Sri Lanka: General strike launched as Tamil prisoners renew hunger strike

Some of the prisoners on hunger strike have been in jail for up to 20 years.

The entire northern province of Sri Lanka, an area mainly inhabited by Tamils, was "brought to a standstill" on November 13, according to the Tamilnet website, in support of Tamil prisoners on hunger strike for their freedom.

All private and public activities, except for medical services, came to a standstill. Students did not attend schools. Roads remained deserted except for the army and police.

The one-day hartal (general strike) was called by the Tamil National Alliance and the Tamil National Peoples Front to demand "the immediate release of all prisoners of war and political prisoners involved in the Tamil war of independence".

About 300 Tamil political prisoners demanding freedom renewed a hunger strike on November 7. They had suspended the action at the request of Tamil National Alliance members of parliament, who had urged them to give the government more time to respond to their demand for freedom.

The "War of independence" refers to the armed campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. The LTTE was defeated in 2009, but alleged LTTE members are still being held in prison, many of them detained without trial. Some have been detained for up to 20 years.

The Northern Provincial Council chief minister C.V. Wigneswaran met the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena on November 11 to request a general amnesty for prisoners of war and political prisoners, but Sirisena rejected his request.

The government has tried to divide the hunger strikers. It has offered to release some on bail, while keeping others in prison and handing a third group over to the army for "rehabilitation". The prisoners are demanding that they all be released.

The prisoners, some of whom have been in jail for up to 20 years, are accused of being members of the LTTE. The strike follows widespread protests by Tamils demanding freedom for the prisoners.

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