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The kidnapped Sri Lankan dissident who helped overthrow a president

#kidnapped #Sri #Lankan #dissident #helped #overthrow #president

Activist Premakumar Gunaratnam said he was sentenced to death by Sri Lanka’s security chief ten years ago. The architect of his kidnapping later became president, but now the dissident has played a key role in overthrowing the leader.

Gunaratnam, now 56, was kidnapped by gunmen from his home near Colombo, put in a white van and driven to an undisclosed location where he was tied up, stripped and tortured.

In 2012, plainclothes men operating in unmarked vehicles seized dozens of other dissidents, journalists and opposition politicians. Many were never seen again.

Gunaratnam, a radical leftist on the verge of founding a new political party, was one of the lucky ones: Four days later, international pressure secured his unexpected release.

Sri Lanka’s security forces were then controlled by Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who later became president, oversaw the country’s worst economic crisis and fled the island last week before resigning after his home was stormed by protesters Gunaratnam was helping to field.

“He kidnapped me and wanted to murder me,” he told AFP. “But that’s nothing personal,” he added with a wry smile.

Local media describe the activist as a “key mover” in building a seemingly leaderless month-long protest movement that channeled frustrations over the economic crisis into a political revolution.

It spelled the demise of a political clan once revered by much of the country for ending its decades-long civil war, despite an international outcry over atrocities committed by government forces in the final weeks of the conflict.

Rajapaksa’s overthrow and hasty flight to Singapore was a “victory for democracy,” Gunaratnam told AFP, but added that the protesters’ mission was unfinished until he returned to face justice in a Sri Lankan courtroom.

“He is one of the main perpetrators of the kidnappings and enforced disappearances, and he is one of the perpetrators of war crimes,” he said.

– White vans –

Security forces are said to have kidnapped troublesome adversaries so often during and after Sri Lanka’s ethnic war that “white van” became a euphemism for kidnapping.

Rajapaksa acknowledged the practice of white van kidnappings to a local reporter in 2019, but added that it predates his time as Sri Lanka’s defense minister and said it was unfair to blame him.

Gunaratnam looks back on his ordeal in 2012 in remarkably good humor, even though it came just months after the disappearance of two of his closest comrades, who were never seen again.

He was granted Australian citizenship after fleeing the country fearing retribution for his political activities and credits the Canberra Ambassador’s lobbying work with saving his life.

Gunaratnam has spent his entire life engaged in revolutionary politics, and in a country with a long history of armed conflict and human rights abuses, it was not his first encounter with death.

As a teenager, he joined a left-wing political insurgency in the 1980s and, according to Sri Lankan journalist Victor Ivan, commanded a group of university students disguised as soldiers as they searched an army camp in Kandy for weapons.

He was eventually arrested in a trap reportedly set by army commander Sarath Fonseka, whom Gunaratnam accuses of orchestrating hundreds of extrajudicial killings in the northeastern city of Trincomalee during the conflict.

“I was counting the days until the end of my life,” he told AFP.

He was only released, he says, because the government was under pressure for killing other cadres and had to prove that some of the missing were still alive.

Fonseka is now a possible candidate in the parliamentary vote to replace Sri Lanka’s President.

Among the candidates is Sajith Premadasa, the son of the President whose government Gunaratnam fought to overthrow in the 1980s – a testament to the monastic nature of Sri Lankan politics.

One of the ministers in that government was Ranil Wickremesinghe, now acting President and the front runner to succeed Rajapaksa.

Many Sri Lankan protest activists oppose all presidential candidates, calling instead for the removal of sweeping executive powers, which the movement blames for allowing corruption and political violence to thrive.

Gunaratnam, who long ago gave up armed struggle, said the street campaign must be pushed ahead to force broader political reforms.

“We do not expect democracy from those in power,” he added. “That’s why people took to the streets and showed what democracy is.”

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