U.N. experts decry 'climate of fear' in Sri Lanka

February 09, 2009

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GENEVA, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders are living in fear and need better protection from violence, United Nations investigators said on Monday.

In a joint statement, 10 U.N. experts called on the government to act quickly to halt repressive practices.

"The fear of reprisals against victims and witnesses, together with a lack of effective investigations and prosecutions, has led to a circle of impunity," they said. "A climate of fear and intimidation reigns over those defending human rights, especially over journalists and lawyers."

Newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was shot dead on his way to work last month, days after gunmen destroyed the main studio of MBC, Sri Lanka's largest private broadcaster. Two weeks later, another editor was stabbed in the face and beaten.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ordered investigations and vowed to break with a long history of violence against journalists in Sri Lanka that rarely gets prosecuted.

Fighting in Sri Lanka has intensified with government troops battling to crush Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatists and end a 25-year-old war. Aid agencies say 250,000 people are trapped in a war zone in the Indian Ocean island's northeast.

The U.N. special rapporteurs said Sri Lanka's day-to-day violence -- including a suicide bombing on Monday that killed at least 28 people -- threatened to mask the country's "deeper and more endemic" problems.

"The conflict deflects attention from the impunity which has been allowed to go unabated throughout Sri Lanka," they said. (Reporting by Laura MacInnis, editing by Mark Trevelyan)