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A dangerous delight in giddiness: Five years after ACF murders in Moothoor

”Today’s Lanka is characterised by public cynicism, fear and institutional decay: fear among journalists of crossing invisible lines; cynicism about the country’s rulers and general disbelief in what they say; and the progressive decay of institutions that should protect human rights.”
Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingham Sritharan, UTHR (Jaffna)

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting…There is no vice, that doth so cover a man with shame, as to be found false and perfidious – Of Truth, Francis Bacon

Tribute to the slain ACF workers, in the Sunday edition of Virakesari, Aug 13, 2006

Today’s Lanka is characterised by public cynicism, fear and institutional decay: fear among journalists of crossing invisible lines; cynicism about the country’s rulers and general disbelief in what they say; and the progressive decay of institutions that should protect human rights.

People’s distrust of the Police goes back many decades. What is even worse today is the level of public distrust in all other components of the justice system, including the Attorney General’s office and even the judiciary, because they have now become so deeply politicised. (Supreme Court in the Bindunuwewa Massacre case Special Report 19 Part-I, Colombo High Court in the Tissainayagam case Special Report No.35.12).

It is the common and tragic experience of the people of this country that the system is so debased that the majority of Lankans have no prospect whatsoever of justice. This has spurred generations of youth to armed rebellion, and in turn made a virtue of extra-judicial killings, or state terror in the name of fighting terrorism. How often must this scenario be repeated? Is this a lesson we will never learn?

Complacency about the state of affairs is reflected in the testimony before the LLRC by a former head of the Peace Secretariat, that in his own view, ‘hardly any instance [of a prima facie case of violation by the state of laws] been established. However I believe there is at least one instance [the Five Students case] in which the state should have taken legal action.’ Just one among thousands in the North-East? The problem lies with the law enforcement authorities who refuse to acknowledge what the public knows for sure. Time and again the truth has been covered up on instructions from the top.

There have been thousands ‘white van’ abductions and paramilitary-style executions of unarmed civilians in recent years. Some have been repugnantly sadistic; for example when authorities have released suspects (sometimes after months in detention) and then sent killers after them. In several cases there is strong evidence as to the identity of the perpetrator:

The murders of Fr.Thiruchchelvam Nihal Jim Brown and Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas:

The naval officer responsible is known (Special Reports No.25, 33-18.2). Further in Fr. Brown’s case, Magistrate Mrs. Nanthasekaran’s order to the Police to secure a crucial piece of evidence resulted in her immediate transfer by the former Chief Justice in his capacity as Chairman JSC, and her order was never carried out (Special Reports 25 & 33-18.2).

· The disappearance of the child protection officer Stephen Sunthararaj, who worked in a child abuse cases that implicated state officers and also in one against the LTTE:

Suthararaj was abducted at a traffic light junction in Colombo soon after being discharged by court after nearly two months in police detention, there is evidence of involvement by military intelligence and personnel from the Ministry of Defence: (Special Reports 33-18.2)

· The ACF and Five Students massacres:

Both were criminal actions involving high ranking officers of the security forces. The motive in both cases appeared mainly to do with malice (Special Reports 30, 33 & 24, 35

But where are the investigations? Why do the perpetrators remain free? Why is this not a national scandal?

We must recall how commonplace extrajudicial killings had become (they are almost embraced as legitimate in our lawless state), and how quickly most are forgotten by everyone but the families of the victims.

· On 16th July 2006 morning paramilitary men shot dead two auto rickshaw drivers waiting for hire in Pt. Pedro square, which is opposite the Brigade HQ entrance and under army guard. Such incidents were so common at the time that these two murders ceased to be news after one day and were dismissed amid speculation that the victims like many in their profession may had been forcibly taken for training by the LTTE during the peace process.

There has been no further investigation, and no justice. Failures like this, whether they result from callousness or numb complacency, do not bode well for Lanka’s future.

A great deal of misery lurks behind placid walls in Jaffna and elsewhere in the North-East, which Sinhalese visitors are not meant to see. In many a humble home women bear their loss in silence (see Special Report No. 28).

Mathivathani, who lives west of Pt Pedro, fasts and goes to the temple daily for the return of her husband Nadarajah Sritharan, a timid shop assistant who disappeared on 17th May 2008 . Her family went to Yakkarai army camp on hearing that Sritharan’s bicycle was there. Witnesse had seen him passing Nelliady. The Army maintains that the bicycle was found and brought it to them. The family searched the scrubs behind the camp and found no trace of the victim. Both state-related and LTTE vigilantes had killed around ten persons within a few streets of Mathivathani’s home.

The former head of the peace secretariat, while conceding that there was in his view a prima facie case of state culpability in the Five Students’ case, gave the official position that prosecution would fail due to a paucity of witnesses. We have given testimony that while there were scores of witnesses, they had been systematically intimidated over a long period by state-related vigilantes and at least one was killed; and the security forces hierarchy in Trincomalee had been complicit in the execution and cover up.

