Trinco Killings: Calls for Accountability Seven Years On
By Easwaran Rutnam
Exactly seven years ago as of last Wednesday, five young boys had gathered for a chat in Trincomalee close to the beach.
A grenade was lobbed towards the area where the students were seated and the ensuing explosion injured several people.
The five young boys, who were among those injured, were later found dead with gunshot wounds. The incident sent shockwaves not only in Trincomalee, but around the country.
While the incident occurred when the war was at its peak, the shooting drew the attention of human rights groups and the international community at large, with fingers being pointed at various elements over the murder.
Subsequently amidst growing pressure, a Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the incident but the final report was never made public.
However demands for justice over the murder have not ceased seven years on and human rights groups as well as the family members of at least one victim continue to seek answers.
Amnesty International, a human rights group headquartered in London, is carrying out an intense campaign on behalf of the five victims.
Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist of Amnesty International USA says after seven years of campaigning by family members, no action has been taken by the Sri Lankan authorities to bring the killers of the Trincomalee youth to justice.
“The failure to properly investigate this case despite a recommendation by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry established in 2006 and repeated in the 2011 report of the LLRC, clearly shows that Sri Lanka is either unable or unwilling to ensure accountability for human rights violations, leading victims and their families to seek justice at the international level,” McDonald told The Sunday Leader.
Amnesty International has an online petition demanding justice for the Trincomalee victims while street campaigns have also been held in the US.
Ragihar Manoharan was one of the victims and his father, it was reported, had received death threats for giving evidence at an inquest into his son’s killing.
Dr Kasippillai Manoharan and his family fled Sri Lanka and have been campaigning from overseas demanding that the perpetrators of his son’s murder be arrested and presented in court.
However as the dust settles on the end of the war four years on and normalcy is restored, calls for justice by people like Dr Manoharan seem to be falling on deaf ears.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US based human rights advocacy group, says there is little reason to believe the government when it assures accountability.
“Seven years after the execution-style slaying of five Tamil students on Trincomalee beach, the Sri Lankan government has taken no real action to apprehend the perpetrators, despite compelling evidence of involvement by the security forces. The government has claimed this case is a priority, including it in the now forgotten presidential commission of inquiry and in its response to the UN Human Rights Council, but actual progress in this case is sadly nonexistent. There is little reason to believe government promises of accountability so long as highly publicized cases like the Trinco 5 and the killings of the 17 ACF aid workers go without arrests or prosecutions,” Brad Adams, the Asia Pacific Director of Human Rights Watch told The Sunday Leader.
Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris, who is a legal adviser to the President, had told the UN Human Rights Council last year that the government is moving forward towards fresh investigations into two massacres that happened in 2006.
The former Attorney General gave this assurance during an interactive session with representatives of countries interested in the Sri Lankan issue in Geneva. Mr. Peiris is reported to have said that the government had in no way swept everything under the carpet. He said the matter had been investigated and the government would reopen the case to ascertain the truth behind some of the allegations.
One relates to the students who were gunned down while they were chatting near the Gandhi statue in Trincomalee.
However the Asian Human Rights Commission says what is of very real interest is that according to a Wikileaks cable the government had informed the former US envoy in Colombo Robert Blake that the security forces were involved in the killing.
Meanwhile, Dr Manoharan filed a civil suit in the US saying he will use all judicial instruments now available to him outside Sri Lanka to bring his son’s killers to justice.
In 2010 the US-based pressure group Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) submitted an affidavit containing the personal testimony of Dr Manoharan and two detailed reports of evidence collected on the killings by a Rights Group whose members are in self-exile due to threats to their lives, as record of evidence to the Dublin war-crimes tribunal hearing.
The tribunal subsequently urged the government to allow the UN to investigate the killing as well as several other incidents of crimes against humanity. The government however rejected the ruling saying the tribunal was not an accepted body.
Separately in April 2013, a panel of international experts will convene as Judges of the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) to examine reports on Sri Lanka including the Trincomalee killing. Among the many PPT panelists are Nobel Prize winners Adolfo Perez, Sean MacBride and George Wald.
As it happened according to a April 2007 report by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)
Dr Manoharan told the Magistrate’s Court on 10th January that he heard the bomb blast when he was doing medical reference at his home in St Mary’s Rd., 1,000 ft (300m) from the Gandhi statue. He looked at the time on the family clock and it was 7.35pm. He went over to the Martyr’s Monument checkpoint on Dockyard Road in about 10 minutes of the blast, but the Navy men did not allow him to proceed further on his motorbike. He rang Ragihar on his cell phone, whose phone was ringing, but there was no answer. He showed this to the naval officer. He was told that he could proceed on foot. He left his bike at home, returned to the Martyrs’ Monument seaward (east) of the checkpoint about 250 ft from the scene of the incident. Unable to proceed further as a barrier had been placed and the road was blocked, he stood with persons in commando uniform.
