“Serious doubts have emerged regarding the future investigations into the mass grave at Matale where the remains of 156 persons have been found. In today’s press it was reported that the Judicial Medical Officer in charge of the investigation has been transferred (JMO in charge of Matale mass grave also to be transferred — Sri Lanka Mirror, May 20, 2013). Furthermore, it is also reported that the magistrate conducting the inquiries is also to be transferred,” says the Asian Human Rights Commission.
“There is a widespread fear that the government may sabotage the inquiry, particularly as some of the names of suspected perpetrators include some powerful politicians. Among them the most important is the recurrence of the name of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who is now the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and who has been mentioned as the Commanding Officer of the regiment that was based in this area at the relevant time. The relevant time, according to the findings of the experts is between 1986 and 1991.” the AHRC further says.
We publish below the statement in full;
These transfers are happening at the same moment when a greater momentum of interest is being expressed regarding the mass grave. A number of persons from the families of missing persons have come forward to the court claiming that the remains may include those of their family members. The newspapers have reported that 13 separate families have already listed their names in the court and according to the JVP, who believes that these remains are of their former associates, there are more persons who have met with their lawyers with a view to presenting their claims to the court.
The key issue in the investigations now is to have the remains tested by DNA experts and thereafter to compare the samples from the remains with the DNA samples of the family members who have come forward. The identification of the persons whose remains lie in this grave is the first step to be taken if this inquiry is going to lead to any judicial process.
The identification of the actual persons who were killed is important not only for judicial inquiries but also from the point of view of the families who have been searching for their missing loved ones for almost two decades now. Besides there is also the social responsibility to bring this matter to a final conclusion through a just and fair inquiry.
However, there is a widespread fear that the government may sabotage the inquiry, particularly as some of the names of suspected perpetrators include some powerful politicians. Among them the most important is the recurrence of the name of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who is now the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and who has been mentioned as the Commanding Officer of the regiment that was based in this area at the relevant time. The relevant time, according to the findings of the experts is between 1986 and 1991. The university experts who conducted their inquiries to ascertain the possible time period to which the remains belong came to their conclusion on the basis of their observations and tests and ascertained the time as between 1986 to 1991. The period coincides with one of the most brutal conflicts between the Sri Lankan forces and militants led by the JVP which caused the enforced disappearances of around 30,000 persons.
While the JVP claim that the remains may belong to their former supporters extensive evidence led before the commissions which inquired into the enforced disappearances also brought forth evidence of many SLFP supporters and very many innocent persons being among those who became victims of enforced disappearances during this time.
The government and particularly President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the past has been a prominent campaigner against enforced disappearances and he even went before the then Human Rights Commission of the United Nations to complain about the matter. Therefore under normal circumstances the government would have seen some political advantage in dealing with these enforced disappearances as the responsibility for such is attributed to the United National Party which was in power during that time.
However, at present there are other considerations that seem to affect the government’s approach to this matter. The government is heavily committed to hushing up all the allegations of human rights abuses attributed to the military and the police. The political system that has emerged in recent times has shifted away significantly from democracy and now relies heavily on the military. As a result any serious inquiry into enforced disappearances may be seen as opening a Pandora’s Box. Further to the covering up of military and police abuses another factor that seems to affect the government’s approach is the increasing allegations that Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have been seriously involved in the enforced disappearances of the time.
The government recently spoke of the appointment of a commission to inquire into all issues relating to the mass grave. However, this has come under serious criticism as commissions are largely seen in Sri Lanka as means of covering up crimes. There is hardly any credibility attached to the work of commissions. Besides in this instance the matters that are to be dealt with cannot be done by a commission. Establishing the identity of the persons whose remains have been found is primarily a task for forensic scientists whose work would be supervised only by a judicial officer. This inquiry which is one of the most complicated of any criminal inquiry requires the work of skilled and competent criminal investigators and the credible working of judicial officers.
As the appointment of a fake commission would serve no useful purpose in itself, there is a considerable fear that the government may sabotage the inquiry altogether. The transfer of the JMO who did the initial inquiry and who has shown great commitment to his work may be the first step in that direction. The transfer of the magistrate would also cause serious delays. If a magistrate who can be politically manipulated is put in his place many maneuvers might be done to delay or otherwise damage the inquiry.
What is even more worrying is the security of the remains themselves. Earlier inquiries into the alleged mass graves at Chemmani left many unanswered questions about the possible tampering of evidence including the alleged removal of the remains from the site. Given the present utterly disorganised state of affairs in Sri Lanka it is not difficult to tamper with the identified remains at the Matale mass grave. Given also the increasingly degenerating situation of the administration of justice in the country such concerns about the remains found at Matale cannot be treated as an exaggeration.
The United Nations High Commissioner’s Office has an obligation to intervene in this inquiry and to ensure that a proper inquiry is conducted and the credibility of the judicial process is maintained.
Meanwhile research into the evidence given at the Commission for Involuntary Disappearances at Uwa Province has revealed more names and other details of persons who disappeared from villages closer to Matale during the relevant period. Earlier the Asian Human Rights Commission published 26 such names and other details in our statement SRI LANKA: Whose remains are in the mass grave at Matale. We are now publishing below the details of a further 28 persons whose remains may be found at the Matale mass grave.