Feature Article

Assessing progress of Chemmani investigations

[TamilNet, Saturday, 02 November 2002, 18:42 GMT]
Amnesty International said in 1997 that as many as 600 people who "disappeared" in the Jaffna peninsula after the Sri Lankan Army moved into the area in 1996, "died under torture or been deliberately killed." A soldier involved in the crimes alleged that Chemmani was where bodies of those disappeared were clandestinely buried. However, the Chemmani mass grave investigation has become a victim of the judicial limbo common in Sri Lanka when powerful interests are implicated. Ethnic politics and the fallout of an active war have also contributed to the lack of forward movement in the case.

Sri Lanka’s current ambassador to Pakistan, Rohan Daluwatte, her ambassador to Australia, Janaka Perera, the Governor General of the Northeast Province and President Kumaratunge all had ‘command authority’ over those responsible for the disappearance and killing of Tamil civilians in Jaffna.

Janaka Perera
Janaka Perera, current Ambassador to Australia
The prosecution of the Chemmani crimes cannot move forward because the Ministry of Defense (MoD) must authorize funding for the bodies of the exhumed victims to be sent overseas for analysis. The CID complains that it has no access to the bodies. Since many levels of the Ministry and the armed forces it supervises could themselves be implicated in these crimes, it is unlikely that MoD will actively cooperate in the case.

In addition, the Government Analyst, the Attorney General and the Criminal Investigation Department must all present reports or opinions to the Chief Magistrate about the case, which they have no incentive to accomplish. Further the Magistrate has not yet threatened any consequences for inaction.

Chemmani checkpoint
Infamous Chemmani checkpoint where Krishanthi and three of her relatives were murdered
After the Sri Lankan armed forces captured the Jaffna Peninsula from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in early 1996 over 600 young people disappeared. The disappearances were particularly heavy after the attempt on the life of a visiting government minister and the fall of the army camp at Mullaitivu in July, 1996 and only came to a halt under heavy international pressure by Amnesty International and others. What exactly had become of those who had disappeared remained a mystery, however. In the sustained effort to portray Jaffna as returning to ‘normal’ under army occupation, there was little space for delving into the matter further by the police, the courts or any other body.

Chemmani landscape
Chemmani landscape
The disappearances would have been forgotten if not for the grieving parents, who had formed the Guardians of Disappeared Persons Association and the Jaffna Mothers’ Front, and by the few who follow human rights abuses in the Northeast.

The conviction of Corporal Rajapakse and 5 others in the rape and murder of Krishanthy Kumaraswamy was a positive development in the case. On Sept.7, 1996, at the height of the disappearances in Jaffna, Krishanthy Kumarasamy, a 17 year old schoolgirl, disappeared while passing through the checkpoint set up at Chemmani. When she did not return home, her mother, brother and a neighbor went to the checkpoint to inquire after her and also disappeared.

Exhuming mass grave in Chemmani
Remains of bodies buried being exhumed
Their bodies were uncovered later in shallow graves near the checkpoint. The only remaining member of the family, Krishanthy’s sister, began legal proceedings in Colombo with the help of Kumar Ponnambalam (killed in January, 2000, complicity of high level members of PA government suspected), Joseph Pararajasingam, MP, the Virakesari newspaper and relatives abroad. President Kumaratunge decided to showcase this trial as the return of justice to Jaffna, but Corporal Rajapakse’s chagrin at being the scapegoat made this tactic backfire.

Mothers of disappeared
Mothers waiting to hear the fate of their children(Photo: Frontline)
The dramatic Colombo courtroom speech by Col. Rajapakse after his conviction in 1998 for the rape and murder of Krishanty Kumarasamy also helped to keep the atrocities of Chemmani in international spotlight. In the presence of Amnesty representatives, other foreign NGOs and news organizations Rajapakse asserted that 300-400 people had been buried in Chemmani salt flats, that he knew where many burials of the murdered youth were, and that he had participated in the burials of many on the orders of his superiors in the military.

Soil samples from Chemmani
Forensic experts taking soil samples
In the summer of 1999, under the observation of international forensic experts, Corporal Rajapakse was able to identify the sites where 15 skeletons were found. Of these, two have been identified by relatives. It is unclear why the international experts did not analyse the remains discovered, but finding an appropriate and neutral laboratory and funds to pay for the analysis has been one of the excuses for delay in subsequent legal action.

It is remarkable that Rajapakse managed to identify sites containing human remains because the site had been under military control throughout the entire period and there were reports of smoke and activity by earthmoving machinery from around the checkpoint.

Location of graves and SLA checkpoints
The court case resulting from the discovery of human remains at Chemmani was initially held in Jaffna, but was moved to Colombo in June, 2000, shortly after 5 Sinhalese members of the security forces were arrested on suspicion. Almost all cases in which soldiers are accused of abusing civilians in the Northeast are moved to Colombo, because the soldiers either ‘fear for their safety’ or are concerned about a ‘fair’ trial.

Colombo has been almost completely inaccessible to witnesses from the Northeast and is so close to Sri Lanka’s power center that there is little incentive to move on ‘inconvenient’ cases. As expected, little action has been taken since the case was moved to Colombo.

Strengthening of the judiciary to deal with abuses against civilians, regardless of their race and political affliations is one of the requirements for good governance. If those with command authority over atrocities against Tamil civilians are decorated and promoted, the military will continue to be viewed an agent of repression rather than as a protector of the citizens of the island. Until the impunity enjoyed by the military is checked and the ubiquitous presence of military in NorthEast is removed, Tamil people cannot lead normal life free of fear and will see the government as paying only lipservice to democracy and human rights.

Related articles:
06.07.98 '300 to 400 bodies buried'
06.09.98 Government delays mass graves inquiry
29.10.98 Scandal surrounds Attorney General
08.01.99 Chemmani coverup suspected
06.03.99 Chemmani investigation 'political stunt' - paper
16.06.99 Chemmani witness speaks of killings, names officers
16.09.99 Mass graves judge reprimands SLA commanders
07.12.99 MoD findings 'do not inspire confidence'
28.08.02 Court seeks Chemmani Report


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