After four emotional weeks in court and another two weeks of quiet deliberation, the trial against 5 Dutch-Tamil Sri Lankans in The Hague, charged with supporting the Tamil Tigers movement, ended in disappointment for both sides.
Richard Walker, The Hague
No one happy
The men were convicted of supporting a criminal organisation and sentenced from 2 to 6 years in prison. Dutch prosecutors had drawn up an ambitious indictment, charging the men with aiding and abetting terror, implicating them in the direct funding of suicide bombings and the training of child soldiers. For this part of the prosecution to succeed though, the men must have intended to terrorise the Sri Lankan population. If, however, they were shown to be supporting an internal armed conflict, then their actions were by definition, not terrorist in nature. The distinction is not easy to grasp. And both sides infer the judge in this case is confused about this distinction.
The upshot is that on October 21, the Specialist War Crimes Chamber in The Hague’s Paleis van Justitie effectively supported the defence’s notion that the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of Sri Lanka was party to a civil war, and was not a terrorist organisation. This may be of some use to lawyer Victor Koppe in his application to the European Court of Justice to have the LTTE removed from the EU’s list of banned terror organisations.
Irony writ large
If the case had ended there, both the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and Mr Koppe would have been happy. However, further down the charge sheet the men were found to have raised money for and supported an organisation on the EU’s banned list – a criminal act under Dutch law. In other words, the trial judge in the present case believes the Tamil Tigers is not a terrorist group but the fact that the EU thinks they are means that Dutch criminal law is being broken.
Mr Koppe’s office says it intends to appeal against the convictions. If between now and the appeal hearing the ECJ rules in favour of the application to have the LTTE removed from the EU’s list of banned terrorist groups, then the conviction for supporting a banned terrorist group would seem insecure.
Political score: 0-0
Pro-government newspapers in Sri Lanka cheered the convictions of the Dutch-Tiger 5 last weekend. But any sense of triumph has been tempered by the knowledge that more than a cursory glance at the verdict shows a Dutch court raising the LTTE to the status of combatants in a civil war. Colombo describes the Tigers as no more than criminal thugs, unrepresentative of the Tamil population.
Similarly, for the Sri Lankan Tamil community, convictions and sentences of up to 6 years represent a blow to an already defeated movement. They ask when they will see the first prosecutions of those responsible for atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan state. Pressure grows internationally for an independent investigation into the bloody denouement to the war in the spring of 2009, looking into evidence of war crimes on both sides. So far there have been hints of action being taken under domestic universal jurisdiction laws in the US and in Switzerland, against former Sri Lankan army generals, but nothing more. The great ICC-style tribunal called for by leading justice advocates seems a long way off.
As for the Netherlands and its case against the Dutch-Tamil 5, democrats commend the use of its war crimes chamber, albeit rare and sporadic. The investigation and subsequent trial cost the Dutch taxpayer millions of euros, and yet it won very little media attention. For some it was an exercise in post-colonial dogma. For others a necessary statement of intolerance towards international criminality.