U.S. expresses concern on Sri Lanka's arrest of rights activists

Will Dunham

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expressed concern on Friday about the Sri Lankan government's arrest of two human rights activists this week and about an overall "deteriorating human rights situation" in the island nation.

Ruki Fernando, a human rights adviser, and Praveen Mahesahn, a pastor and director of a rights group, were arrested, Sri Lanka's military said on Monday, under an anti-terrorism law that was used to crush Tamil Tiger rebels during the final phase of a quarter-century long war.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it was "encouraging" that the two have since been released but added that they continue to face harassment by Sri Lankan security forces.

Their arrest came amid international pressure on Sri Lanka to address allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the army in the final weeks of the war in 2009. Many more people are still missing.

"It is disturbing that the government of Sri Lanka has taken punitive measures against its own brave citizens who have devoted their careers and lives to investigating alleged human rights abuses by both sides during Sri Lanka's long and brutal civil conflict," Psaki said in a statement.

"These detentions and the continued harassment of those who support the quest for reconciliation and accountability send a chilling effect across Sri Lanka's vibrant civil society, and undermine Sri Lanka's proud democratic traditions," Psaki added.

Residents living in the former northern war zone where the two men were arrested said the pair had been gathering information on the circumstances surrounding the earlier arrest of an ethnic Tamil woman who had protested about the fate of her missing rebel son.

Psaki said the United States is "concerned by intensifying pressure on Sri Lankan civil society and human rights activists" and "especially concerned" by the detention of Fernando and Mahesahn.

She also cited reports that additional rights groups were being targeted for investigation by security forces.

The United States has called for a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate "past abuses and to examine more recent attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and religious minorities."

Psaki said, "We are undertaking this action due to our support for the Sri Lankan people and strong concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka."

(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by Andrew Hay)