A decade without justice for Rathupaswala killings

Monday, 14 August 2023 00:44 –      – 23

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Sri Lanka has seen many atrocities committed by the State against its own civilians. Over 100,000 extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances are still on record since 1971. Yet, the Rathupaswala shooting of innocent protesters in the Gampaha district by the Army, in broad daylight in full view of the media including video cameras is emblematic of the impunity with which such atrocities are carried out. Ten years on, to this day there has not been a single individual held accountable for this crime.

On 1 August 2013 At least three people were killed and several injured after security forces fired live ammunition at protesters who were demanding access to clean drinking water. The army was called in to quell a protest against a company that was polluting the area’s water sources.

It is not clear why soldiers were deployed so soon without giving the police and local authorities a chance to handle what had been a peaceful protest. It is widely believed that it was done so on the behest of then secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The company that was involved in the pollution was owned by an individual who possessed enormous political clout.

Video footage shows soldiers with military assault weapons approaching the protesters. The protesters began running from the scene, some throwing sticks and other objects before the soldiers fired first in the air and then at the protesters. Some protesters sought safety in a local church, whose exterior walls were at some point struck by bullets. Church officials and eyewitnesses later said that armed soldiers entered the church and physically and verbally abused people hiding inside. Church staff were warned against supporting the protesters, with one nun being held at gunpoint, and journalists had their cameras broken. After the incident, journalists reported being threatened by military personnel against reporting.

Shamly Ravishan Perera and Kahandavita Arachchilage Don Akila Dinesh died of gunshot injuries, while Nilantha Pushpakumara died of injuries caused to his head by a blunt weapon.

The brigadier who was in charge of the military units that were deployed during this incident was given a diplomatic position by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. Instead of facing any disciplinary action, he was promoted and paid with taxpayer money to hold a diplomatic posting in Sri Lanka’s embassy in Turkey. Despite some judicial action after 2016, the processes have been stalled and there has been no accountability for the crime of killing three people.

Rathupaswala was the moment when the military machine that crushed the LTTE in the north with little regard to civilian casualties came to haunt the south. The impunity that was granted to the military for alleged violations during the last phase of the ethnic war in the north and the east had made the establishment immune to any legal bounds. Shooting innocent, unarmed protestors in broad daylight without any concern or consequence was the emblematic low point to which the Sri Lankan State had descended in what was anyway already a very low set for accountability.

The inability of the Sri Lankan judiciary to hold those responsible for this outright crime once again demonstrates its limitation to check on the powers of the executive and its failure of the Sri Lankan people who deserve justice against crimes committed by its own State.



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