Appointment of former IGP to Office of Missing Persons sparks alarm

Thursday, 3 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Daughter of slain journalist says appointment proves contempt for victims
  • ITJP says families of disappeared cannot safely engage with OMP 
  • Appointment completes militarisation of transitional justice agencies, says Sooka 

The Government’s decision to appoint a former war-time police chief as a member of the independent Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and victims. 

On 20 May, the Parliamentary Council recommended former IGP Jayantha Wickramaratne to fill a vacancy in the membership of the OMP, a transitional justice mechanism set up to investigate enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and recommend reparations and compensation to victims of the crime and their families. 

Wickramaratne’s appointment has alarmed activists and victims who expressed concern that his presence will undermine the work of the OMP and put witnesses and complainants at risk of reprisal. 

Sri Lanka has one of the largest caseloads of enforced disappearances in the world, a legacy of recurrent political violence and a long-established pattern using the abduction of critics and dissidents as a tool of repression. The Office of Missing Persons was established for purposes of seeking the truth about tens of thousands of missing people, investigating their disappearance and determining their fate. 

Tweeting about the appointment on Sunday (30), Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of slain Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge said the appointment “proved President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s contempt for victims”. 

The slain journalist’s daughter said that as IGP in 2009, Wickramaratne had ‘derailed’ investigations into her father’s murder. 

“Heartbreaking for victims of enforced disappearances Sandya Eknaligoda and others still seeking answers,” Ahimsa Wickrematunge tweeted. 

As IGP in 2009, Wickramaratne supervised the investigation into the daylight assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. At least two senior police officers have provided statements to the CID, claiming that Wickramaratne allegedly issued directives to confiscate and destroy the murdered journalist’s notebook. CID investigators at the time believed the notebook which was found inside Lasantha Wickrematunge’s car after his murder, could provide vital evidence about his killers. In March 2018, Wickramaratne obtained an interim order preventing his arrest in the Lasantha Wickrematunge murder case from the Supreme Court. 

The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) also condemned Wickramaratne’s appointment at the OMP, saying it “completed” the militarisation of mechanisms established to deliver transitional justice in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war. 

The move “obliterates” any chance of truth and justice for families of the disappeared, said ITJP Executive Director and South African transitional justice expert Yasmin Sooka. 

Sooka said that as IGP, Wickramaratne had been in charge of three police units named by the United Nations investigation as involved in mass enforced disappearances at the end of the war, and was now tasked with investigating the disappearances himself. 

“Families of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka cannot safely engage with transitional justice mechanisms that include the same security officials in power at the time the violations took place. The very existence of these bodies poses a major witness protection risk,” Sooka noted.

Sooka urged victim communities inside and outside Sri Lanka to write to the UN and other donors to urge them not to use their tax money to finance “what has become a vehicle for impunity designed to cover up the Sri Lankan Government’s past crimes.”

The ITJP said the earlier appointment of Justice Upali Abeyratne as Chair of the OMP had been described by victim families as a direct insult and an act of violence. Justice Abeyratne also chaired the Presidential Commission on Political Victimisation who exonerated military officials accused of abduction and murder in several emblematic disappearance cases. His appointment as OMP chair undermined the body’s independence and credibility and its ability function effectively, ITJP said.