“All five skeletons from Walasmulla buried and unearthed from under the billing tree in the Walasmulla police station contain fractures indicating possible gunshot injuries before death” reported the Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. Chandra Amarasekera of Colombo in his report to the Tangalla Magistrate, Mr. T. Sunderalingam who called for a report on the five skeletons exhumed.” (Ceylon Daily News, June 21, 1972)
In the inquiry that followed, an inmate of Wirawila rehabilitation camp, K. M. Leelasena, of Maddawatte, Matara, told court that on 13 April 1971 he was shot at by certain police officers at the police station. He fell down and pretended to be dead; he saw others being shot and falling down dead. Later he managed to crawl into the jungle (Ceylon Daily News, 2 December 1972).
Suntheralingam proceeded to work his way up through the judiciary in the normal way, serving in various parts of the country. As Magistrate rarely did he accede to requests for remand without searching questions on the contents of a ‘B’ report. There were occasions when he would get a suspect to walk a little to see if he limped due to possible assaults on the heels, and would refer to the DMO for a medical report if he saw any signs of torture. In due course he was promoted District Judge, and then High Court Judge, at which point he retired. We used to exchange a smile occasionally in the premises of the High Court of Colombo at the former Queen’s Club in Bauddhaloka Mawatha.
The Regional “Disappearance” Commissions
In retirement Suntha continued to serve the public. At end November 1994 he was appointed to the Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons in the Central, North Western, North Central and Uva Provinces. Between 13 March 1995 and 11 April 1997 the Commission sat in Colombo and 35 other places. Some sittings were for two or four days, but most were for ten or more days, with about a two week break between each. During these “breaks” sittings were held in Colombo, investigations conducted, and reports written. The sittings were, in addition to Colombo, in Kandy, Badulla, Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Mahiyangana, Moneragala, Kekirawa, Polgahawela, Matale, Welimada, Polonnaruwa, Galgamuwa, Kataragama, Embilipitiya, Walapane, Kotmale, Anamaduwa, Wellawaya, Haputale, Hatton, Nikaweratiya, Habarana, Girandurukotte, Bibile, Uva Paranagama, Katugastota, Kuliyapitiya, Chilaw, Ipalogama, Gampola, Tanamalwila, Moneragala, Passara, Warakapola, Ridigama.
I have listed the venues just to show what a punishing schedule the Commission had. Meanwhile, two other Commissions were covering the remaining parts of the country. One was headed by retired judge K.Palakidnar whom I had known from the time we both worked as very junior lawyers in the chambers of C. Renganathan QC. Like Suntha, Pala too worked his way up through the judicial service, starting as a Magistrate. The other was headed by an experienced practising criminal lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama. These Commissions too had a heavy workload. They did, however, enjoy the advantage of being able the share a part of the work amongst several members, while Suntha’s was a one-man affair, no new appointments being made when one refused to accept and the other resigned. Luckily in his Secretary, Mr. M. C. M. Iqbal, Suntheralingam had exceptionally competent assistance.
Inquiries started in March 1995, and 15,045 complaints were received; by April 1997, inquiries had been made into 6,443 cases. Eight interim reports and a final report were issued. The seventh interim report referred to the “anguish and anxiety” of the complainants and voiced concern for their safety. Comprehensive final recommendations were made.
Human Rights Commission Of Sri Lanka
T. Suntheralingam was a member of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) from 1997 to 2000. After one of the convicted army personnel in the Krishanthy Kumaraswamy rape and murder case said in court that there were a large number of bodies buried in a mass grave in Chemmany, Suntheralingam and a fellow member of the Commission, Professor of Surgery Dr. Arjuna Aluwihare, entered the prison and met the corporal concerned. The HRC (as a result of this or otherwise, I am not sure) took the initiative of raising its concern, not only with the government, but also with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. The latter promptly offered expert assistance for a systematic and scientific exhumation. Bodies from the grave were thereafter exhumed, with local and foreign forensic assistance. Involved were the AG’s Department, CID and Magistrate. Amnesty International attended as observer, and representing the HRC was T. Suntheralingam. Sadly, the formal international rating of our Human Rights Commission has since been devalued. This is on account of legal changes which have reduced its independent status.
HRC Special Rapporteur On Killings During Cease-Fire; Constitutional Council
In January 2006 Suntheralingam was, with MCM Iqbal and Visakha Dharmadasa assisting, appointed by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to look into conflict-related killings taking place during the cease-fire. High profile cases so examined into were the abduction of Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation staff, the killing of five students at Trincomalee, the rape and murder of Elayathambi Tharshini, the killing of Kattankudy Divisional Secretary ALM Faleel, and the killings at the Akkaraipattu Mosque. The report, which had important conclusions and recommendations, was handed to the Chairperson of the HRC on her last day of office and ordered to be published. Suntheralingam also served from 2002 to 2005 on the Constitutional Council, which was created by the important Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution. Sadly this body has been abolished by the infamous Eighteenth Amendment.
Commonwealth Assignment in PNG
When Papua New Guinea asked for an independent person with judicial experience in a Commonwealth country to inquire into a high profile political murder, the Commonwealth Secretariat contacted Suntheralingam and asked whether he could go there immediately. He agreed and went, despite friends’ concerns for his safety. That was the killing in October 1996 of Theodore Miriung, Prime Minister of the Bougainville Transitional Government. To his disappointment the police refused to take Suntha to the site of the killing on the island of Bougainville, afraid for their own safety. He did however visit the neighbouring island Buka. Suntheralingam’s inquest was held in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and its finding, in December 1996, was that paramilitary forces supported by the PNG government were the likely culprits.
Suntha had no sense of self importance. He had a delightful dry wit. His trenchant observations about the high and mighty were a treat. I feel privileged that in later life I came to know him also in the relaxed atmosphere of his simple home, and began to count his wife Loga among my friends.
Beneath the veneer of cynicism, I once caught a glimpse of the other Suntha. A heart-breakingly sad expression momentarily on his face, he said to me, “this could be such a wonderful country”.
Writing this for the 31 day anniversary of Suntheralingam’s death, I was struck by the recurrence of the grisly theme of killings and abductions, of bodies in unmarked graves. Its spread across the years, geography and communities of our land. I was also struck by something about our judiciary. Suntha just did his job in a well-established system – like so many others. Playing its (oh! so precious!) role as impartial arbiter between state and citizen was no act of heroism. It just came naturally, this sterling service to the people of our country. And so came to my mind something Nadesan QC wrote at the time the 1972 Constitution was being prepared. It was about the appointment of judges.
Ceylon has today a judiciary of which it can justifiably be proud. This judiciary has a tradition of deciding without fear or favour between the subject and the state. By the very nature of this tradition, it may be difficult for a ‘loyalist’ for some time to give effect to his peculiar idea of justice. But in course of time, with loyalty to party, and not character or competency, being the deciding factor in the making of appointments, this tradition will be no more.
*Suriya Wickremasinghe wrote the article above for T.Suntheralingam’s 31st day death anniversary which falls today 7 November and was observed at Saraswathy Hall, Colombo 6.