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Abuses In Sri Lanka Worry Human Rights Groups


Now let's go to a country that's dealing with the aftermath of civil unrest. The civil war that tore apart Sri Lanka for the best part of three decades is over, and the government has been celebrating a victory after wiping out the Tamil Tiger rebels. Yet tensions remain high, and human rights activists say they're worried about the future of democracy. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: It's been days since Poddala Jayantha was beaten up, yet he's still in hospital, and, he says, still in constant pain. His left leg is shattered in two places. The calf of his right leg is swollen to twice its normal size and is scarred with burns. Doctors are testing him for internal injuries.

Jayantha was attacked while heading home from his office in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, where he works as a journalist. He was walking past a white van.

Mr. PODDALA JAYANTHA (General Secretary, Working Journalists Association): (Through translator) Suddenly, the front door was open, and I was grabbed into that van. In the meantime, another person who came behind me pushed me inside the van.

REEVES: Jayantha thinks there were five men. He says they tied his hands behind his back and beat him as the van was driving along. Then they parked.

Mr. JAYANTHA: (Through translator) I can remember the (unintelligible). We stopped at one place. And they would grab my collar and they would bang my head on the floor of the vehicle. Then they asked me, can you hear what we are telling you? Then they said, you should not talk in future. You have to live like a dog.

REEVES: As Jayantha describes this ordeal, his wife hovers fretfully around his hospital bed. She places plastic gloves filled with water under his burnt leg to help ease the pain. Jayantha recalls during the attack, he lost consciousness. He thinks the men may have burned his legs with a lighter to try to wake him up. They also did something else, strangely brutal.

Mr. JAYANTHA: (Through translator) While they were beating me, I felt that they were cutting my hair. Also, in the meantime, they're stuffing the hair into my mouth.

REEVES: Jayantha used to have a pigtail. He says the men cut if off and also hacked at his beard, filling his mouth with more hair.

During the final years of Sri Lanka's civil war, journalists were threatened and harassed. Some were abducted and beaten. Sixteen were assassinated. No one's ever proved for sure who was responsible. When the conflict was at its height, attacks by men in white vans were common. Many are widely believed to have been linked to elements within the government. The government denies it.

Jayantha's general secretary of Sri Lanka's Working Journalists Association. He'd been campaigning against government restrictions on the media. He says he doesn't know exactly who attacked him. But in the days beforehand, he was repeatedly vilified in the state-run media. The attack on Jayantha took place after the end of the war, as the government was celebrating victory.

Rohan Edirisinha from the Center of Policy Alternatives in Colombo says there are moderates within the government. But he's worried about what he calls a drift towards authoritarianism in Sri Lanka. He says a culture of intolerance is lingering on.

Mr. ROHAN EDIRISINHA (Director, Center of Policy Alternatives, Colombo): And so NGO's and people who might just articulate a different point of view continue to be targeted. And remember, there are whole lot of journalists who have fled the country, as well. So this is why I think there's a lot of concern about the future of democracy in Sri Lanka.

REEVES: These concerns appear widely felt. They're shared by Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council. But Perera says the island has a strong tradition of democracy. He hopes that'll now reemerge.

Dr. JEHAN PERERA (Director, Sri Lanka's National Peace Council): Now the war is over, and the government does not have the excuse of the war. And people will begin to start asking questions. And I'm hopeful that our past traditions will reassert themselves. At the moment, though, most people are, indeed, afraid to speak up.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

REEVES: In the bars of Colombo, there's a celebratory mood. People from the island's Sinhalese majority appear specially relieved. Now there'll be no more suicide bombings, they say. On the streets outside, the victorious face of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, beams down from the walls. There are still checkpoints and lots of soldiers and police. Rajapaksa's administration greatly expanded the army in the final stages of the war. Edirisinha says with the conflict over, the government's planning to make the police and army even bigger, deploying extra forces into areas of the island dominated by the Tamil minority.

Mr. EDIRISINHA: The inspector general of police recently said that one of his objectives in the immediate future is to establish police stations throughout the north and the east. Most of these police personnel will be Sinhalese.

Mr. LAKSHMAN HULUGALLE (Director General, Media Center for National Security, Sri Lanka): The national security has to be number one, for the next 10 years, at least.

REEVES: Lakshman Hulugalle is director general of the Sri Lankan Government's Media Center for National Security.

Mr. HULUGALLE: Because country should have discipline. Country should have security. If we had proper security like what we are having today 25 years back, then this problem wouldn't have arise.

REEVES: Hulugalle denies any suggestion this means Sri Lanka maybe heading towards becoming a police state.

Mr. HULUGALLE: No, not at all. We all want to sleep well in the night without fear. For that, we have to have security. We should have a powerful army. We should have a very powerful police force to ensure the civil security.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Back in the hospital, it'll be a long while before Poddala Jayantha sleeps well in the night. He'll be out of action for weeks, if not months. In the meantime, he says, it's hard to see who'll take up his cause.

Mr. JAYANTHA: (Through translator) People I have worked with for the media freedom in this country, and even the leaders, has fled. But I can't think even what I can do, because I am all alone.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.