By BosNewsLife Asia Service
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (BosNewsLife)– Two prominent Christian rights activists remained behind bars in Sri Lanka, after they were detained by the country’s feared Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), church officials and fellow activists said.
In a statement, the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka said priest Praveen Mahesan and human rights adviser Ruki Fernando were arrested over the weekend in the northern town of Kilinochchi under controversial anti-terrorism laws.
“Under the legislation, they can be held for 18 months without trial and can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison,” the Church said.
Christians have linked the arrest to their activities. “This is a very urgent case,” William Nicholas Gomes, a Christian human rights ambassador of prominent activist website Salem-News.com, told BosNewsLife.
Fernando has been a human rights adviser to the Colombo-based human rights group INFORM while Mahesan was director of the influential Centre for Peace and Reconciliation (CPR) in Jaffna.
Fellow activists said both Christians were arrested while visiting the heavily militarised area of Kilinochchi, to investigate the March 13 arrest by TID personnel of human rights defender Balendran Jeyakumari and her 13-year old daughter Vithuskaini, who campaigned against “enforced disappearances”.
While Vithuskaini was eventually released, her mother was still held Tuesday March 18, in the Boosa detention center, activists said.
The men, who had attempted to reach the woman, were reportedly questioned separately for three hours by around 15 TID officers at the Kilinochchi police station.
They were seen leaving Kilinochchi police station handcuffed and blindfolded, accompanied with TID officers, and were later questioned against for several hours at another police station.
Police reportedly told family members and activists that the two Christians acted “suspicious” and would be held on charges including “attempting to create ethnic discord among communities and to promote separatism.”
The detention was condemned by the executive secretary of the Justice, Peace and Human Development Commission of the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
“We are seriously concerned about the arbitrary arrest and detention,” said the official, George Sigamoney, adding that the two men had been detained under the “Prevention of Terrorism Act on March 16.”
Sigamoney said Mahesan and Fernando are “presently being held at the TID Headquarters in Colombo,” the country’s largest city.
“We would call on the law enforcement authorities to provide them access to their families and their lawyers while in detention,” he added in a statement distributed by the Catholic charity Caritas.
“At the same time, we would urge the authorities to follow due process in the investigations, to conduct the inquiries in a transparent manner which extends fair treatment to the detainees and ensures their safety and, finally to speedily conclude the investigations.”
Sri Lanka has come under mounting pressure to tackle reported human rights abuses, including against minority Christians.
“I highly condemn the arrest and judicial harassment of Mr. Ruki Fernando, Rev. Praveen Mahesan and Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari,” said Ambassador Gomes in an open letter to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse.
He said the detentions “seem to merely aim at sanctioning their peaceful human rights activities” and added that he “calls upon the authorities of Sri Lanka to release them immediately and unconditionally.”
Open Doors, an influential aid and advocacy group, suggested that besides the activists many Christians are suffering of religious militancy in the heavily Buddhist nation.
“Although religious freedom is enshrined in Sri Lanka’s laws, the appearance since July 2012 of nationalistic and religious supremacist groups has increased pressure on all religious minorities,” including the 1.9 million Christians, the group said.
Open Doors added that last year saw an increase in violent attacks against Christians and churches, “mainly by Buddhist extremist groups, which are widely perceived as being tacitly supported by the government.”
In 2013 there were more than 50 attacks on churches, often by mobs of between 40 to 800 people, according to Open Doors investigators. “In at least one case a pastor and his family had to flee for their lives as they were found on a death list.”
The detention of the Christian rights activist is part of a wider crackdown on Christianity in this Asian nation of 21.5 million people, according to Open Doors.
It has ranked Sri Lanka 29 on its annual World Watch List of 50 countries with “the worst” persecution of Christians. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).