VOLUME 03 NUMBER 01 & 02


EXCLUSIVE : The inside story of the forensic investigations of Chemmani mass graves in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

The Government has nothing to gain by trying to limit and minimise the damage from an investigation into mass-graves left behind by the State forces. It would be far better for everyone if the offer of help from the UN High Commission for Human Rights and other interested organisations with experience is accepted. ALL mass graves, both known and those whose existence will be revealed, must be investigated without leaving any room for criticism or bias. There are then bound to be some healthy and interesting developments.

TORTURE and extra-judicial killing became endemic among the Sri Lankan Armed Forces with their politicisation from 1979 to a degree unknown previously. This was when the Armed Forces were used as a substitute for a political process which the situation demanded. The 1979 operation in Jaffna to clean the North of terrorism was undertaken against the better judgement of the Army Commander and other senior officers. The ‘Weli Oya’ operation in 1984 to change the ethnic character of an area by third degree methods was a blatantly political operation. There were rewards for individual officers who pandered to the vanity of the rulers

by undertaking to do the imprudent, the immoral and the unlawful. The Armed Forces suffered, created virulent rebels after their own image, and created in turn a rationale for their own prodigious expansion. In time expressions like ‘crush the eggs’ and ‘grind to powder’ became well understood jargon within the Army.

From about 1992 in the wake of international pressure and sections of the Armed Forces who felt the need, there were attempts to straighten out their image with regard to Human Rights. An important event was the dialogue between the Government and Amnesty International in late 1991. Among the undertakings given by the Government was to issue receipts for arrest as a safeguard against disappearance. Although this undertaking was generally honoured in the East during 1993, the serious shortcomings were also evident. The failure to issue a receipt was not punishable. It was also about the same time, in 1992, that the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF) was established as a monitoring body. Its two reports prepared by Justice J.F.A.Soza covering the period August 1992 to August 1994 bear testimony to the competent and dedicated work that was done.

With the election of the PA Government in 1994 there was a new emphasis on Human Rights, and an optimism that we had turned the corner. The new government signed the Convention Against Torture and in 1996, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But the optimism received a serious setback with the onset of disappearances in Jaffna during

1996, following a suicide bomb attack which killed Jaffna’s Town Commandant. When paranoia took over, the individual civilian had no safeguards that worked.

The rape and murder of Miss.Krishanthy Kumarasamy and the murder of those who went in search of her, by its very horrifying nature, created a demand for its investigation and trial. On 3rd July 1998 death sentences were passed on six service personnel, who in turn made disclosures of mass graves in Jaffna. While the trial does credit to the Government by being the first of its kind leading to a conviction, many glaring aspects of the case did not receive attention.

While we were about the first to sound the public alert on disappearances in Jaffna, we had subsequently said little on the Krishanthy Kumarasamy case as the facts were brought out by various organisations and activist groups and were widely written about.

In this report however, we explore leads in the trial that were not followed up, the relation of the crime to disappearances in Jaffna, and how well our structures are geared to fight the abuse of human rights.

There were several fault-lines in Jaffna. Everything was controlled by the Defence Ministry, including the   transport of journalists to Jaffna. There was too much complacency. The newly promoted generals in charge of 51 and 52 divisions controlling Jaffna had earned notoriety for the role they played from 1988-1990 which was the worst period of extra judicial killing.

The suicide bomb attack in Jaffna on 4th July

1996, though not in the least unexpected, resulted mainly from complacency. The system went into a panic and Jaffna was blacked out to journalists. The Defence Ministry ran the show. The safeguard of receipts for arrest remained a dead letter. The HRTF was virtually told to stay out of Jaffna until things improved.

The Krishanthy Kumarasamy murder took place in the context of indiscipline and lawlessness sanctioned during that period by the Army top brass. The complicity of the Defence establishment could hardly be gainsaid. By artificially isolating the convicted men from the system, the case against them has been made weak and unconvincing. It again strengthens the argument against capital punishment: Those who are sentenced to death are too often scapegoats from the humbler orders of society.

Take what we reliably understand was the context in which Krishanthy’s murder took place on 7th September 1996. Pungankulam army camp was a main camp east of Jaffna City that controlled Chemmani point where the murder took place. Persons detained over a large area were first brought to Pungankulam camp, where a decision was taken what to do with them. Many were then sent to the Intelligence Camp in Ariyalai East, which is quite near Chemmani, the whole   comprising a largely   uninhabited area. Here the prisoners were tortured, and we are yet to hear of survivors. On regular occasions the men at Chemmani point would be alerted during the night. The naked corpses of detainees tortured and killed at the Intelligence Camp were then taken to Chemmani in a vehicle, for the men at that point to assist in the burial. This context behind the Krishanthy Kumarasamy murder trial was staring at us from behind a thin veil which no one dared to rend. The defence attorneys prevented the men on trial from testifying, forcing them to wait till the end.

