Skeletons in Chemmani

Print edition : July 03, 1999

The recovery of two skeletons from the site of an alleged mass grave in Chemmani gives credibility to allegations that Sri Lanka army personnel were responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of Tamils they had taken in for questioning in 1996.

IT was a day that Sri Lankans, especially the minority Tamils, had been waiting for since 1996. It was also a day of reckoning for hundreds of Jaffna residents whose relatives had disappeared mysteriously three years ago after being taken for questioning by Sri Lanka Army personnel. On June 16, the question was whether a Magistrate would decide to give the go-ahead for the digging up of a patch of wasteland, suspected to be a mass grave where many of the missing persons lay buried.

For some 400 families of Jaffna it all began when a Sri Lankan soldier, Somratne Rajapakse, was convicted in July 1998 for raping and murdering Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, a schoolgirl, while posted at the Chemmani checkpoint on the outskirts of Jaffna town. In a statement he made after he was sentenced to death, Rajapakse maintained that he was innocent and alleged that senior military officials had committed numerous human rights violations. He went on to say that around 400 of the missing persons had been buried in mass graves in Chemmani.

Initially there were not many takers for Rajapakse's claims. However, procedures to investigate the allegations were set in motion - first by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission and later by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Statements were recorded and the judicial process began.

Soon, the Magistrate appointed to hear the case refused to do so, saying that "death threats" were being issued by the outlawed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The "Chemmani case" thus ran into a roadblock. Rajapakse's allegations, however, continued to engage the attention of the public. The Government for its part continued to maintain that an investigation would be conducted into the allegation in line with its commitment to transparency.

Meanwhile, the monsoon arrived and Chemmani was submerged in water. There was no progress for eight months.

Somratne Rajapakse being taken to the site of the alleged mass grave in Chemmani.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The judicial impasse was broken when N. Arulsagaran, a Magistrate from Colombo, was appointed Additional Magistrate of Jaffna. During his first hearing, Arulsagaran ordered that the investigation be completed as soon as possible. Coming out strongly against what he felt were unnecessary delays, he ordered that soil samples be taken from the area where the mass graves were allegedly located. However, his order could not be carried out since Rajapakse, who had claimed that he could identify the area where mass graves were located, was in prison, awaiting the death penalty.

Rajapakse was brought to the Jaffna Magistrate's Court on June 16. (Meanwhile, M. Ilanchezhian, a Magistrate from Mannar, had replaced Arulsagaran.) The state, which had taken up the case, wanted Rajapakse to be questioned on whether he would be able to identify in open court the location of the mass graves; if he could not, it wanted to start digging at the site from where soil samples were taken in March. A suggestion that he be asked for his consent in camera was turned down. Ilanchezhian stated that since the case related to murder, efforts had to be made to get a positive identification of the site. Not convinced of the need to question Rajapakse, the Magistrate ordered that he be taken directly to the site to identify the graves. Rajapakse, however, said that he wanted to make a statement in open court. In a deposition which went on for over an hour, he spoke about alleged detention, torture and murder of civilians who had been rounded up for questioning. He maintained that he only carried out the orders of his superiors and named several officers of the rank of Captain and above who he alleged were involved in torture and murder. "It was the duty of the junior ranks to carry out the instructions of senior officers," he said, adding that his job was only to "bury bodies". "I do not know if it was Krishanthi or whoever when I was asked to bury," he said.

These allegations were recorded by CID officials, who said that they had not heard any of this during their interrogation of Rajapakse. Rajapakse, however, insisted that he had divulged these details to them. He said that he, along with a co-accused in the "Krishanthi case", could identify 16 burial sites. He claimed that he divulged the information hoping that justice would be rendered to him.

When Rajapakse was taken to Chemmani, he pointed to a spot and said that two or three skeletons would be found there. At the end of two days of digging, the skeletal remains of two persons were unearthed and subsequently identified as those of two motor mechanics from Jaffna. The identification was done on the basis of information given by relatives about the personal effects of the missing persons. (The information was collected on the basis of a court order, prior to the exhumation.) The remains were sent for forensic examination to determine the time and cause of death.

Sri Lankan officials supervise the sifting of soil dug from the Chemmani site.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

RAJAPAKSE'S allegation and the events that followed have opened up sensitive areas in the government-military relationship. Unlike in the case of the armies of other Asian countries, the growth of the Sri Lankan military largely coincided with the rise of Tamil militancy. It was only over the past two decades that the country's army grew into a professional fighting force from being a mostly ceremonial formation. It is engaged entirely in counter-insurgency operations in a society where ethnic identities tend to get polarised at the slightest provocation. Now the human rights record of the Sri Lanka Army is being challenged based on the accounts of a former soldier.

Senior military officials are keen that the culprits should be apprehended. According to one of them, the investigation's main thrust should be to "find the culprits and finish the case." He said that this would not be a difficult task since only a handful of people were alleged to have perpetrated the crime. When asked about the morale of the armed forces, he said that the soldiers were keen to bring the culprits to book since it would help correct the public perception about the army.

The "Chemmani case" has helped define the judiciary's role in a case like this. By pressing ahead with the case despite the inherent delays, the Magistrate brought the independence of the judiciary into sharp focus - especially so because the case involves military officials.

On June 16, a large number of women turned up at the Jaffna Magistrate's Court with photographs of their missing relatives.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

International observers present at the exhumation were of the opinion that the decision to go ahead with the investigative process was unprecedented. They said that there were no instances of any government carrying out investigations on allegations of human rights violations by its military, when a conflict involving the military was on.

The Government's action will also be observed, particularly for its posturing on human rights. One of the main planks on which President Chandrika Kumara-tunga came to power was the promise of clean performance on the human rights front.

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