Sri Lanka: Catholic Activists Arrested : Fact-finding mission was investigating Tamil 'disappearances'

Protests are growing in Sri Lanka over the security forces' arrest of two outspoken Catholic human rights activists under stringent terrorism laws.

"There is serious concern over the arrests and there will be a protest in Colombo soon," Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, told Catholic News Service March 18. Sri Lanka's Catholic Church is a member of the council.

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Ruki Fernando of Inform Human Rights Documentation Center and Oblate Father Praveen Mahesan, director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation in Jaffna, were detained March 16 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Both were arrested while on a fact-finding mission to Killinochi area, earlier under the control of Tamil rebels, to investigate the recent detention of a woman publicizing the "disappearances," of civilians, including her son, during the closing stage of the country's civil war.

A person can be held without charge for up to 18 months under the act. Perera, a Catholic, said those arrested under the act could be released on bail only by the high court in "exceptional circumstances."

In a statement describing the two arrested as "leading human rights defenders in the country," the National Peace Council expressed "great concern" and urged the government to reassess the arrest and "uphold rule of law."

The council denied police claims that the two men were trying to create instability.

"Their commitment to sustainable peace and reconciliation and promotion of humanitarian norms are unquestionable. Human rights activists like Ruki and Father Praveen are those who give hope to the hopeless and who, by their support, discourage extremism," the council reiterated.

It said "the harsh measures taken against human rights defenders will only show ... there are continuing problems of arbitrary arrest and detention for human rights workers in Sri Lanka."

U.N. agencies have estimated that, in May 2009, more than 40,000 people belonging to ethnic minority Tamils perished in the final stage of the war, which ended with the decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had joined fleeing civilians.

From 1983, the Tamil rebels had carried out a violent campaign for autonomy for the ethnic Tamil majority areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

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