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Sri Lankan minister accused of abusing political prisoners resigns

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Senior Sri Lankan official accused of breaking into prisons and mistreating political prisoners just as the island nation’s government downplayed concerns over worsening human rights conditions resigned on Wednesday, officials said.

The abuse charges against Lohan Ratwatte, the minister of state responsible for prison management and prisoner rehabilitation, arose during the UN’s ongoing debate in Geneva on Sri Lanka’s human rights record .

Michelle Bachelet, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, called for “special attention” to increasing “militarization and lack of accountability” in country still reeling from its nearly three decades civil war.

“Unfortunately, the surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the missing have not only continued,” Ms. Bachelet said, “but has spread to a wider range of issues. students, academics, health professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies.

Opposition parties and activists have accused Ratwatte of entering prisons twice while intoxicated this month, and on one such occasion, of mistreating prisoners accused of be members of or have helped the defeated guerrilla movement known as the Tamil Tigers. He is accused of having forced several prisoners to kneel for him at gunpoint.

Mr Ratwatte, in a statement announcing his resignation, did not appear to accept responsibility and said he was stepping down to avoid embarrassing the government.

But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office, in a statement, said Ratwatte had assumed “responsibility for the incidents in Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons.”

It is still unclear whether Mr Ratwatte is also resigning from a second post he holds, as Minister of State responsible for the gemstone and jewelry industries.

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission said in a statement on Wednesday that it was investigating accusations of abuse in prisons.

Senaka Perera, leader of the Committee for the Protection of Prisoners’ Rights advocacy group, said Mr. Ratwatte broke into Welikada prison while intoxicated on September 6 and then into the prison. Anuradhapura on September 12, which coincided with National Prisoner Day. , a commemoration intended to raise awareness of the well-being of detainees.

Gajen Ponnambalam, a member of parliament from the Tamil National People’s Front who also brought the charge, said Tamil political prisoners are vulnerable because they are held under a law that allows long-term detention without trial or conviction. Human rights activists expressed their concern that prisoners held under the law, known as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, are often the targets of harassment, abuse and revenge attacks.

“That the minister who is supposed to mind their business threatening to kill them can in no way worsen their trauma!” »Mr. Ponnambalam said on twitter.

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government ruthlessly crushed the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group that championed the cause of minorities but often resorted to violent attacks and mass bombardments. Since then, the country’s road to reconciliation has been turbulent.

A coalition government that came to power in 2015 has pledged to be held to account for crimes committed during the latter part of the war and to address the grievances of the Tamil minority. But activists say much of the already slow progress has been reversed by the return to power of the Rajapaksa family in 2019 – Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa became Prime Minister and his wartime Defense Minister brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President. Under their rule, the government is accused of pursuing a policy that continues to alienate minorities.

Since coming to power, Rajapaksa has pardoned several officials accused of committing war crimes in the later years of the conflict and called some of the promises of accountability “political victimization” of security agents.

In March, the United Nations human rights body adopted a resolution stepping up work to collect evidence on crimes committed during the war, a process which Bachelet said had begun.

Sri Lanka’s government continues to reject this call, saying its own internal mechanisms can address concerns without interference in its internal affairs that could polarize the country.