By Ranga Jayasuriya –
In a dramatic turn of events in the conspicuously dormant Court case on the killing of five students in Trincomalee in 2006, the Trincomalee Magistrate on Thursday remanded 12 Police Special Task Force (STF) Commandos till 18 July, pending further inquiry.
That was after the 12 STF personnel, including one inspector, were arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) earlier in the day and were produced before the Magistrate, at his residence in the night.
“They were arrested by the CID based on the findings of their investigation into the issue,” Police Spokesman, SSP Buddhika Siriwardene said.
He said the STF Commandos were remanded, pending a further inquiry and will be produced before the Magistrate on 18 July, when the Magistrate is expected to decide whether he would opt for a non-summary inquiry.
The 12 men, who were remanded on Thursday, were previously arrested in 2006, after the government was compelled by the local and international pressure to investigate the incident. However, they were subsequently released due to ‘lack of evidence,’ amidst allegations of widespread intimidation of witnesses and an officially orchestrated cover-up.
The reopening of the case and related investigation come after seven years of judicial lethargy and ahead of the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo.
The indictment and the recommencement of the case appears to have the President’s blessing.
President’s Adviser on Reconciliation, Parliamentarian, Rajiva Wijesinha, in a brief email conversation said the President himself asked the former Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, that he goes ahead with the case.
“This was an urgent necessity and I am glad this Attorney General has had the courage to issue indictments. (Former Attorney General) Mohan Pieris promised he would do this – one reason I advocated strongly for him to be made Attorney General, for which indeed he thanked me – but then he did not fulfil his promise. His predecessor said, when I urged this – and in fact the President had suggested to him that he go ahead – that he would not win the case,” Prof. Wijesinha said.
“But winning is not the point, issuing a charge is what makes clear the government’s commitment to justice. In this case, there is no doubt that a wrong had been committed, and who was responsible,” he added.
Earlier, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its report recommended the government investigates the killing of five students in Trincomalee and 17 relief workers of ACF (Action Against Hunger) in Muttur. A follow up report prepared by the government on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations noted “The Criminal Investigation Department has conducted investigations into the killing of five students in Trincomalee in 2006. The outcome of the inquiries has been forwarded to the Attorney General on 13.03.2006, under Reference Number CR1/59/2006. On the advice of the AG, the CID is conducting further investigations. Magistrate’s Court Trincomalee Case Number is B/11/2006 (b).
“The CID has conducted investigations into the killing of 17 Non-Governmental Organization workers on 04.08.2006 in Muttur. The outcome of the inquiry have been forwarded to the AG on 18.04.2007, under the Reference Number CR1/185/2007. Magistrate’s Court Trincomalee Case Number is B/843/2006. Advice of the AG is awaited.”
In 2006, faced with international outcry, the government appointed an eight-member Commission of Inquiry (CoI) headed by Justice Nissanka Udalagama to investigate a series of incidents, including the killing of five students in Trincomalee and the massacre of aid workers of Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Muttur.
A group of International Independent Eminent Persons (IIGEP) nominated by the international community and headed by respected former Indian Chief Justice, P.N. Bhagwati, was also appointed with a mandate to observe the investigations of the CoI. IIGEP subsequently pulled out citing lack of government’s will in the search for truth and the conflict of interest in the proceedings of the CoI in which, the Attorney General’s Department played what IIGEP described as ‘an impermissible’ role.
CoI, which came to be known as the Udalagama Commission completed its investigations into the killing of the five students in Trincomalee and ACF killings in Muttur and its findings suggested the involvement of the security forces in the killing of students.
Subsequently, CoI submitted its report to the President and contrary to the earlier presidential pronouncements, that the report would be made public, it remains shrouded in secrecy.
Justice Udalagama in a subsequent interview had this to say about the Trincomalee killings: “The evidence we heard was that the students were shot by men in uniform. One boy who escaped with injuries and who gave evidence before a Magistrate said, they were men in uniform but he could not identify them. One of the students who was the only other eyewitness and living abroad and was willing to give evidence could not testify after the video link was discontinued. The others who gave evidence in the case were parents of the dead boys.”
President’s adviser and MP, Prof. Wijesinha said, he believes the Udalagama report should now be made public.
Earlier, another investigation by the then Human Rights Commission’s own Special Rapporteur, made some strong conclusions about the culpability of the Special Task Force, under the command of then Superintendent of Police, Kapila Jayasekara, in the killing. Kapila Jayasekara is now the DIG, Kilinochchi, and has not been indicted by the Court.
Five students were killed near the Gandhi statue at the Trincomalee sea front on 2 January 2006. They were among a group of nine friends, old boys of Koneswara Hindu College, who had been admitted to university or awaiting university admission. The students were initially attacked with a hand grenade, hurled from a passing three-wheeler, which, according to some sources cited by the University Teachers’ for Human Rights (Jaffna), had then proceeded to Fort Frederick, which is the Army Headquarters in Trincomalee.
A local three-wheeler driver, Balachandran, who had shared with the families of slain students, information about the Green coloured three-wheeler, from which the grenade was believed to have been hurled, was later killed, allegedly by the military operatives in August 2006.
Another victim of the organized cover up attempt was Subramaniam Sugirtharajan, a freelance journalist of the Tamil newspaper Sudar Oli, who photographed the bullet-ridden remains of the murdered victims. His photographs revealed in the most conclusive evidence that the murdered victims were, in fact, shot in execution style and that they were not killed in the grenade explosion itself as the security forces and the police initially argued. Sugirtharajan was killed on 24 January 2006, allegedly by the government’s security forces.
Five students were injured in the initial explosion. Despite the frantic calls for help by two survivors, the injured were left laying on the ground for 15-20 minutes as no passing vehicle stopped to take the wounded to hospital.
According to an eyewitness account given by Yoganathan Poongulalon, one of the injured survivors, to the Trincomalee Magistrate from Hospital, 5 to 10 minutes after the blast, he saw four-five men coming towards the injured. Simultaneously, a jeep sped towards him, with the men who were inside the vehicle shouting in Sinhala.
Poongulalon told in his statement that he saw the men pushing four of the injured into the back of the jeep and assaulting them with their guns and hands.
Then they pushed them out from the back and shot them on the road. Poongulalon feigned death and survived with gunshot injuries. He said the shooting took place 15 to 20 minutes after the bomb blast. ‘Later,’ he said, ‘the jeep left.’
A hospital visitor who communicated with Poongulalon told the University Teachers’ for Human Rights (Jaffna) that after beating the injured victims, the assailants made as if to go, when a man seated in the jeep barked out an order to kill them.
According to his testimony, it was then the shooting started. After one round of shooting, the headlights of the jeep that that had come with only the parking lights on were switched on, before turning the vehicle. The men noticed two boys seated on the ground ahead at the bend of Dockyard Road and Fort Road. They asked who they were, and then went up to them and shot them dead. These boys were Manoharan Ragihar and Yogarajah Hemachandran. The witness said the assailants were wearing masks. The jeep then turned and went back along Fort Road.
*This article first appeared on 07th July in the Ceylon Today under the title; Slow grind of wheel of justice