Sri Lanka is sending a politician to represent its Government in Geneva who has systematically denied war crimes, threatened journalists and allegedly intimidated a father whose child was killed. Media reports say Mahinda Samarasinghe is part of a three-man delegation despatched to the Human Rights Council for the current session.
“Mr Samarasinghe’s job is to convince member states that Sri Lanka does intend to implement its 2015 promises to the international community regarding accountability for alleged war crimes. How can any interlocutor take him seriously in this role when he continues to deny there’s even a problem to fix,” said ITJP’s Executive Director, Yasmin Sooka.
Mahinda Samarasinghe was the Rajapaksa-era Human Rights Minister. A UN- backed international body reported that a witness, Dr Manoharan, gave a sworn testimony that Mahinda Samarasinghe had contacted him by phone and told him not to talk to internationals, that members of the security forces had killed his son, and that he would assist him and his family with a new life in Colombo. This incident is well known and has been widely reported in the Sri Lankan media. The same body, the International Indepenedent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), described this in its report as:
“…intimidation and/or attempted bribery of a material witness from the very Minister responsible for protecting human rights in Sri Lanka, but it was intimidation from a person who was, and remains part of the GoSL’s team that represents Sri Lanka at international forums on human rights..”.
Twelve years later, members of IIGEP would be surprised to know Mahinda Samarasinghe is still representing Sri Lanka in Geneva despite the change of government and professed commitment to dealing with the country’s violent past.
“This shows Sri Lanka isn’t serious about accountability and it doesn’t even have the decency to pretend well,” said Sinhalese exiled journalist Bashana Abeywardene of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. “Imagine what it’s like for victims and their families to see a man like this in Geneva who has systematically denied there was enforced disappearance or summary executions at the end of the war. Mahinda Samarasinghe hasn’t indicated that he’s changed his mind in the intervening years – quite the contrary.”
Mahinda Samarasinghe threatened reprisals against the Journalists for Democracy group in 2009 after they gave videos of naked bound prisoners being summarily executed by soldiers to Channel 4 News for broadcast. The footage was subsequently authenticated by the United Nations. Nevertheless just last year, Mahinda Samarasinghe repeated the allegation that Channel 4 news had fabricated the execution videos.
“This is a man who threatens journalists just for doing their job, who allegedly intimidates bereaved families and who denies allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity that multiple UN bodies have investigated and found credible. UN officials and diplomats need to make it clear to him how unacceptable his position is and to ask themselves how this Government can be serious about its commitments if this is their representative,” said Abeywardene.
In 2016, Sri Lanka sent an alleged perpetrator of torture as part of its delegation to the UN Committee Against Torture. It has yet to respond to the UN Committee’s questions regarding the individual.
1.0 Denying Enforced Disappearances
1.1 Denial in 2007
Mahinda Samarasinghe is quoted in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation report into Sri Lanka (OISL) as denying reports in 2007 about people who had disappeared:
“…the then Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, claimed that the reports about people who disappeared were the result of the “propaganda strategy” by “a ruthless terrorist organization” which tried to “paint a bleak picture internationally to bring pressure on the government so that our resolve will be weakened. (Para. 397)”
It is worth noting this was a period when enforced disappearance was rampant – a Human Rights Watch report at the time collated 498 cases of disappearances, abductions and missing people that occurred in 2006 and 2007 and even this may be an underestimate. In its 2006, 2007 and 2008 reports, WGEID indicated that it was gravely concerned at the increase in reported cases of recent enforced disappearances. The UN also said in the majority of the cases of enforced disappearance the security forces were allegedly responsible9.
1.2 Denial in 2009
In a BBC HardTalk interview in March 2009, Minister Samarasimnghe was asked about reports from Human Rights Watch that young Tamil men and women had disappeared before reaching the camps for the war displaced. He flatly denied this. The UN Investigation report (OISL) recommended ‘an independent review of the lists of individuals registered as “surrendees”’ which has not happened to date.
1.3 Denial in 2018 of Summary Executions of Surrendees
In 2018, Mahinda Samarasinghe responded to the assertion by another Sri Lankan Minister, S.B. Dissanayake, that an LTTE leader, Colonel Ramesh, had telephoned him 10 minutes before surrendering to government forces in May 2009 whereafter he was executed. Minister Dissanayake alleged LTTE cadres who surrendered were killed. In the case of Colonel Ramesh there is video showing him alive in army custody and then later he is seen dead. Mahinda Samarasinghe however said he totally rejected his colleague’s story because, “if anyone surrenders, a professional army will never take steps to kill them”. This comment by Minister Samarasinghe is of particular significance because the Office of Missing Persons has acknowledged that its priority case is the investigation into the hundreds of Tamils who disappeared after surrendering in May 2009 to the Army.
2.0 Trinco 5: Alleged intimidation of a key witness and suppression of evidence
A confidential report to donors by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP, April 2009) which assisted a Commission of Inquiry in Sri Lanka investigating emblematic cases, found credible evidence that Mahinda Samarasinghe knew early on that government security forces had killed the five youths and injured others in Trincomalee in January 2006. Mr Samarasinghe has never disclosed that evidence.
IIGEP’s report said a witness, Dr Manoharan, gave sworn testimony that Mahinda Samarasinghe had contacted him by phone and told him not to talk to internationals, that members of the security forces had killed his son, and that he would assist him and his family with a new life in Colombo. This incident has also been widely reported in the Sri Lankan media.
