Sharing stories of political prisoners and their relatives to pressure for their release

The Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) in Sri Lanka publicizes information about political prisoners and provides assistance to their families in order to facilitate the release of those wrongly imprisoned.

Sri Lanka has experienced a long period of internal conflict between the government and the Tamil ethnic minority militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Two decades of war have claimed over 60,000 lives, many in state-sanctioned massacres. In addition, hundreds of Tamil political prisoners have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and retained without conviction by the Sri Lankan Government under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulation. Conditions for these prisoners have been poor. Some have remained in detention for seven or eight years. Others have conducted fatal hunger strikes in attempts to agitate for their early release or indictment. On occasion there have been clashes between prison guards and political detainees, resulting in prison riots and massacres of detainees by prison authorities.

CHRD was founded by a group of Sri Lankan human rights lawyers and activists. It works to free unfairly detained political prisoners through a variety of methods. The organization makes regular prison visits, records prisoners’ stories, and appoints lawyers to represent the victims. The organization also speaks with members of the victims’ families.

After their meetings with political detainees at prisons and subsequent meetings with members of victims’ families, CHRD produces lobby documents which detail the arrest, imprisonment duration, and family background of the detainee. The documents also describe the social and financial cost of detention and the torture and humiliation suffered by the detainee. In order to draw media attention, CHRD especially publicizes prisoner hunger strikes, postponements of a long-due case, or discoveries of prisoners having been tortured. Copies of these documents are regularly distributed to the human rights commission, the international community, the president, respective ministries and attorney general’s departments. When trials do occur, CHRD helps strengthen the independence of the judiciary by recording the proceedings of these cases and making them public. They also use the same records to appeal against any unfair verdicts. Because CHRD’s documentation is thorough and systematic, it has been used by international organizations like Amnesty International to demand justice from the Sri Lankan government in inquiring and punishing perpetrators of massacres, who are mostly government military figures.

Although international awareness is important, CHRD also relies on local support to do its work. To develop local support, CHRD began by conducting community level legal awareness education programs targeting vulnerable groups of people, which provoked many individuals to report atrocities committed against their community. The increase in reporting has demonstrated support for the political prisoners and helped expedite their release by pressuring the government. CHRD also engages the community to pressure the government by circulating memorandums during campaign meetings to obtain signatures of support for the release of prisoners, which has resulted in backing by members of Parliament representing minority communities.

In addition to publicizing and gaining community support for the political prisoners, CHRD also helps the prisoners and their families defend themselves against the government accusations. They help family members of victims and witnesses appear in court by arranging transport and safe lodging for the duration of the hearing. These services are facilitated by a network of churches and NGOs that CHRD established in the northern part of Sri Lanka. CHRD representatives also accompany witnesses to courts, monitor and record proceedings of these hearings, and assist victims and families in receiving compensation. They coordinate programs to rehabilitate and reintegrate any released detainees through counseling and community awareness programs. Overall, CHRD has facilitated the release of approximately 400 political prisoners by publicizing their cases and providing assistance to victims and witnesses.

The work that the CHRD is risky but important, especially in the context of the ongoing ceasefire and peace talks between the Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government. In addition to its work with individual political prisoners, CHRD is now also actively involved in campaigning for the repeal of Prevention of Terrorism Act and the release of all political prisoners. To achieve these tasks CHRD is developing close links with parliamentarians, political parties, religious dignitaries, journalists, legal community, NGOs and members of civil society. CHRD’s reputation and connection with the international community, political parties, reputed lawyers and HR activists help them to continue even in an uncertain political climate. It is also helpful that the Sri Lankan government has also reduced its human rights violations since 1999 with the change in ruling power from the United National Party to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

Besides the danger, CHRD’s work is difficult because it requires a great deal of expertise and resources. Long delays in court hearings and heavy charges and indictment of these political detainees forces CHRD to retain skilled lawyers for the entire case duration, which is very expensive. International donor assistance, a fair amount of political clout, and close linkages with civil society groups and the media are some of the key factors to their success in overcoming these obstacles.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

The work that CHRD does in Sri Lanka demonstrates the importance of publicity and ally-building in human rights work. CHRD is successful in gaining redress for some of the prisoners it helps because it is adept at cultivating media attention and because it has developed alliances at all levels of society, from the parliament to the grassroots. Other organizations can keep this wide range of support in mind as they try to promote their issue. Gaining allies at one level of society may be enough to be effective, but with difficult, entrenched problems, allies at multiple levels are necessary. To identify areas in which allies can be found, visit the New Tactics tactical mapping web page here. However, organizations must be aware of the political climate surrounding their activism. CHRD must be careful because the Sri Lankan government is not necessarily in favor of their advocacy, and the ongoing peace talks could change the power balance in the country at any moment. This volatile situation may cause danger to CHRD, its workers, and the people it advocates for. In some countries, overt publicizing of problems and alliance-building may not be safe at all, while in others a delicate approach is necessary. Organizations that wish to use this tactic should pay close attention to the political climate in their country and act accordingly in order to maintain everyone's safety.