The Attorney General’s Department is not a helpless bystander in these travesties of justice. In recent times, the public was aghast at official pronouncements identifying anyone accusing the Army of wrongdoing as a traitor, to whom the ‘people’, as the LTTE used to say, would mete out the right punishment. But then the Army ceased to be sacrosanct after General Fonseka fell out with the Rajapakses.

Several army officers deemed close to Fonseka were arrested for alleged treason. Among them was Brigadier Duminda Keppetiwalana, whom the Attorney General told the Supreme Court in writing (28 Mar.2010) was involved in the murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. He based his conclusion on the evidence of phone records. These have surfaced more than a year after the murder, in the wake of the giants falling out.

But, as is so often the case, the accused was later granted bail and the charge was left in the air

It must be said here that whereas intellectuals have succumbed to pressure or played safe, it is the journalists who have carried the burden of dissent and telling us the truth. They have taken risks and carried on writing and have paid with their lives under the present government.

Against the politicised drama over phone records in the Editor’s case, there has been a glaring oversight in the Action Contra la Faim (ACF) massacre case. The phone records were not presented to either the Magistrate or the Commission of Inquiry (CoI). The significance of the phone records is to do with the official position that the killings, based on the JMO’s report, took place early morning on 4th August 2006 (thus implicating the LTTE instead of the Sri Lankan security forces).

· We interviewed a young man named Senthoorkumaran, brother of massacre victim Kohila. Kohila had called her brother from the Mutur ACF office from the cell phone of her colleague Jaseelan, asking him to tell their mother not to be anxious and to take nourishment as they were safe and would arrive in Trincomalee the next morning. The time was between 4.15 and 4.30 PM on 4th August 2006 .

Senthoorkumaran,told us he immediately went home and told his mother. This makes the JMO’s report wrong by about 10 hours. The time of the killings was late afternoon as confirmed also by independent eyewitness testimony, details of which we provided to the CoI in 2008
 Senthoorkumaran, who has refused to retract his testimony, has faced repeated harassment and abuse – including severe torture by elements of the security forces and is in hiding.

The intimidation and harassment of witnesses by police officers, especially from the commission’s investigation unit followed a general pattern. Mrs. Niranjaladevi Muralitharan, the wife of an ACF victim, who was severely harassed, fell ill and died. Witness Rev. Sornarajah too was hounded like a criminal and had to flee the country because he had testified to seeing the victims about 8.30 AM on the fatal day, again discrediting the testimony of the JMO.

The main role of the, Attorney General was to obstruct the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) watching the proceedings, dismiss its concerns, and create doubts about its integrity in Sinhalese minds. A high point of his role was to prove that the bullet obtained from victim Romila, and identified on recovery by pathologist Dr. Dodd and three police officers from the CID as 5.56 mm, arguing that Dr. Dodd was no ballistic expert, as though it would require an automobile expert to tell a Morris Minor from a Volkswagen (Special Report 27).

· We have independent testimony that 5.56mm bullets were found in the bloody muck where Romila lay (Special Report 30, Addendum). (See also Special Report 33.)

The CoI report was not made public. From the Chairman’s public statements, its import was to implicate the LTTE on the basis of the time given by the JMO (early morning), LTTE’s presence in town in the morning and no witness to army presence in town any time of the day.

In fact, an eyewitness who implicated the Army, Police and home guards in the killings was prevented by the government from testifying when video conferencing was stopped on the President’s orders, but his signed affidavit to the IIGEP was made available to the CoI.

Witnesses who remained in the county were silenced. For those like Kohila’s family who remain true to their dead daughter and have persisted in wanting to see justice done, the agony has been compounded by regular official harassment. And what of the victims of all those killings that have been routinely covered up?

The Attorney General who directed the evidence in the ACF inquiry today chairs the LLRC. The ACF case is all about how deeply politicised our institutions are, and how instead of justice they deliver more agony and suffering to those already bereaved. Could such rule ever give this country hope? If the LLRC wants to show that it means business, let it examine the ACF case and put the record straight. We cannot go on putting on shows of giddiness about truth. Let truth telling also be an act of reconciliation.

A final word: We need to recognise that self-serving dogmas as laws having to be silent, when a state fights terrorism, are inherently malignant. Tracing the steps from 1971 by which the State acted with increasing disregard for the law, we see 1977, 1983, 1984-July 1987, August 1987-1992 and 2006- as stages representing incremental degeneration. We are painfully learning today that if we justify laws being silent even for a moment, they easily may become silent for all time.

At the same time rebel forces, by their own actions and by creating excuses for states by their excesses, have made an enormous contribution to depriving us of the benefits of the rule of law.


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