About 300 Tamil political prisoners in 11 prisons began a hunger strike on October 12.
Many of the prisoners have been detained without trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some have been in jail for up to 20 years.
They are accused of being members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka, but was defeated in 2009.
By October 16, at least 20 hunger strikers had been taken to hospital. Relatives and human rights activists have been denied access to them. Relatives held a one-day hunger strike in Jaffna on October 16. Students and staff held a protest at Jaffna University on the same day.
Father S.V.B. Mangalaraja of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace has called for the release of the prisoners. New Socialist Party (NSSP) leader Vickramabahu Karunaratne has criticised the newly elected Sri Lankan government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe for failing to release the prisoners and for calling them “criminals”.
Karunaratne said: “The ex-members of the LTTE in prison are not criminals. They are political prisoners.”
He noted the contrast between the continued detention of LTTE prisoners and the release of members of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), a Sinhalese organisation that carried out insurrections in 1971 and 1989.
“After the two JVP insurrections among the Sinhalese, the political prisoners were released,” Karunaratne said. “But, Tamils are being treated differently and this is discrimination.”
He also noted that the continued detention of Tamil political prisoners was contrary to the government's proclaimed policy of reconciliation.
“Keeping prisoners in the prison and talking about peace, resettlement and about coming into a political settlement is nonsense,” Karunaratne said.
The prisoners suspended their hunger strike after Tamil National Alliance politicians asked them to give the government more time to look at their cases. The prisoners have vowed to renew the hunger strike on November 7 if there was no favourable outcome.