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New threats emerge for Sri Lankan rights lawyers29

Sep 2008 13:25:36 GMT
 Reuters,By C. Bryson Hull

COLOMBO, Sept 29 (Reuters) – An attack targeting a top Sri Lankan human rights lawyer drew U.S. and European condemnation on Monday, underscoring increasing threats faced by those who pursue cases against police or politicians in the Indian Ocean nation.

The Saturday hand-grenade attack on the Colombo home of J.C. Weliamuna, head of the local arm of graft watchdog Transparency International, injured no one but sent a chilling message to lawyers handling civil rights, graft and police abuse cases.

“I’m still pretty shaken,” Weliamuna told Reuters. “There is a heavy burden on the state to show that the rule of law exists. If this happened, they must resolve it. If they don’t, then no professional will be able to handle a sensitive issue.”

Weliamuna said he could not be sure which of the hundreds of graft and police abuse cases he is handling prompted the attack.

The Supreme Court last week ordered an investigation into police torture in a case he is pursuing, and in which other lawyers have already been threatened.

The attack, combined with increasing threats against other lawyers, now puts Sri Lankan rights attorneys squarely in the company of journalists and civil society figures who routinely face threats, harassment and murder for speaking out.

The United States and European Union on Monday called on the Sri Lankan government to provide protection to Weliamuna and prosecute those responsible.

“We look to the authorities to launch an immediate investigation into this act of violence and bring the perpetrators of this crime swiftly to justice,” the U.S. embassy in Colombo said in a statement.

The E.U. said it noted “with concern the trend in attacks and threats on journalists, civil society organizations and now a lawyer.”

Sri Lanka’s government accepts that it has problems with rights violations, and that it prosecutes those against whom it can establish evidence.

Journalists have long been threatened, harassed or killed in Sri Lanka for writing critical stories against powerful figures in government or the Tamil Tiger rebel group that has waged a separatist war since 1983.

But while most threats to media stem from a war where both sides are accused of rights abuses, lawyers are running afoul of the politically connected or police acting with impunity outside of the fighting, Asian Human Rights Commission Director Basil Fernando said.

“If it is like this in Colombo and other peaceful areas of the country, than can you imagine what it is like in the north and east where the war is?” Fernando, a lawyer from Sri Lanka, told Reuters by telephone from Hong Kong.

He said other lawyers told him they were unwilling to take cases involving politicians or police, because of a system that encourages corrupt politicians to keep policemen who are willing to do their bidding in exchange for political protection.

“Only a few people like Weliamuna were willing, and now we can see the result,” Fernando said.

Weliamuna said he had no reason to suspect the government would not pursue his case and those of his clients, but said it would take “high-level commitment” to produce results.

“I am keeping my fingers crossed that investigations are going ahead,” he said. (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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