Sri Lanka Should Finally Release Tamil Political Prisoners

In Sri Lanka, a group of Tamil political prisoners are again conducting a hunger strike. The strike began in late February and it's unclear what will happen next. The 14 prisoners are demanding that all political prisoners be released without delay.

In a show of solidarity, community members (including relatives of the political prisoners) conducted a hunger strike in Jaffna on March 7. Since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency in January 2015, the government has released some political prisoners on bail, but has been extremely reluctant to grant anyone genuine freedom. One Sri Lankan media outlet has reported that two political prisoners "had been discharged from their cases", although the bottom line is that the government has made virtually no progress on this important issue.

"Four of the hunger strikers have been admitted to the prison hospital [in Colombo] and their condition is dire," says Mario Arulthas, co-editor of Tamil Guardian -- a London-based news outlet. "The government has made promises regarding the issue of Tamil political detainees since it came to power, however it has failed to act." Arulthas also notes that the government has asked some of the political prisoners to participate in Sri Lanka's (controversial) rehabilitation program for ex-combatants, yet few detainees have accepted that offer.

The government's continued detention of these individuals is a matter of great concern for the Tamil community; over the past several months, there have been intermittent protests (throughout the historically Tamil Northern and Eastern Provinces) about this matter. When I visited Sri Lanka's north and east in late January, many people with whom I spoke were really frustrated about the government's unwillingness to change course. The lack of transparency surrounding political prisoners is also cause for significant concern. Official estimates suggest that 200 to 300 people continue to be held, though the actual number could be higher.

On March 8, R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), implored the government to release political prisoners. These individuals are being held under the country's Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a draconian piece of legislation that's widely incompatible with international standards. Since the PTA was first enacted (in 1979), the law has had a disproportionately negative effect on the nation's Tamil community.

Sri Lanka's coalition government has promised to implement a panoply of bold reforms. Nonetheless, if Colombo remains unwilling to release political prisoners, it's hard to be optimistic about deeper changes, particularly as it relates to complicated matters such as transitional justice, devolution of power and sustained militarization throughout the Tamil-dominated north and east.

Sirisena needs to stop dithering. If the president is truly serious about moving the island nation from post-war to post-conflict, then work must begin now. And, broadly speaking, that program should include tangible, credible actions -- as opposed to just promises, speeches or statements crafted for international consumption.

To conclude, Colombo should finally release or bring to trial all Tamil political prisoners. If political expediency continues to supersede humanitarian and human rights exigencies, we can be sure that Sri Lanka's wounds of war will not heal on Sirisena's watch.