Sri Lanka arrests rights activists ahead of UN meeting

COLOMBO - Sri Lanka has arrested two leading rights activists including a Catholic priest under anti-terrorism laws, police and campaigners said Monday, before an expected UN censure vote later this month.

Father Praveen Mahesan, head of the Peace and Reconciliation Centre in the war-torn Jaffna region, and Ruki Fernando of the Colombo-based INFORM advocacy group were detained on Sunday as they met relatives who lost loved ones during the Tamil separatist conflict.

"The two suspects were arrested under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act for trying to cause communal disharmony and disturbance," said police spokesman Superintendent Ajith Rohana.

While the spokesman did not name the pair, the Asian Human Rights Council said Fernando and Father Praveen were detained on a visit to Kilinochchi. The city was the last major stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels before they were routed at the end of the war in 2009.

Udaya Kalupathirana, director of INFORM, also confirmed Fernando's arrest.

"We have come to know of Ruki Fernando's arrest as the police had informed the family. Still we are not aware of the charges against him. We are looking for more information," Kalupathirana told AFP.

The arrests triggered criticism from the United States which said they showed the need "for continued scrutiny" of Sri Lanka's rights record.

"We urge Sri Lankan government authorities to ensure that all those detained are given transparent and due legal process including full access to legal counsel," said a statement from its embassy.

In a report late last month, Amnesty International said Sri Lanka had created a "climate of fear" by stepping up harassment of human rights activists in the build-up to a meeting of the UN's Human Rights Council at the end of March.

The US has drawn up a draft resolution calling for an international investigation into allegations that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed after government forces ordered them into a no-fire zone in the war's finale.

A vote is expected on the resolution in Geneva on March 28.

Colombo has flatly rejected the draft resolution, and a report by UN chief Navi Pillay on which it was based, as "unwarranted interference".

Sri Lanka has previously said it needs more time to address issues of accountability and reconciliation after ending the 37-year conflict, which according to UN estimates claimed at least 100,000 lives.