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Probe of Chemmani Graves- Why is Sri Lankan Government Dragging its feet?

by  V.Thangavelu


On July 03, at the Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar case, the first accused Lance Cpl. Dewage Somaratne Rajapakse dropped a bomb-shell when he was asked by the Judge whether the accused has anything to say before imposing sentence of death on him.  “We did not kill anyone. We only buried bodies that were sent to us by our superior officers. We can show you where 300 to 400 bodies have been buried at Chemmani” replied the first accused.  Rajapakse’s statement from the dock was corroborated by the 3rd and the 7th accused persons charged with murder and rape of Krishanthy Kumaraswamy, her aged mother, and murder of her brother and her neighbour.


Open secret


In one sense the accused statement merely confirmed what was an open secret known to all human rights and political activists. The Amnesty International in its report dated November 17, 1997 immediately after a fact finding mission to Jaffna said inter-alia, “ Approximately 540 people disappeared during the middle six months of 1996 alone. Over 60% of the 540 disappearances occurred in the two months after the LTTE overran the Sri Lanka’s Mullaitivu army base killing over 1,300 soldiers on July 18, 1996). Nearly all of them are likely to have died under torture or to have been deliberately killed by (Sri Lankan security forces)”.


It is now more than two months since this bomb-shell was dropped, but to date no concrete steps have been taken by President Chandrika or her Ministers to probe the mass graves at Chemmani alleged to contain the 300-400 bodies of Tamil youths who simply “disappeared” involuntarily.   Despite the pleas of Human Rights organizations, specially the top human rights watchdog the AI; President Chandrika remains unmoved and unconcerned to expedite the probe.


Assault in prison


What is worse the life of the first accused Somaratne Rajapakse himself is in grave danger after he was severely assaulted by prison guards at the notorious Welikada jail.  He was reportedly beaten up for alleging the existence of mass graves at Chemmani.  According to AI even while warded at the prison hospital, the guards who assaulted Rajapakse earlier had visited him and threatened him not to talk about the incident -  “Or you won’t be able to leave the prison alive.”  Rajapakse has appealed to the Commissioner General of Prisons to transfer him to Bogambara prison in Kandy since he feared for his life at Welikada prison. So far there has been no response from the Commissioner.


Apparently the powers concerned believe that Rajapakse has betrayed the interests of the Sinhalese. His revelation in the courts that mass graves exists at Chemmani has helped to portray the Sinhala armed forces as barbarians in the eyes of the world.


The AI in a statement commenting on the assault on Rajapakse said “ There are fears for the safety of Somaratne Rajapakse who is in Welikada Prison hospital following an attack on him by prison guards to retract his allegation, first made when he was being sentenced earlier this month.”


Rajapakse in his statement to the independent Human Rights Commission claimed that he was forced by guards to retract his allegation that the grave at Chemmani contained 300-400 bodies of Tamil youths killed by the armed forces.


Minister behind


What is more disturbing is the allegation by AI that a government Minister was behind the move to retract the original statement made by Rajapakse.  The Minister according to AI has ordered the prison guards to get a statement from Rajapakse to the effect that he had been emotionally disturbed at the time of making the statement to the High Court about the existence of mass graves and that it was false. The AI statement goes on to say that Rajapakse subsequently attempted to swallow the letter in order to preserve it as evidence, but the prison guards violently extracted it from his mouth resulting to some injuries to his mouth and chest.


The Secretary to the Ministry of Justice M.S.Jayasinghe has in a statement said Rajapakse sustained minor injuries when guards tried to confiscate some illegal papers which he had in his possession.  This is hogwash and no person in his right mind will believe such a story specially when considered in the light of past tract record of the guards of this prison. 


It will be of interest to know who was the Minister concerned who gave orders to the guards to obtain the purported statement from Rajapakse?  Prison department comes under the Ministry of Justice and officially none other than the Minister of Justice can give orders to prison officers.


Evidence to be destroyed


No doubt there is a hidden hand or hands working feverishly behind the scenes to

destroy all evidence regarding the existence of the mass graves.


The existence of the mass graves at Chemmani is a foregone conclusion since those 750 Tamils who disappeared after taken into custody by the army could not have vanished in thin air!  If the disappeared cannot be traced, they must be presumed dead, if dead they must have been buried somewhere, if not at Chemmani.  The logic is simple as that.


“Riviresa” army top brasses responsible for the arrest of these Tamils during search and cordon-off operations during 1995/96 are still in active service. They are the same generals now in command of the Jeyasikuru military operation at Vanni.

