A three-man bench of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on Friday stayed the expulsion of Tamils belonging to the Northern and Eastern provinces from Colombo, and the bar on their entry into the capital city.
Admitting a Fundamental Rights petition filed by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the court passed an interim order directing the government not to take any steps to evacuate Tamils from Colombo or to prevent Tamils from entering or staying in any part of Colombo until the final determination on the petition. Further hearing on the petition was posted to June 22.
Following the stay and the adverse remarks made both in parliament and outside, President Mahinda Rajapaka ordered the police to bring back the expelled Tamils to Colombo. More than 180 persons who had been taken to Vavuniya in the North were being brought back, reports said.
About 400 Tamil men, women and children were hounded out of scores of lodges or budget hotels in Colombo and its suburbs in the early hours of Thursday, put in buses, and driven away to towns in the Tamil-speaking North and East.
The police said that Tamils from the North and East, who were not permanent residents of Colombo, could not come to or stay in Colombo "without any valid reason."
The police justified the action saying that visitors from the North and East had among them LTTE operatives who could be planning terrorist activities in the capital city. The measures followed two claymore mine blasts in the capital and its surroundings recently.
WANTON ETHNIC DISCRIMINATION
The petitioners had said that there was ethnic discrimination in the police action as people of a particular community from a particular area were earmarked for discrimination and evacuation, violating the Constitutional right to move about freely and stay or settle in, whether temporarily or permanently, in any part of the country, especially the capital city.
The treatment meted out to the Tamils concerned was degrading and was tantamount of ethnic cleansing, they said.
The action would "seriously erode belief in a pluralistic society and lend credibility to the claims of extremist elements contributing to further erosion of the rule of law," they argued.
The petitioners sought a determination saying that the action of the Respondents was a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, grant compensation and provide any other relief that the Court might deem fit.
The petitioners did not ask for the return of the expelled Tamils. Their fate is therefore still unknown. It will depend on the outcome of the case.
Meanwhile, the United States embassy issued a statement condemning the forced removal of Tamils from Colombo, and said that that it violated the Sri Lankan Constitution.
"The United States understands and supports Sri Lanka's obligation to defend itself against terrorism. But this action can only widen the ethnic divide at a time when important efforts are underway to reach a national consensus to end Sri Lanka's nearly quarter century old conflict."
"We call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to stop the forcible removal of its citizens from Colombo, to make public the destinations of those already removed, and to ensure their safety and well-being," the statement said.
"GENOCIDE" SAYS LTTE
In its reaction, the LTTE said that what happened in Colombo was "ethnic genocide". The old and the very sick were also among those evicted, it pointed out.
"For nearly half a century, beginning in 1958, Tamils have been subjected to such atrocities by successive Sri Lankan governments," said N.Selvy, of the LTTE's Peace Secretariat.
SMACKS OF NAZI ERA, SAYS RANIL
Speaking in parliament on Thursday, the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremsinghe, said that the government's action smacked of the way the Jews were treated in the Nazi era in Germany, and the way the Black Africans were treated under the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
"FOOLISH" SAYS JVP
The Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, told parliament that the government's action was "foolish" as it would only alienate the ordinary Tamil, whose help the country needed to fight LTTE terrorism.
"Such actions appear to be taken on the premise that all Tamils are Tigers," he said. "Terrorism must be defeated, but it is essential that innocent Tamils are included in the fight to defeat terrorism."
"If the Tamil people feel that they cannot depend on the government to uphold their rights, who are you pushing them towards? To what land are you transporting them?"
"If the government is in charge of the whole country to whose land are you sending these people? Are you chasing them out of Sri Lanka? Are you sending them to another country?" Dissayanake asked in an angry speech on Thursday.
Sri Lanka, he reminded the government, belonged to all communities and every citizen should be able to visit and stay in any part of the country, he stressed.