Human Rights Watch has urged Sri Lanka to formally charge or release four university students detained on allegations of terrorism for honouring Tamil Tiger rebels who died during the country’s bloody civil war.

The students in the northern city of Jaffna were arrested by anti-terrorism police for lighting lamps in honour of Tamil rebels to mark their annual heroes’ day on November 27. This month they were transferred to a rehabilitation centre housing former Tamil Tigers.

“Arresting four students without charge and sending them off for ‘rehabilitation’ sends a dangerous message that any Tamil can be detained arbitrarily and indefinitely,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for the New York-based HRW.

‘Basic rights’

“The Sri Lankan government needs to recognise that engaging in peaceful activities that conflict with the government’s views is an exercise of basic rights, not a criminal offense,” Mr. Adams said in a statement.

Government soldiers defeated the rebels in 2009, ending a quarter-century bid to create an independent state for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils. Since then the government has razed rebels’ war burial grounds and prevented memorials including for civilians killed in the civil war. Tens of thousands of civilians were estimated to have died in just the final five months of the conflict.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the students are being detained because they organized an event in honour of a banned organisation.

The Jaffna University Science Teachers Association has also written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressing concern at the action against the students: “Your Excellency well knows that the defeat of an insurgent force does not extinguish the feelings or causes that gave rise to it. Such feelings are not a police matter, but are rather to be handled as part of the political task of reconciliation and rebuilding.”

Groundviews, a Sri Lankan online citizen journalism initiative, reported that the parents of the four students met the Jaffna security forces commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusingha on Friday but were told that the boys would not be released until the completion of their “rehabilitation”. It also quoted a police spokesperson saying the boys had consented to their “rehabilitation” and therefore they should not be seen as being detained arbitrarily by the military.

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