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“This is a sign of an uncivilized and undemocratic society,” Mr. Fernando said.

Rights activists, opposition lawmakers and local journalists say top officials send abduction squads in white vans to disappear political opponents, activists and outright criminals.

White vans are parked in front of the homes of government critics, in clear attempts to terrify them into silence.

The citizen journalism website www.groundviews.com says that 58 people have disappeared over the past nine months. In at least 22 of those cases, witnesses saw the victims forced into white vans.

It’s not clear why white vans would be used, though many suspect it is because they are so common on Sri Lanka’s streets that they can quickly disappear into traffic.

A town council chairman in the Colombo suburb of Kolonnawa, Mr. Udayashanta branded the disappearances a form of state “terrorism.” He said the failure of authorities to fully investigate his case has robbed the country of its best chance so far to shed light on the white van abductions.

Large-scale disappearances were first reported in Sri Lanka in 1971, when Marxist rebels launched the country’s first armed rebellion. The second Marxist insurrection in 1988 and 1989 saw scores of young men and women abducted by government paramilitaries, with bodies later found burning by roadsides.

Abductions and killings also were linked to the Tamil separatist war launched in 1983, especially during the final years of the conflict. Victims ranged from suspected rebels, to journalists and human rights activists.

Though those conflicts have ended, the abductions have not.