Sri Lanka: End Detentions and Aid Restrictions

For Immediate Release

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Sri Lanka: End Detentions and Aid Restrictions

Tamil Civilians Caught in Fighting Denied Relief and Freedom of Movement

NEW YORK - The Sri Lankan government should stop arbitrarily detaining
civilians fleeing fighting in the northern Vanni region and urgently
allow humanitarian agencies to return to provide desperately needed
aid, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 49-page report, "Besieged, Displaced, and Detained: The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka's Vanni Region,"
documents the Sri Lankan government's responsibility for the plight of
the 230,000 to 300,000 displaced persons trapped in the Vanni conflict
zone. They face severe shortages of food and other essentials because
of government restrictions on humanitarian assistance. Individuals and
families who have managed to flee areas controlled by the separatist
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been detained in poor
conditions in army-controlled camps.

"Hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in a war zone with
limited aid because the government ordered the UN and other aid workers
out," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "To add
insult to injury, people who manage to flee the fighting end up being
held indefinitely in army-run prison camps."

The report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in
northern Sri Lanka from October through December 2008. In-depth
interviews were conducted with officials from United Nations agencies
and humanitarian organizations, diplomats, religious leaders, and
civilians affected by the conflict, among others. Because of blanket
government restrictions, the Vanni conflict zone is inaccessible to
independent observers and journalists.

On December 12, Human Rights Watch released a 17-page report, "Trapped and Mistreated: LTTE Abuses Against Civilians in the Vanni,"
which documents the separatist group's brutal treatment of the ethnic
Tamil population in its northern stronghold. The report details how the
LTTE has refused to allow civilians in areas under its control to leave
the Vanni conflict zone and how it has increased forced recruitment and
forced labor practices, placing civilian lives at risk.

In September, the government ordered all United Nations and
humanitarian agencies to withdraw their staff and operations from the
Vanni, allowing only the International Committee of the Red Cross and
the locally staffed Caritas to continue operations. Human Rights Watch
research details severe humanitarian shortcomings: food deliveries for
trapped civilians may be as low as 40 percent of the minimum amounts
required, tens of thousands of families are in desperate need of
plastic shelters, and sanitation facilities are virtually nonexistent.
In November, Cyclone Nisha destroyed the shelters of an estimated
60,000 to 70,000 displaced persons, but the government refused to allow
aid groups to bring in necessary shelter materials.

Since March 2008, all Tamil civilians fleeing the Vanni, as well as
Tamil refugees returning from India by boat, have been detained on the
assumption that they are a security threat. Approximately 1,000
civilians are being indefinitely detained under military guard at
"welfare centers" in Mannar and Vavuniya districts. The government's
policy violates the basic rights of displaced persons. Conditions in
the camps are sub-standard, with inadequate shelter, a lack of
sanitation facilities, and limited humanitarian assistance.

"The government's ‘welfare centers' for civilians fleeing the Vanni
are just badly disguised prisons," said Adams. "The sad irony is that
many of those now detained by the government were fleeing LTTE abuses.
This detention policy is hurting the very people that the government
should be helping."

Human Rights Watch's research found that government efforts,
contrary to its claims, to fill the massive humanitarian gap caused by
ordering aid agencies to leave have fallen far short. Available
information, including from government-appointed officials in the
Vanni, shows that the civilian population faces drastic shortages in
food, shelter, water and sanitation supplies, and other life-sustaining
services.

"The government's empty claims are not reflected on the ground,
where even government officials in the Vanni are constantly sounding
the alarm bells about humanitarian needs," Adams said.

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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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