Therefore there are compelling reasons on the part of the authorities concerned to destroy evidence to save the skin of these army personnel.


Developments since the disclosure of the mass graves point to such conclusion.


(i)              The statement by a top ranking cabinet Minister who claimed that investigations could not be conducted on the basis of a convicted murderer’s statement against his superior officers(s).


(ii)            The Jaffna Army Chief statement that army could not investigate allegations against itself.


(iii)          The sealing off of all roads cutting through Chemmani and closed for all transport. This means Chemmani has become a no-go zone for civilians.


(iv)           The Co-ordinator, Mr. Senake Dissanayake and his associate Mr. Lohan Chandrasekare of the Sri Lankan government appointed Human Rights Commission have been suddenly transferred out of Jaffna by the Commission’s Head-office in Colombo. The Commission has specifically ordered the two officers to cease their activities immediately. These two officers were involved in collecting information about the 700 odd Tamils who disappeared after arrest by the army. Apparently their investigation work did not find favour  both with the Commission and the government. Protest by the Union of NGOs in Jaffna asking for the repeal of the transfer orders had as usual fallen on deaf ears.


There is not a shadow of doubt that the government is not only dragging its feet, but also doing everything in its power to sabotage the probe of Chemmani graves. 


Refuge under legal loop-holes


On August 13, Military spokesman Brigadier Sunil Tennakoon told reporters a forensic expert; government analyst and detectives from the police criminal investigation department will begin the probe after discussions with the attorney general. “ The date for the visit is yet to be decided,” he added. Now it is second week of September and no such probe has begun nor any official had gone to Jaffna.  It is now claimed that the competent authority to order the probe of graves Chemmani is the Magistrate Court in Jaffna. Thus refuge is taken under legal loop holes to stall the probe and the government must be thinking that if it can weather the present storm then passage of time will take care of the rest.


Under normal circumstances a government uses its armed forces only to meet any external threat to the national security of the country.  Only during exceptional circumstances like a state of emergency or national crisis that the army will be used, that too for a limited time frame, to maintain law order.  Internal security is always left in the hands of the Police.


 But what obtains in Sri Lanka is quite the reverse.  Sri Lankan armed forces (99% Sinhalese) have been used by successive Sinhala governments not only as an instrument of state terror to subjugate the Tamils, but also to protect the numerous state sponsored Sinhalese colonization schemes that have sprung up in their hundreds in the North and East.  Manal Aru (re-named Weli Oya in Sinhala- a direct translation from Tamil) is a typical paradigm. Of the 15 villages in Weli Oya one has been named Janakapura in recognition of the “yeoman services” rendered by  Brig. Janaka Perera in developing that village.


Culture of immunity


The Sri Lankan armed forces have long enjoyed immunity from any prosecution or punishment for carrying out extra-judicial killings of Tamils. This culture of immunity has been assiduously promoted ever since 1956. Although the government does not issue specific orders, there is the unwritten law in the armed forces that Tamils could be killed without attracting any punishment. This explains why there has been hardly any judicial or court-martial inquiries held to punish errant army personnel responsible for murdering Tamils enmasse. In the rare instance when a Presidential Commission was appointed to probe the Kokkaddicholai massacre in the Batticaloa district, Capt. Kudilegama  who was in charge of the army camp was found guilty and dismissed from the army. But the government after two months appointed him to  a top job in a state corporation!


The saddest part of the whole episode is that disappearances of Tamils still continue unabated. Tamils are deliberately shot like dogs by the army and dumped in lavatory pits and abandoned wells. Chemmani mass graves are just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, the skeleton of a Tamil civilian, Ratnasingham, was recovered from the lavatory pit of Vasavilan Mahavidyalayam (school). According to TCHR, London, there are many “mini” Chemmani(s) scattered all over the Jaffna peninsula including Vasavilan and Punnalaikadduvan areas.


As mentioned above, the government is out to destroy evidence at Chemmani to protect army top brasses who are spearheading Jeyasikuru military operation at Vanni. The best way to get about the job is to bump off Samaratne Rajapakse perhaps the only eye- witness to the burial of 300-400 Tamils at Chemmani graves. “Or you won’t be able to leave the prison alive” is an ominous threat indeed. No one should be surprised if Rajapakse one of these days dies under “mysterious” circumstances within the four walls of well-guarded Welikada prison. The Sri Lankan government is dragging its feet this to happen.