It for example came out during the trial that a complaint had been lodged at Pungankulam camp the very next morning after Krishanthy’s abduction. On 16th September, just after the matter was raised in Parliament, the Brigadier commanding Jaffna Town had asked the Police to investigate, surely, suggesting a cover-up. There was indeed more than this particular crime involved. To those who knew the operation at Pungankulam, everything was plain.

In November 1996 President Kumaratunge appointed a Board   of Inquiry chaired by a senior   Defence official with other senior armed forces officers to inquire into complaints about missing persons in Jaffna. About the only concrete matter for which they claimed credit was to ensure the issue of receipts for arrest in Jaffna – a standing obligation from 1991! As to what they really discovered, and what they told the President that her chiefs had hidden from her, was not revealed.

The revelations about the Chemmani graves were made in Court on 3rd July ‘98. The investigation into the mass graves was handed over to the Human Rights Commission (successor to the HRTF) by press notice from the Presidential Secretariat about two weeks afterwards. The HRC wrote to Mrs. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, seeking the help of her office (OHCHR) in the investigations. A reply was received from the OHCHR with an offer to help, provided the Government would agree to the basic technical requirements for them to do the work. This was communicated to the President’s office in September and reminders have been sent. We understand that there has been no response.

While   the   OHCHR has   been   kept   in suspense along with the HRC, it looked as though from March the matter was being handled by the AG’s department and the Police. There is ample reason to believe that both these institutions are politicised, and the most one could expect from them is a damage limitation exercise. One only needs to look at the catalogue of cases where the evidence was misled, bungled or simply not proceeded with. In his second HRTF report, Justice Soza drew attention to two important cases – the disappearances of 158 refugees from Eastern University and the massacre of 184 persons including 68 children at Sathurukondan – both inquired into by him and the findings recorded in his first report; where no action had been forthcoming from  the AG’s department or the Police. That was now more than five years ago.

We need also to face the fact that we have no real deterrents against the worst human rights abuses. What we have, do not work when they are most needed. The HRTF could not establish an office in Jaffna in 1996. The ICRC could be ignored when needed. Despite all the Commissions no senior officer has been punished. The President asks the Human Rights Commission through the Press to investigate the Chemmani graves and then sends it into limbo by failing to reply to their letter for months.

As to what influence the appointment of the Board of Inquiry in November 1996 had on the Army in Jaffna, we have given a fairly routine torture case that took place in Manipay, another intelligence camp, in January 1997. The victim was among other things drilled through the toes, hooks were inserted by which he was hung, and beaten. A nail was inserted into his hand (removed

20 months later), and was beaten on a heel with a spiked board. Probably owing to the ICRC finding out, he was handed over to the Police, was taken to Anuradhapura court hardly able to walk, issued a detention order for 3 months, and was produced in court in Colombo, where he was granted bail. He was completely innocent.

At no point was a move made by the Police, the Courts or the Prisons to ensure that he had appropriate medical care. All lent their complicity to covering up a victim of grievous torture. The system nullifies any benefit to the citizens from Sri Lanka becoming a signatory to the Convention Against Torture.

This will remain the case until, at least as a temporary measure, legislation is introduced to give a body such as the Human Rights Commission, the power to impose penalties and place it on an offender’s record.

There is not much point in an investigation of the Chemmani graves where its credibility becomes a subject of contention. For the Tamils themselves there are other issues at stake. There are several mass graves in the North-East that are the result of internal repression. An investigation into these is morally and politically essential for the Tamils in order that they could find their feet. These are graves not left behind by a brutalised state-army, but are   monuments revealing the nature of their so-called liberators. If the credibility of the investigation into mass graves left behind by the state-forces becomes suspect, the investigation into the other graves would also become impaired for all time.

The Government has   nothing to gain by trying to limit and minimise the damage from an investigation into mass-graves left behind by the State forces. It would be far better for everyone if the offer of help from the UN High Commission for Human Rights and other interested organisations with experience is accepted. ALL mass graves, both known and those whose existence will be revealed, must be investigated without leaving any room for criticism or bias. There are then bound to be some healthy and interesting developments.

(Executive Summary of the Special Report No 12, issued by the University Teachers For Human Rights (Jaffna), Sri Lanka.)