Sri Lanka assaults civil society: Human Rights Watch

London, Feb 1 (IANS) Sri Lanka continued its assault on civil society and failed to take meaningful steps towards accountability for war crimes during the armed conflict that ended in 2009, Human Rights Watch has said.

In its 665-page World Report 2013, Human Rights Watch said there was no fundamental progress on key human rights issues in Sri Lanka over the past year.

Broad detention powers remained in place under various laws and regulations, leaving several thousand people detained without charge, it said.

Security forces committed arbitrary arrests and torture, including sexual assault, against Tamils, the report said.

Tamils allegedly linked to the vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were at particular risk despite being repatriated, Human Rights Watch research found.

While the Tamil population in the north benefitted from greater access by humanitarian groups, the military presence kept living conditions from being normalized, it said.

"The Sri Lankan government needs to address the many problems that undermine basic rights for people in the war-torn north and east," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Justice and accountability for abuses, an end to torture in detention, and ending constraints on basic liberties continue to prove elusive for the Tamil population," he said.

The UN Human Rights Council, responding to Colombo's prolonged failure to investigate alleged laws of war violations, adopted a resolution in March 2012 calling on Sri Lanka to take all necessary steps to ensure justice and accountability.

It urged the government to expeditiously present a comprehensive plan detailing the steps it had taken to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and address accountability.

The government has yet to publicly release any information about concrete steps it has taken towards implementing the recommendations set out in the Human Rights Council resolution.

The government showed further disregard for rights protections when, during its Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council in November, it rejected 100 recommendations from member states including some that have a direct impact on accountability.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers continued the trend of recent years to accumulate power at the expense of democratic institutions, including the judiciary, and constrict free speech and association, the report said.

The government targeted civil society through threats and surveillance. Statements by officials and state-run media named and threatened rights defenders who called for accountability for wartime abuses or criticized other government policies.

Local activists expressed deep concern about the security of their staff and the people they assist.

The government shut down at least five news websites critical of the government in 2012 and put in place onerous registration requirements and fees for all web-based media services.

The former editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper reported being threatened by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for publishing an article critical of him.

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