Saturday, 21 September 2013 00:49
By Dharisha Bastians in Jaffna
Historic elections in the Northern Province took a vicious turn 24 hours after campaigning ended, when the Jaffna home of the Tamil National Alliance candidate Ananthi Sasitharan was besieged and her supporters and a local election monitor assaulted early last morning.
Sasithran had noticed uniformed personnel outside her home out of her window and made several phone calls in quick succession. The first was to the Police Emergency hotline 119 who she says told her they do not respond to such political calls. She then informed TNA MPs Marvai Senathirajah and Saravana Bhavan and also immediately informed the election monitors. The assailants had been looking for her, says Sasitharan and shouted threats from outside the house. “They slashed the tyres of my vehicle and then they moved out,” she recalls, back at her residence by mid morning yesterday.
Twin attacks on Sasitharan’s Chullipuram residence occurred at least 15 minutes apart, with the lapse between the two raids giving her supporters time to remove the candidate and her three daughters to safety. At least eight of Ananthi’s supporters were injured in the attacks. In an ironic twist, a PAFFREL polls monitor was also caught in the midnight violence that all the victims claim were perpetrated by men in military uniform; men carrying assault weapons and heavy poles.
Kanakaratnam Sugash, lawyer for the Peoples’ Alliance for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), a local polls monitoring group, says he hopped on his motorbike shortly after midnight and rushed to Chullipuram, off Vaddukoddai to check on a complaint of violence he had received. The complaint said 50 military personnel had surrounded a TNA candidate’s home. As he approached her residence, Sugash claims he noticed four Indian manufactured Mahendra jeeps speeding away from the house. Once inside the residence, the election monitor spoke with supporters of the candidate and asked for particulars. But what had started off as a routine monitoring job ended in nightmarish scenes when a second group of uniformed assailants surrounded the candidate’s home 15 minutes after the PAFFREL monitor had arrived.
Fifteen to 20 uniformed personnel entered the house, according to the PAFFREL monitor. Moments later, they were attacking Sasitharan’s supporters, Sugash says. “I knew there would be trouble the moment they surrounded the house, but the boys inside begged me not to leave them, they thought I would be some kind of protection against greater violence,” he told Daily FT, seated at the Accident Ward of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital yesterday. He had not been spared either.
“I kept showing them my lawyer’s ID and my PAFFREL ID; they took no notice,” says the lawyer.
“So you want to create Tamil Eelam, so you want to rule the Northern Province?” the assailants allegedly shouted brandishing large poles. Sugash says he and several other young boys were asked to kneel and place their hands behind their backs and assaulted. “My sole intention at that time was to protect my head. So I never saw if they were hitting us with poles or the butts of their rifles,” the PAFFREL Monitor said.
Sugash says the assailants told him they were “dangerous fellows” who would kill him if he reported the incident.
“They told me not to leave the house for four days and slashed the tires of my motorbike as they left the scene,” says the PAFFREL official. He says the assailants spoke ‘pochchai’ or broken Tamil.
Most injuries from the attack have been relatively minor with a few exceptions.
One Sasitharan campaign worker who was injured said some of the assailants were wearing military uniforms over collared shirts, which he said seemed odd. Ananthi Sasitharan confirms this story, saying she recognised at least three EPDP supporters in the crowd that had surrounded her home. “They wore their uniforms over shirts,” she explains.
The presence of international election observers and a good part of the global media in the Northern Province to cover today’s key poll, made the deployment of large numbers of troops to attack the home of a Government dissident almost incredulous. Suspicion has also fallen on the TNA’s main rival in the race for the Northern Council, the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party that is contesting on the UPFA ticket.
Sugash who is still receiving treatment for his injuries which he says are mostly internal from the use of sticks, says PAFFREL recorded 25 reports of violence by security forces personnel on Thursday (19). “We confirmed 12 of those incidents,” he said. Another election monitoring group, the independent Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) said they had been prevented from rushing to Sasitharan’s home when they heard reports of the attack by the army. “Even before the CaFFE observers reached the site of the incident, the military presence in uniforms was highly visible throughout the area. The military deployed in numbers just as the incident took place in uniforms. The soldiers also blocked the independent election monitors from reaching the area” CaFFE National Coordinator Ahamad Manas who was in Jaffna yesterday said.
The EPDP Vadukoddai office is not far from Sasitharan’s residence but the party’s Chief Ministerial Candidate S. Thavarajah has vehemently denied his party’s involvement.
Speaking to Daily FT, Thavarajah says he has repeatedly requested candidates contesting under his party to refrain from resorting to violent activity. “They have adhered to that – and I categorically deny any violence with regard to this election campaign by the EPDP,” he charged.
The PAFFREL Lawyer’s own statement was contradictory, Thavarajah said, since he claims he received a call about the army surrounding the house and then there was no one when he arrived at the residence. “He also claims the assailants spoke broken Tamil – a clear indication that there were no Tamil speaking people in that group,” the EPDP Chief Ministerial hopeful said. Asked who he believes perpetrated the assault, Thavarajah responds – “I am no investigator – I cannot answer that question.”
But TNA National List Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran who is in Jaffna for today’s election told Daily FT that the party was convinced the attack was perpetrated by the EPDP in collusion with security forces, a charge strongly denied as baseless by the military.
The TNA’s Chief Ministerial candidate Justice C.V. Wigneswaran also expressed similar views, explaining that Sasitharan’s background as the wife of a former LTTE member seemed to be irking the military.
Ananthi Sasitharan, the 42 year old wife of former LTTE Political Wing Leader for Trincomalee, Elilan, is the only female candidate contesting on the TNA ticket. A vocal campaigner for families of the disappeared after she claims her own husband has been missing since his surrender in 2009; Sasitharan is a high profile candidate in today’s crucial provincial election and a firm favourite with female Tamil voters. Yesterday was not the first attack against her, Sasitharan says, her vehicle was attacked one night during the campaign.
“Her position has been simple throughout this campaign. At every rally she tells the people who she is, how she surrendered her husband to the military herself and how she has heard nothing of him since,” says the former Supreme Court Judge who is taking a breather at a Jaffna Guest house on the eve of the election, following weeks of campaigning. Wigneswaran says Sasitharan believes she has done everything in her power to locate her husband and sees the political arena as her only hope for justice. “As she was fighting for her husband, she realised that there were so many other women like her who are also missing loved ones and she is attempting to have their voices heard,” he explains. “I can’t understand why they keep going after her this way,” he says.
US calls for swift justice
The US Embassy in Colombo in a swift response to the attack on Ananthi Sasitharan’s residence yesterday, said the incident should be transparently and independently investigated. “The perpetrators involved should be brought to justice swiftly,” the US Embassy said in a statement released last afternoon. “We call on all parties to refrain from violence and observe a peaceful, open and transparent electoral process; one that is free, fair and credible and allows for the full expression of the voters to select democratically the representatives of their choice,” the statement said.