A controversial acquittal

Print edition : July 01, 2005

At the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Camp after the attack on October 25, 2000. - MANOJ RATNAYAKE/AP

IN late May, a human rights case which rocked Sri Lanka five years ago came to an end with the Supreme Court's acquittal of four persons, including a police officer, who were sentenced to death for the massacre of 27 Tamils.

The victims were housed in the government-run Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Camp at Bandarawela in central Sri Lanka when a mob of villagers descended on them on October 25, 2000. Most of the inmates were either members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) captured in the battlefield or Tamil youth arrested for minor offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was then in force.

Initially, 41 persons, including two police officers, were indicted for the massacre. But, over a period of time, all but five were freed for "lack of evidence". On July 1, 2003, a Trial-at-Bar of the Colombo High Court sentenced to death the five persons - two police officers and three Sinhalese villagers - for "complicity". One police officer was acquitted subsequently. On May 27, the Supreme Court acquitted the remaining four.

A five-member bench of the Supreme Court said the High Court had "misdirected itself" on the allegations. The court said that "there was not any merit" in the contention that the police officer was a member of the unlawful assembly with the common object of causing hurt to the detainees, the state-run Daily News reported.

The Supreme Court added that the "allegation of police shooting" was not borne out by medical evidence and that the lower court had "failed to evaluate the evidence with regard to the alleged shooting and had accepted the detainees at face value".

The New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) criticised the court's decision in a 33-page report. It called the investigation done by the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC) "a mere cover-up operation". The SLHRC's report on the massacre had "dispensed with some crucial details" and though its interim report of November 2000 had "implied that there would be a final report", such a document was "never released". The ACHR report said a Presidential Commission of Inquiry was "another farce commission" to "shield the culprits".

On the state's responses, ACHR director Suhas Chakma said in his report: "Accountability must start with the prosecution of the culprits of the massacre of the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre, which was intended to be the showpiece for the outside world where former rebels of the LTTE were supposed to be rehabilitated and punished. Otherwise, devising the strategies to confront the LTTE or exposing the violence of the LTTE cannot address the root causes of the conflict with ethnic Tamil minorities."

Expressing disappointment over the turn of events, a former Tamil militant said: "It all appears that the initial fervour was just an international image-building exercise." The acquittal of all those indicted in the massacre, particularly at a time of impasse in the peace process and declining levels of confidence between the Tigers and the government, could form part of the larger campaign by the Tamils against the state.

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