6,000 as an interim monthly allowance to the families for two years until a compensation package comes out from the RC.”

“Though in the beginning the Government’s intention was to only pay the holders of a ‘Certificate of Absence’ (CA), after many discussions, they agreed to pay this to the holders of ‘Death Certificates’ (DC) if the cause of death stated in the death certificate was categorised under ‘disappearances’. This decision included the families in the south who suffered during the 1989 insurrection, making them also eligible for this payment.”

Fernando further claimed: “The Yahapalana Government allocated Rs. 500 million for this in the 2019 Budget (April). Unfortunately, only Rs. 11 million was used to pay 153 families who held the ‘Certificate of Absence’, and nothing was given to the remaining holders of CAs and DCs, up to 31 December 2019. The Government did not use the balance Rs. 489 million promised in the budget to pay this monthly allowance. Our question is, what happened to those funds?”

Speaking to The Morning, A.L. Rathnayake said: “My brother was abducted in January 1991, and we received a DC from the Chandrika Government with Rs. 25,000. We still don’t know the reason for his abduction. We didn’t receive the Rs. 6,000 payment from the Government. Especially in the south, most families did not receive this payment. We have lost faith in the OMP already.”

The families handed over a petition to the President and Prime Minister’s (PM) offices on 14 February 2020, requesting the promised Rs. 6,000 payment. Nearly 1,200 family members from 11 districts participated in the event.

“Though there was some communication with the PM’s office after that to get an appointment to meet the PM, due to the first Covid-related lockdown, everything came to a standstill. Afterwards, as the PM’s office had forwarded the petition to the Ministry of Justice asking to look into the request, there was some communication with the ministry officials, without any results.”

“Are you going to allocate the necessary funds in the budget to pay this promised monthly allowance to the families of the disappeared? We are asking a very simple question from the Government. Though this Rs. 6,000 is not that big, yet it will help them to get their medical treatment and involve themselves in their religious activities to keep their minds at peace.”

Meanwhile, Fernando stated, the Families of the Disappeared organisation plans to stage a protest over the charges being dropped against former Navy Commander Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda in relation to allegations of abductions and extrajudicial killings. On 13 October 2021, the Attorney General informed the Colombo Permanent High Court Trial-at-Bar that the charges against the former Navy Commander would not be carried forward. Karannagoda was the 14th suspect in the case filed by the Attorney General on charges including the abduction and enforced disappearance of 11 youth from Colombo.

“We will hold a protest on 2 November in front of the Supreme Court from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., with the participation of families of the missing and civil society organisations,” he said.

Meanwhile speaking to The Morning, Jennifer Weerasinghe, the mother of a disappeared youth, claimed: “My son Dilan went missing on 17 September 2008. He was working at a shipping line. These abductions were carried out by Ex-Navy Lt. Commander Sampath Munasinghe. Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda was in charge of the Navy during that time, and also has to be held responsible for these disappearances. My son was 24 years old when he disappeared. He did not do anything wrong, and was not involved in any terrorist activities. I need justice for this.

“My son is alive. I know that. Please give me back my son who was missing for 13 years,” she pleaded.

Families of missing persons have also sought assistance from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over the fate of their loved ones, due to what they claim is the ineffectiveness of the OMP.

Speaking to The Morning, Kilinochchi District Relatives of the Missing Persons Association Leader Kadirkamanathan Kokilawani said that families had received no response from any government in power regarding their issues, and that therefore, they held no expectations of the OMP.

“Most of our children disappeared in 2008 when the Army told us to hand over our children for investigations,” he said.

According to Kokilawani, this announcement had been for the persons who had worked for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even for one day.

“We handed over our children to the Army with a lot of faith, but now they are missing. We need answers,” she said.

In the Kilinochchi District, around 1,600 went missing after 2008, according to Kokilawani.

In a visit made to the north by The Morning’s investigation team, it was learned that most of the children who were missing were between the ages of 16-18 years. Some of the children were schooling at the time when they were handed over to the Army.

Attempts to reach Justice Minister Ali Sabry PC and OMP Chairman Upali Abeyratne related to these ongoing issues were not successful.