Bring the perpetrators to book
Posted on August 19th, 2018

By Arjuna Ranawana Courtesy Ceylon Today

It is not surprising that we have dozens of mass graves, full of undocumented human remains in many parts of the country,because, in the short span of 38 years we have had multiple armed civil conflicts which were put down with overwhelming brutality by the State.In each case, of course, the State had every right to defend itself, but even nine years after the last conflict, Eelam War IV, ended we are still disinclined to thoroughly investigate these mass graves and find and punish the perpetrators of these massacres.
The only exception was the investigation into the Chemmani mass grave in Jaffna which began after Army Lance Corporal Somaratne Rajapakse, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a Jaffna schoolgirl, revealed details of the site in 1998. Investigations were conducted under international observation and several Security Forces personnel were arrested but none were prosecuted.
Perpetrators
The Asian Human Rights Commission records 28 known mass graves in the country connected to conflicts. (There are other mass graves from natural disasters such as the tsunami.)  Those from conflict alone range from sites found on the Jaffna Peninsula and to the East of the country and in the South such as Matale and Sooriyakanda. It is suspected that the alleged perpetrators of these acts could be the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, the Police or the LTTE. The numbers buried range from the 25 or so found at the Duraiappah Stadium in Jaffna to the 300 plus found in the Sooriyakanda mass grave which contained some 30 schoolchildren allegedly killed at the behest of their Principal.
The site currently occupying Media space is the mass grave found in urban Mannar which has been under archeological excavation for nearly 50 days.  The grave was discovered in December 2013 by construction workers and has been under intense scrutiny since then. Two weeks ago the site was closed off to the Media and non-Governmental Organizations but later the Courts lifted the ban against the Media. Quite rightly, the Office of Missing Persons is currently providing support for the excavations.
Last Sunday’s CeylonToday ran an interview with Professor Raj Somadeva an internationally-trained expert in Archaeology and Ancient History who is in charge of the excavation. In this interview Somadeva revealed that there are two types of burial sites in the Mannar site, one a ‘formal’ burial site and the other an ‘informal’ one.
In the formal site, the Professor says the bodies are laid out very straight, each body was intact and separated from each other. Artefacts recovered from this area indicate that they may have been Hindus who were buried there, in keeping with their rituals, many years ago.
In the informal site he said, We can see a very chaotic distribution of skeletons with no directions followed in burial, it’s looked like bodies were dumped.” His associate, Judicial Medical Officer, Dr.Saminda Rajapaksha was quoted in the Media as saying the bodies appear to have been dumped informally on top of each other.” That is a classic sign that these are most probably victims of extra-judicial executions.
In the 48 days of excavation, 71 bodies have been recovered from the site.Among them are six women and a similar number of children below 12 years of age, according to Prof. Somadeva. At least three of the kids are believed to be below seven years of age as their milk-teeth have been found to be intact. Dating the burials is essential to find out who the perpetrators were, as control of this area changed hands during the war between the Government security forces and the LTTE. Samples taken from the remains of the children have been sent to a specialized laboratory in the United States for accurate dating.
Another mass grave site that has been excavated in recent times is the one found in Matale, where work was carried out in 2013. Somadeva who also led that dig says he produced a report on the excavations and what he found but does not know what happened to the report.
Somadeva said that in his report he proposed it was a crime. There were 154 human skeletons and most of the skeletons were subject to testing and found to be of young people.  I compiled the events and artefacts and I provided the relative date to the events.”Somadeva found that some of the skeletons were bundled or tied together. One human skeleton was attached to a metal noose to the lower part of the leg, he said. There were also both men and women of the same age group buried there.
Somadeva said the investigation went nowhere. You know at that time there was political interference to that case. So ultimately they (the Government) transferred the Magistrate and the police officers involved in the case.” This effectively stymied the investigation.
Somadeva dated the skeletons as being from bodies buried between 1986 and 1990 when the last JVP uprising was at its height. Inquiring Magistrate into the Matale massacre, Chathurika de Silva told a Matale Court that a parallel investigation by a Judicial Medical Officer reached the same conclusion on the dates, the Associated Press reported at the time.
Speculation
But after the investigations no action was taken and a subsequent presidential inquiry also yielded no prosecutions. There has been much speculation as to why no action was taken. One of the theories is that the United National Party which was in the Opposition at the time the site was discovered, didn’t want a probe because they would have been held responsible as they were governing at the time the killings allegedly took place. The Government in power during the discovery also discouraged action, because it was reported that Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was Secretary Defence had been a Lt. Colonel in the Army and was the Officer-in -Charge of the region around that time the killings allegedly took place.
Commentator Lionel Bopage writing in the Sri Lanka Guardian earlier this year observed that while certain mass atrocities can be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law the application of international law has become so much more problematic and hindered by those who seek to protect their economic, political and ideological interests. Often this has been related to establishing, maintaining, or consolidating power of a certain bloc or regime.”
That maybe why successive regimes in Sri Lanka have balked at digging deep into atrocities behind the mass graves, finding out who was responsible and punishing the guilty, because they know their hands are bloodied as well, and would have to share the blame. Politicians will briefly highlight these atrocities for short-term gain, but not go the whole hog because they don’t want to ruffle the feathers of their friends or antagonize Security Forces whom they may want to call on to carry out this type of act sometime in the future.
These delays and obstructions to justice take a heavy toll on the tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who are still seeking answers and closure about their missing kith and kin. They need to know whose bones are buried without name or number in these mass graves, as they seek in vain for loved ones in the detritus of Sri Lanka’s various battlefields.
We Sri Lankans carrying the burden of anguish we have suffered in conflict should make a decision. Let’s       a conclusive end and punish the wrongdoers. The mothers’, fathers’ spouses, siblings and children of those lying in those mass graves must be able to have closure, and not keep searching in vain.  The perpetrators and those who give the orders for such crimes must be held accountable if we are to move forward as a nation that has healed.

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