IIGEP commented that: “The import of this evidence is that, not only does it prove that the GoSL knew early on that their forces were responsible and that there was intimidation and/or attempted bribery of a material witness from the very Minister responsible for protecting human rights in Sri Lanka, but it was intimidation from a person who was, and remains part of the GoSL’s team that represents Sri Lanka at international forums on human rights..”.
It is worth noting the senior police official in charge of Trincomalee at the time of the killings was SSP Kapila Jayasekera and Dr. Manoharan has alleged he was responsible for the killing of his son. Kapila Jayasekera has been promoted to Senior DIG of police and is still posted in the East of Sri Lanka in overall charge of the area.
3.0 Denial Regarding the Final War
3.1 Casualty Figures in War
Mahinda Samarasinghe is also quoted by the UN’s OISL report as publicising what turned out to be vastly underestimated population figures for civilians in the war zone in 2009 in order to assert that sufficient food was supplied. We now know from UN reports that there were three times more people than Mr. Samarasinghe asserted and acute food shortages with some cases of starvation. The UN Investigation concluded that the significant differences in population numbers could not be “explained by inaccuracies on the part of the Government” (Para 979).
3.2 BBC Interview
In an extraordinary interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk programme in the spring of 2009 Minister Samarasinghe denied any wrongdoing by the Sri Lankan Government in the conduct of the final phase of the war. Local reporting of the broadcast framed it as the Minister “dismissing the biased questioning of the BBC”.
3.21 Heavy Weapons
The Minister claimed the government had stopped using heavy weapons around 20 February 2009 – something refuted in the subsequent UN Investigation which said, “the Sri Lankan Armed Forces used indirect- fire weapons, including artillery shells and MBRLs on the three NFZs and surrounding areas, causing widespread damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of civilian lives” (Para 750). The UN also cited the Government in late April [two months after Samarasinghe said it had stopped) now announcing it would stop using heavy weapons20. Moreover the UN said at this point, “the shelling did not stop, and may even have intensified according to some sources”. It is worth noting the UN said from the end of January the LTTE lacked heavy weapons (Para.86).
3.22 Zero Civilian Casualties
The Minister denied reports from a government doctor that artillery shells fired from government positions had killed 10 civilians, responding “Well we categorically deny this” and he surreally claimed the doctor had never given the interview in question. Later the Minister alleged the doctors had been forced to give false interviews by the LTTE – soemthing they denied when free to do so. He repeated this allegation regarding the doctors again in 2018.
The Minister also denied his government was responsible for any civilian casualties saying (a) civilians had not been targeted and (b) claiming the UN hadn’t accused them of this. However the UN Panel of Experts in 2011 said there was “sustained SLA targeting of No Fire Zones” (762 OISL) and the UN OHCHR Investigation found “reasonable grounds to believe that they were deliberately targeted” (Para 864).
The UN later gave estimates for civilian deaths of 40,000 (UN Panel of Experts) and then 70,000 (Petrie Report). The UN OISL report (Para 750) added that, “At least four medical facilities – PTK, Mullaivaikkal, Udayarkaadu and Putumattalan – were shelled with unguided weapons and ammunition such as MBRLs according to witness testimonies”. Interestingly in the BBC Interview the Minister confirmed the government did know the locations of hospitals. With respect to hospitals, the UN’s OISL report also said that government forces “in some cases, may have deliberately targeted the facilities” (Para 789).
3.33 Detention of War Survivors
The Minister flatly denied that survivors of the war put in Manik Farm Camp were detained there against their will. However the OISL report says (Para 1072), “The IDPs were not only prohibited from leaving Manik Farm without authorization, but also could not leave the zone to which they had been assigned” and the report highlighted the role of the military in the administration of the camp, the terrifying nature of the screening process there and the apalling physical conditions. ITJP witnesses have described being raped while interrogated in the camp,and one identified her rapist as a military intelligence officer whom we know is still serving in the military.
3.34 Media Freedom
The Minister denied in 2009 there were any problems with journalistic freedom though the UN later said, “The number of journalists and media workers killed in Sri Lanka also ranks among the highest in the world and placed severe restrictions on freedom of expression” (OISL, Para 257). The UN OISL report has a whole section on the killing of journalists – an issue also highlighted by the domestic Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka. Several journalists, Sinhalese and Tamil, are still in exile despite the change of government in 2015.
4.0 Persistent Denial of War Crimes Evidence
4.1 Channel 4 Execution Footage
In 2018 Mr.Samarsinghe has continued to attack Channel 4 for its coverage of the civil war, alleging it broadcast fabricated videos at the behest of the Tamil Diaspora. The Channel 4 execution videos supplied by exiled journalists that the Government of Sri Lanka disputed were found authentic by the UN and the UK broadcasting regulator, OFCOM.
Mr. Samarsinghe continued in 2018 to allege the government doctors who were in the war zone were forced by the LTTE to give untrue information.
This is despite the fact the (a) the information the doctors gave has now been corroborated by multiple other suvivor accounts and various UN investigations and (b) one such doctor has said they were forced to recant while in government custody after in his case being denied a vital operation if he didn’t cooperate and having his family threatened. This amounts to psychological torture.
4.3 Denial in Geneva
In May 2011 the Mr Samarasinghe asserted in Geneva that there were no standards to deal with conflicts like Sri Lanka’s. He later claimed he had thwarted “a major international conspiracy against Sri Lanka” in being able to prevent the tabling at the Human Rights Council of the UN Panel of Experts report. (by ITJP and JDS)