Victim families and human rights groups have welcomed the designation by the United States Government of a Sri Lankan naval intelligence official allegedly involved in enforced disappearances in 2008 and 2009, as well as a soldier convicted of extrajudicial killings of Tamils in 2000 but then controversially pardoned. The two named individuals are Chandana Hettiarachchi and Sunil Ratnayake respectively.
Lt. Cmdr. HMPCK Hettiarachchi was a naval intelligence officer and a prime suspect, who absconded from justice, in the Fort Magistrate’s Trincomalee 11 abduction case, as well as one of the accused who was acquitted by an all-Sinhala jury for the killing of Tamil MP, Nadaraja Raviraj. According to Sri Lankan court documents, Hettiarachchi allegedly ran one of two special intelligence teams responsible for abductions and disappearances, operating mainly from Colombo but transporting detainees in vans to the naval base in Trincomalee. In Colombo, he is alleged to have worked closely with the aide-de-camp to then Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda. Only this week, Karannagoda, who had been charged in the same court case, was appointed as the Governor of North Central Province after the new government decided not to pursue charges against him. While former Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake was pardoned in 2020 after being convicted of the murder of 8 Tamil civilians in 2000 including three children. His case was one of very few cases where a soldier had ever been tried for war crimes in Sri Lanka and his pardon caused consternation internationally, signalling that domestic accountability is now an impossibility.
A relative whose loved one was among the eleven people who disappeared in 2008-9 at the hands of the Sri Lankan Navy, says she will now take heart from the news:
“When we saw that all the charges were being dropped in the magistrate’s court in Sri Lanka, we gave up. I said to my family, what’s the point of carrying on asking for justice,” said one of the Trincomalee 11 family members. “But now the seed of hope is growing again in my heart and you are watering it with this news. We are really happy that the Americans could at least do this; it gives us a little strength and hope. When I saw Hettiarachchi’s name on the list, I took a deep breath,” she added.
Her statement confirms how important accountability for past violations remains for victims in Sri Lanka.
The ITJP’s 2019 report The Navy: A Collective Blind Eye4 analysed in detail the evidence gathered in Sri Lanka during the police investigation into the disappearances by the Navy and cross referenced it with the testimony of other survivors, eyewitnesses and insiders and the command structure at the time. The study found large number of top Sri Lankan navy commanders were allegedly complicit in the torture, disappearance and murder that occurred inside naval sites from at least 2008-2014 which resulted in the ITJP calling for a review of engagement with the Sri Lankan Navy.
“This isn’t just a visa ban against low level alleged perpetrators but a warning signal to their commanders, many of whom are still in positions of power, that they too are extremely vulnerable,” said the Executive Director of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), Yasmin Sooka. “Setting up presidential commissions to recommend dropping charges and issuing presidential pardons won’t safeguard the commanding officers, who still have a case to answer for gross violations of human rights,” she added.
2 Tamil MP Nadaraja Raviraj was murdered 10 November 2006. An all-Sinhalese jury in 2016 acquitted all those on trial. After his release from prison, HMPCK Hettiarachchi came back to work at Navy Headquarters in Colombo despite being a suspect in the 11 Trincomalee abduction case. This is testament to the protection he benefited from at the highest level as generally speaking, as a suspect in a criminal case, he should have been suspended.
3 “Hettiarachchi and Wickramasuriya put the Dehiwala boys to a white van. Mahesh said that they were taken to be handed over to Ranasinghe in Trincomalee”, said Susantha Petty officer XC 30543, Northern camp (Kankesanthurai), 14 August 2018. Police Investigation documents. “Hettiarachchi has given him cash to get them food”, said Wijekoon Mudiyanselage Chandrakumar Leading seamen XS 37614 Puttlam Camp, 14 August 2018. Court documents (Ref 13 March 2017 B report) quote the disappeared youth Rajeev Naganathan calling his father in Feb. 2009 and alleging Hettiarachchi had brought Ali Anver to Chaitya Road Naval HQ and had him suspended and beaten. In March, the Naganathan family received an SMS saying Hettiarachchi had moved their son and other prisoners to the high security naval base in Trincomalee.