NDP MP says she was followed, interrogated in Sri Lanka
Andrea Janus, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, January 16, 2014 6:57PM EST
NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan says her experience of being followed and interrogated during a vacation to her native Sri Lanka has strengthened her resolve “to defend human rights” not only there but around the world.
In an interview with CTV’s Power Play Thursday, the MP for Scarborough-Rouge River described what happened to her when she travelled to Sri Lanka over the holidays for the first time since she left the country 27 years before.
Media reports over the New Year’s holiday suggested that Sitsabaiesan had been detained and placed under house arrest. She said Thursday that although she was followed and questioned by authorities during her trip, she was never detained, although she had to hide in her hotel room on New Year’s Eve over fears authorities did indeed have a warrant for her arrest.
Sitsabaiesan said a group of government officials showed up at an orphanage that she was visiting, saying they had a warrant and had come to arrest her. She says she managed to get away from the orphanage and back to her hotel, where she hid “until I got confirmation from the Canadian High Commission that there was no arrest warrant in my name.”
On Jan. 4, she tweeted that she had left Sri Lanka and had arrived safely in India.
Sitsabaiesan has been an outspoken critic of the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record, and criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s partial boycott of last year’s Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka. While Harper opted not to attend, a small Canadian delegation was sent to the meeting.
Sitsabaiesan said she decided to return to Sri Lanka after so much time away to visit the home she used to live in, a store her mother once owned and spend time with an aunt and uncle.
“I expected that the Sri Lankan government probably didn’t want me there,” she said.
“That’s why I applied for a visa before I went, and they gave the visa. And then I thought that I’d be fine because I wasn’t doing anything political. I wasn’t going to talk about the government.”
It was her hired driver who first noticed that they were being followed.
“I didn’t even realize until the driver for hire started to say, ‘Oh, they’re following us. There’s one bike, there’s two bikes,’” she said. She then noticed people following her “here, there and everywhere.”
Sitsabaiesan said that on one occasion, she and a friend she was travelling with had to stop at his family’s factory so she could change her clothes after spilling food in the car.
Three men who identified themselves as immigration officials arrived at the factory shortly after she did, and took her into a separate room to question her about her activities.
“And they’re interrogating me about what I had been doing since I had arrived in Sri Lanka. ‘Oh you visited this person, that person, you’re doing this, that. Why are you here, why are you seeing all these people?’”
She says she explained that some of the people they were asking about were friends or, in one case, a tour guide.
Chitranganee Wagiswara, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canada, told Power Play that there is no truth to Sitsabaiesan’s claims that she was followed.
“I don’t know how she got the impression she was followed,” Wagiswara said Thursday evening.
Wagiswara said Sri Lankan officials “didn’t know” that Sitsabaiesan was visiting, and said protocol should have compelled the Canadian MP to notify Sri Lankan officials that she was headed to the country.
“Let me say that it is common courtesy, common protocol for a politician or a member of parliament that is visiting a country on a private visit or a social visit, to inform the high commission or embassy concerned, so that we are aware or we could offer facilities or arrange meetings if she wanted to,” Wagiswara said.
Sri Lankan officials are aware of Sitsabaiesan’s public criticism of the government, Wagiswara said, which “she is free to do.”
However, she accused Sitsabaiesan of failing to visit the north and east of the country, “in order “to have a balanced view.” She said Sitsabaiesan was merely visited by immigration authorities in the wake of the false reports of her arrest, urging her to be “cautious.”
Sitsabaiesan said her experience helped her understand “the reality” for people living in Sri Lanka.
“For me, being a privileged Member of Parliament from Canada who went there and had this type of experience, it’s just a little -- I bet -- the tip of the iceberg of the reality for people who live there, because they’re probably being followed and interrogated day in and day out,” she said.
“It just strengthens my resolve to be a stronger voice for the voiceless, the tens of thousands of people who are living there and are being subjected to intimidation or whatever else they’re being subjected to, and it just makes me want to be stronger and to defend human rights in Sri Lanka but also around the world.”