Updated – NEW DELHI (CNS) — Police in Sri Lanka released two outspoken Catholic human rights activists whose arrests were decried internationally.

Ruki Fernando of Inform Human Rights Documentation Center and Oblate Father Praveen Mahesan, director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation in Jaffna, were freed late March 18, a police spokesman said.

International rights groups protested the March 16 arrests, charging that officials were attempting to silence critics of the Sri Lankan government.


Police said the two men were taken into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The spokesman said police were unsure if charges would be filed against them.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar, Sri Lanka, told Catholic News Service March 20 he was “happy and relieved” the two men were released.

The justice and peace office of the U.S. province of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate also welcomed the release. In a March 19 statement, the office said Father Mahesan and Fernando were “subject to a smear campaign in the media.”

“We remain concerned about the allegations that have been made in the government-controlled press about connections to ‘terrorists’ and possible retaliation in the future against the two men for their human rights advocacy,” the statement said.

The office also questioned the weeklong incarceration of Balendran Jeyakumari, an activist who has called attention to the growing number of disappeared people. The statement said the detention of the well-known activist is an apparent retaliation for her advocacy. The government has accused Jeyakumari of harboring a man suspected of shooting a police officer March 13.

While Fernando and Father Mahesan were being detained earlier March 18, Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, told Catholic News Service that protests were being planned in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

Both men were arrested while on a fact-finding mission to Killinochi area, earlier under the control of Tamil rebels, to investigate the recent detention of a woman publicizing the “disappearances,” of civilians, including her son, during the closing stage of the country’s civil war.

A person can be held without charge for up to 18 months under the act. Perera, a Catholic, said those arrested under the act could be released on bail only by the high court in “exceptional circumstances.”

In a statement describing the two arrested as “leading human rights defenders in the country,” the National Peace Council expressed “great concern” and urged the government to reassess the arrest and “uphold rule of law.”

The council denied police claims that the two men were trying to create instability.

“Their commitment to sustainable peace and reconciliation and promotion of humanitarian norms are unquestionable. Human rights activists like Ruki and Father Praveen are those who give hope to the hopeless and who, by their support, discourage extremism,” the council reiterated.

It said “the harsh measures taken against human rights defenders will only show … there are continuing problems of arbitrary arrest and detention for human rights workers in Sri Lanka.”

U.N. agencies have estimated that, in May 2009, more than 40,000 people belonging to ethnic minority Tamils perished in the final stage of the war, which ended with the decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who had joined fleeing civilians.

From 1983, the Tamil rebels had carried out a violent campaign for autonomy for the ethnic Tamil majority areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka.