By J. S. Tissainayagam –
Anxious to escape reprimand by the international community at the next UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions and Commonwealth heads of Government Meeting, Sri Lanka has arrested 12 persons in connection with the 2006 extrajudicial killing of five Tamil boys in Trincomalee. This however is only a façade. The government’s actual attitude to ending impunity in Sri Lanka and promoting reconciliation is evident not only in the glaring lapses in the way it is handling this case, but also in the recently-unearthed mass grave in Matale.
Since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the refrain of the international community has been the importance of accountability and reconciliation. As the Sri Lanka government displayed an aversion to both, the UNHRC adopted two resolutions in 2012 and 2013 advising Sri Lanka to move forward on these matters. The 2013 resolution asks Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for accountability reconciliation. Her recommendations highlight the killing of the five boys (known as the Trinco-5 case) and urges Sri Lanka to accept proffered UN expertise in criminal and forensic investigations to resolve these cases in keeping with international standards.
Trinco-5 has two intertwining threads running through it, both reflecting government highhandedness. On January 2, 2006, six boys were seated chatting in the gathering dusk at the waterfront in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka. A grenade was lobbed at them, following which a jeep full of masked men approached them. The men first assaulted the boys and then shot them in cold blood. These were civilian deaths during the 2002-2008 ceasefire, in a city that was not under siege but in the full control of the Sri Lanka military.
The second thread is largely the fight for justice by the father of one of the slain boys. The intimidation and suffering Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan underwent in Sri Lanka is emblematic of families of victims of human rights abuses in the hands of the country’s military and police. He was threatened by the police, who said they would not release his son’s body unless he signed a document certifying that the dead boy was a terrorist; his house was repeatedly stoned and watched by the navy; his patients were terrorised so badly that he had to wind up his medical practice. And finally, he was asked to abandon his quest for justice by Mahinda Samarasinghe, a minister in the Sri Lanka government who, incidentally, leads the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN Human Rights Council. Despite persistent intimidation, Manoharan has testified in many forums both in and out of Sri Lanka and has identified suspects publicly.
The most glaring omission in the arrests of the 12 suspects from the elite Special Task Force (STF) is that the man who has been identified as the mastermind in the murder of the Trinco-5, then Superintendent of Police Kapila Jayasekera, is not among them. Jayasekera was identified by name by Manoharan and in the well-researched report by the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna. It has to be also noted that over the years Jayasekera has been promoted and is now at a rank only second to the chief of police.
The sudden arrest of low-level suspects, before a major international conference, is but a trick by the Government, which is wont to hoodwinking the international community by pretending to combat impunity and promoting reconciliation. If one wants to find the truth, one should look at the government’s handling of another case that has not got much international attention: the Matale mass grave.
The mass grave was discovered in the central town of Matale in November 2012, containing 156 skeletal remains. Three professionals were assigned in different capacities to probe the remains: a magistrate, a judicial medical officer and a forensic pathologist. It has been determined the remains belong to victims of an armed insurrection in southern Sri Lanka that took place between 1987 and 1990. The insurrection led by the Sinhala-nationalist JVP against the then-government was put down with a brutal hand.
K.G Kamalawathie, a mother of two boys who went missing during that time, said on record that her sons were dragged away from her house by the military. She had followed them but was prevented from entering the camp to which they were taken by the army. She never saw her sons again and she suspects their bodies are buried in the mass grave. Kamalawathie has also said that the position of responsibility at the camp where her sons disappeared was held by Gotabhaya Rajapakse, brother of Sri Lanka’s president and the powerful secretary in the ministry of defence, who was in the 1980s an army colonel posted in Matale.
Since then, 13 families of missing persons have filed affidavits claiming they could have relatives buried in the mass grave. The logical process would be establishing the identity of the remains by matching DNA samples with their relatives. However, there appear to be stumbling blocks. Investigations have been taken off the hands of the two professionals handling them. Magistrate Chaturika de Silva who ordered the police to submit a full report to court on the remains by July 18 was transferred by the government out of Matale. The judicial medical officer who was in charge of the forensics was also transferred to a hospital in another nearby town.
In their place, President Rajapakse has appointed a three-member commission of inquiry consisting of former judges of the supreme and high courts and an ex-secretary general of parliament. Said the Asian Human Rights Commission, “[i]n 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.”
In both instances – the Trinco-5 and the Matale mass grave – witnesses have identified persons with command responsibility, yet statements of the witnesses have been disregarded. In both cases the government’s intention is clear – it is unwilling to carry out a genuine investigation into grave crimes such as extra-judicial killings.
The Government’s response to both these cases is also an example of the manner in which it approaches reconciliation. Throughout Sri Lanka there are parents like Manoharan and Kamalawathie who long for justice for their children who have disappeared or been killed by those in authority. One way of promoting genuine reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils would be that survivors and families of both communities find justice. But for that, the government has to be, at the very least, willing to be accountable.
J. S. Tissainayagam, a former Sri Lankan political prisoner, was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard and Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. This article first appeared in Asian Correspondent under the title “Behind The Facade Of Accountability And Reconciliation”