He then saw a wide-bodied jeep with only parking lights on coming from the direction of Koneswaram Temple (Fort Frederick) along Fort Road. After this he heard the sound of motorcycles approaching. (He clarified to us that these came along Dockyard Road from the direction of the town.) When the shooting began subsequently, he looked at the time on his cell phone and it was 8.15pm. (He agrees that this time may have been inaccurate and we have good reason to place the time at about 7.55pm.) The place of the crime was in darkness. The lights had been switched off locally at a post near the Gandhi statue. There were also no lights at the Dockyard Rd. checkpoint. Manoharan saw only the parking lights of the killer vehicle and the flashes from the guns from about 3 to 3 ½ feet above the ground, from two distinct locations, lasting 1 to 1 ½ minutes. He also heard screams for mercy from the victims. The parking lights of the killer vehicle were switched off after the shooting. While Dr Manoharan insisted that he be allowed to go to the scene of the shooting the security men prevented him. The violence so close to them did not seem to perturb them at all and they went on talking and joking among themselves as though it was simply their duty to hold the ring.
Dr Manoharan also added later that he had seen SP (Operations) Kapila Jayasekere’s ash coloured pick up (without police markings) parked near the Valluvar Monument at the top of Customs Road across the western edge of the Gandhi statue triangle on Dockyard Rd. This was before the shooting began. (There was light in Customs Road that is closed to civilians because of the prison and rubbish is often heaped near the top.) Jayesekere’s presence at the scene was confirmed to the Magistrate by two police witnesses, who were vague about the time he arrived and avoided giving the precise context. Manoharan also said that he saw Kapila Jayasekere’s vehicle with masked men at the rear of the pick up going towards the hospital after the shooting (he did not speak of Kapila’s vehicle in his testimony to the Magistrate).
Dr Manoharan told the Magistrate that the persons in commando uniform (possibly naval personnel) asked him to wait when he wanted to leave on hearing from a man in uniform, who contacted a colleague on his communication device or cell phone, that five civilians had been killed. About 20 to 25 minutes after the shooting he saw a truck like vehicle with masked men in commando uniform accompanying it take off from near the scene of the murder and pass him on the way to the Hospital. The vehicle lights were switched on after passing the checkpoint. This was, he clarified later, after Kapila Jayasekere’s vehicle had gone the same way, also after the dead and injured had been transported to hospital.
A further clear indication that there was a significant time gap between the bomb blast and the gun fire came from Ponnuthurai Yogarajah, the father of Hemachandran. He gave the time at which he heard the bomb blast from his home in Customs Rd. at 7.35 to 7.45. He then went out and waited a considerable time for his son. Not seeing him he went to the Old Police Station near the Gandhi statue. He added that someone there told him that he could not go towards the beach and he turned back home. He added that there were no police or army personnel where he was. On his way home he heard about 15 gunshots and he later went to the Hospital. He placed the time interval between the bomb blast and the gunshots at about 15 minutes.
Yogarajah testified on 16th January, 6 days after Manoharan, and by then the intimidation of witnesses had become blatant. In fact at the location he described, he had come very close to his son. We learnt independently that Yogarajah had been forced to kneel down by the Navy and was later beaten by masked men who arrived, either STF or Navy, and made to lie on the ground. He actually heard his son’s pleas just before the last two were shot and he was the first parent to seek his son in the Hospital.
Another indication of the time of the shooting concerns another of the victims Lohithathasan Rohan, the eldest son of Lohanayaki and her husband Rajendran Lohithathasan, who was expecting admission for civil engineering. Rohan’s mother who testified on the 16th January did not understandably mention his cell phone, which continued to ring when dialled for some time. The cell phones of all the victims had been removed except Ragihar’s. His phone was small in size and it turned up later in the back of his underpants. His gold chain and other possessions had been robbed.
Concerned to find out what was happening, Hemachandran’s family called Rohan’s cell phone (No. 0776xxxxxx). Twice the call was cut off. The third time a stranger’s voice spoke in Sinhalese and asked for their names and addresses and said mockingly that Rohan was with them. The conversation lasted about 3 minutes. The family remembers that the clock indicated 7.52pm while this conversation was going on.
In sum we may place the bomb blast at about 7.35pm, and the time of the executions (gunshots) at about 7.55pm and the gap between the two events at around 20 minutes. There is, as we shall see, while there is fairly good agreement between the civilian and security forces witnesses on the time of the gunshots, the main gap arises in the time interval between the blast and the gunshots. While the civilian witnesses place this at 15 to 20 minutes, the security forces try to narrow this down to 5 minutes or less.