Tucked away in a small corner of Sri Lanka’s daily newspapers this Saturday was a government announcement on the arrest of twelve personnel of the Special Task Force (STF) including an assistant superintendant of police (ASP), allegedly responsible for the extra-judicial execution of five students in Trincomalee in 2006. The arrests had been made on ‘evidence available’, as we were informed. The alleged perpetrators were remanded until the next court date.
Protected by state patronage
There is a telling story that underlies this bland bit of news. As was common knowledge at that time, the dead victims of Tamil ethnicity had been awaiting university entrance when their lives were casually snuffed out by state agents on 2nd January 2006. They had not been implicated in any activities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Yet, they were bundled into a STF jeep, beaten within an inch of their lives and then, (as much as the seventeen aid workers in Mutur were killed seven months later in that same year), shot at point blank range. Later, the killings were characterized by a state cover-up that was as transparent as it was shameful.
The arrests that were made now in the Trincomalee case for example, were not as a result of diligent investigations during the preceding years. Rather, the identities of those responsible were fairly well known to a select few, even at that time. They were however protected by state patronage.
As one would recall, the 2006 Udalagama Commission of Inquiry, which even feebly attempted to investigate these incidents, was commandeered by state agents and unceremoniously wound up even before it had completed its mandate. Its report remains unpublished to date contrary to recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Its sittings did not inspire public confidence in any measure.
Officers of the Attorney General’s Department assisted the Commission even though at least one of the senior state law officers had also been involved in supervising the preliminary investigations into these killings which was alleged to form part of the cover-up being inquired into by the Commission. The clear conflict of interest that arose thereto was disregarded by the Government even though this was also pointed to by two of Sri Lanka’s highly respected judges of the Supreme Court then in retirement, upon being requested for a legal opinion on the issue.
A mockery of justice
Meanwhile, family members of the victims who resolutely appeared to give testimony before the Udalagama Commission in the absence of an effective witness protection system, were tormented by senior lawyers appearing on behalf of the army, who without a shred of conscience, bullied and interrogated them to the extent that they broke down in tears. Not only the state media but also sections of the private media driven by a racist agenda, chased and mercilessly harangued those who criticized the state cover-up.
While this mockery of justice took place, many turned their heads away, intimidated by an unyielding state policy that denied all blame and all responsibility in the killings. Those gladly cheering the Government in the full heat of that frenzy at that time would probably, in retrospect, lament the veritable Frankenstein that was created, climaxing some months ago when a sitting Chief Justice was dragged before abusive parliamentarians and was thrown out with the legal system being tossed into the gutter. Others would say that this is but poetic justice of a particularly fine kind and they would probably be right.
So now, seven years later and after all the obfuscations and lies, intense pressure has resulted in some arrests in one case while the other remains (as we are told) under investigation. Cynicism prevails, of course, as to whether the inch of accountability being coaxed from government stone would result in effective justice for the victims, except for junior scapegoats being punished.
Defining killings of each administration
Yet a larger question concerns us. What precisely distinguishes these two killings from all the brutal, inhumane and atrocious events that Sri Lankans have witnessed during these past decades, at the bloodied hands of both state and non-state actors? Why should we be concerned with these incidents in this period of incredibly dystopian unreality, when former front-persons of the LTTE offer themselves for the upcoming Northern provincial polls on the government ticket and the misery of an oppressed citizenry is lost in the frantic political jockeying around the 13th Amendment to the Constitution? These questions as well as the answers thereto remain important.
Certainly it must be said that the Trincomalee and Mutur executions defined the slide downwards to despair under the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and in retrospect, served as a grim forerunner to the civilian deaths that took place in May 2009 at the conclusion of fighting between the LTTE and government troops. We have not lacked for such markers in previous administrations. The torture, rape and killing of a Sinhalese beauty queen Premawathie Manamperi defined the period of the first Sinhala youth uprising as much as the enforced disappearance of more than fifty Sinhalese schoolchildren in Embilipitiya defined the period of the second Sinhala youth uprising. The rape and murder of a Tamil schoolgirl Krishanti Kumaraswamy along with members of her family again defined the later years of the Kumaranatunga administration.
Vital symbols of the lost lives of innocents
But in these three cases, the Sri Lankan justice system worked albeit falteringly. The first instance resulted in what still remains as the classic judicial warning to state agents who kill and then try to justify such killing on the defence of superior orders issued during times of emergency. In all the years that have passed and even when the appellate courts were vigorously responding to violation of rights two decades ago, the Sri Lankan courts were never quite able to replicate the commanding and authoritative tone set by the Bench in the Manamperi case. In the later two cases of Kumaraswamy and the Embilipitiya disappearances, those responsible were brought to justice even though the reach of the law was not as bold as expected. In contrast, the cover-up in regard to Mutur and Trincomalee executions persisted.
These events stand out in the public mind as characterized by the horrific acts of human brutality, practiced cold bloodedly and calculatedly on innocents. Perhaps it was that element of calculation that cannot be countenanced the most, for even though the law looks at it differently, civilian casualties caused by state killers in the heat of battle is certainly treated a tad differently, at least in the human consciousness, to targeted attacks such as these carried out by state agents.
The Trincomalee and the Mutur killings remain important. They must be ceaselessly talked about. They are vital symbols of all the other thousands of lives lost during that period which remain unmarked and unnoticed. Agitating for justice in these cases symbolize a lost Sri Lankan humanity. Public opinion in Sri Lanka must recognize this important fact.