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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Sri Lanka :Is this presidential commission on Matale mass grave worth its salt?

True to Sri Lankan style, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to appoint a ‘presidential commission’ to conduct an inquiry into the Matale mass grave.The mandate of the proposed commission is to be finalized in two days, Presidential Spokesman Mohan Samaranayake, said, confiding to our correspondent that he too is awaiting further instruction with regard to the latest presidential decision. Indications are that the decision to appoint a commission was made in a hurry, in an apparent move to wade off an international scrutiny on the issue which could even risk an international tribunal on the matter, such as the one on the Rwandan Genocide or on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Incidentally, the presidential decision was announced on the very day this newspaper reported a narrative by K.G. Kamalawathi, whose teenage sons who had been abducted by the Army on 13 December 1989. Mrs. Kamalawathi recalled how she was turned back at the gate of the Army Camp, when she went to meet the then Military Coordinating Officer (MCO), of Matale, Lt. Col. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, to seek the release of her detained sons.

In the backdrop of the prevailing climate of impunity in the country, and that some of those who held command responsibilities in 1989-90, are now holding positions of influence, including the current Secretary of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, it is open to question whether Sri Lanka is capable of conducting an independent local investigation into the mass grave in the backyard of the Matale Hospital. Equally important is that Sri Lanka does not have a witness protection scheme, which would have guaranteed the security of the family members who would come forward to give evidence before the proposed commission. Last year, a Tamil man known as Majestic Prabha, was allegedly abducted by the State apparatus, after he filed a Fundamental Rights petition against senior police officers who had allegedly tortured him while he had been previously held at a detention facility of the Terrorist Investigation Division.

Faltered and crumbled
The sad but stubborn fact is that previous ‘independent commissions’ that had been tasked with politically sensitive investigations had faltered and crumbled. Equally disturbing is that most individuals who had been handpicked to those commissions were, in fact, the apologists of the current regime. One interesting analogy is the conduct of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006 to probe into several high profile incidents of human rights violations, including the killing of five students in Trincomalee, and the massacre of relief workers of the Action against Hunger (ACF) in Muttur. An International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) – headed by respected Indian former Chief Justice, P.N. Bhagawati – was invited by the President to assist and observe investigations conducted by the Commission of Inquiry. However, in April 2008, after two long but futile years, the IIGEP terminated its existence, blaming the lack of political will on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka to support a search for the truth.

Sometime later, when the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry expired, it had done precious little, other than blaming the ACF for its slain employees – and showcasing to the world that the Sri Lankans lack competent domestic mechanisms.

The bottom line is that presidential commissions in this country are meant to buy time and to divert international attention. One could only hope that the latest presidential commission would be an exception to this norm. For that to happen, it is mandatory that the commission has international participation.

Four presidential commissions
Nearly 18 years ago, the then newly elected President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, appointed three interlinked Presidential Commissions of Inquiry on Involuntary Removal and Disappearance of Persons.

The three commissions were vested with a mandate to investigate and report on the human rights abuses, mainly the disappearances that took place in three main regions during the period 1988-1994.

These three commissions inquired into 27,526 complaints of disappearances and established 16,742 proven incidents of disappearance.

After the mandate of the three commissions had expired, the government established a fourth commission, known as the All Island Presidential Commission on Disappearances, which inquired into 10,136 cases and established 4,473 cases of disappearances. At the expiration of its mandate, the All Island Presidential Commission referred an additional 16,305 complaints which it could not inquire into, due to the limitation on its tenure, to the National Human Rights Commission.

However, in July 2006, the National Human Rights Commission decided not to pursue investigations into the existing complaints, ‘unless special directions are received from the government.’

The job of the proposed presidential commission on the mass grave would be made much easier by four lengthy reports prepared by the previous Presidential Commissions on Disappearances, which have provided extensive and disturbing details about the scale of disappearances, which were largely blamed on the State military apparatus and affiliated paramilitary groups.

(Earlier, faced with international condemnation, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in January 1993, appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal of Persons. However, mindful of his own culpability in grotesque rights violations that took place in 1989-90, President Premadasa, excluded the period of the second JVP insurgency from the mandate of his farcical Commission of Inquiry. The mandate of his commission covered only the period beginning from 11 January 1991.)

‘Chased away like dogs’
The All Island Presidential Commission in its report acknowledges the persistent problem in Sri Lanka’s security apparatus and law enforcement agencies: “The security forces and the police are necessary adjuncts of a State. They are required for the protection of the state and the protection of the citizens of the State. The average citizen looks to them for protection. The tragedy of Sri Lanka lies in the distortion of relationships between the citizens and the security forces including the police, which has resulted from the acts of both politicians and subversives.”

The report narrates the routine experience of grieving parents, like Kamalawathi: “During the sittings of this Commission, we repeatedly heard the saying: “When we went to a police station, we were chased away like dogs.”

Below is an excerpt from the Presidential Commission of Involuntary Removal and Disappearances in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces:

“Persons who sought the protection of law encountered a complete denial to them of recourse to the ordinary procedures of law enforcement; i.e. reporting to the police, the reports being followed up by an investigation by the police, a contemporaneous police record of the incidents of disappearance and statements of witnesses, and police report of courts with the attendant safeguards for witnesses, including the complainant, and assistance in obtaining relevant further evidence including forensic evidence.”

“I went to the police 76 times, but we were driven away like dogs.” – Father
And the reports shed light into grotesque counter insurgency practices deployed by the Security Forces.

Excerpts: “Broilers:” “A practice of keeping in unrecorded detention “stocks” of detainees of a certain age-group, who had been taken into custody in combing-out operations or casually off the road/beach was evident in several instances from the evidence of returned detainees. These persons then disappeared without trace after being taken out of the camp generally following on a subversive act that had caused loss of life or damage to property damage or on the camp being dismantled. Given the practice of ‘reprisal killings,’ sinister significance attached to these disappearances from State custody. Hence the slang of the period.”

Some military officers were candid enough to confess the pressure brought upon them by local politicians. Below is an excerpt from a statement given by Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatta, Commander Sri Lankan Army, to the Presidential Commission:

“While I was Co-ordinating Officer, Ratnapura, certain political pressures were brought to bear on me. I was given a list of names with the direction to take them into custody, that they were JVPers. I received the List from a former Minister (deleted from the report)…..When I checked the list with the Police, I came to know that they were SLFPers. I was told, that area could be cleared were I to catch them.”

Twenty five years after thousands of youths were abducted, tortured, killed and dumped into undocumented graves, the ghosts of the past have come to haunt Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans have failed to hold the killers of their sons and daughters responsible, and their very failure had condemned them to live in a climate of impunity. Should they decide to act decisively this time, not only would they help delivering justice to their dead, but also help end a culture of impunity, in which they have been held hostages.



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