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Gota stalled police probe into mass graves: Report

ECONOMYNEXT –Five civil society groups are calling for government action to investigate mass graves which they say contain the remains of so-called “disappeared” in various civil conflicts on the island.

In a press release issued on June 22, the groups insisted that “if the Sri Lankan government is serious about dealing with the past it must commit to have international observers at all exhumations of mass graves.”

The festering issue of the disappeared has not been addressed in any systematic way by successive governments despite frequent promises.The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) created by the Yahapalanaya government has proved to be a disappointment.

Brito Fernando of the Families of the Disappeared says that after three decades and twenty attempted exhumations, only a handful of bodies have ever been identified and returned to families.

“We all know tens of thousands of bodies lie in shallow graves all over the island, so we can’t describe this dismal rate of progress as bad luck – it’s a clear lack of political will,” he added.

The five organizations released a detailed report on the past investigations into mass graves. It meticulously reveals the government’s “systematic interference with investigations” a statement issued by the five organizations said.

A 30-minute documentary film, “In Plain Sight – Searching for Truth Behind Sri Lanka’s Mass Graves”, was also screened at the event, illustrating how long and hard the families of the disappeared have struggled for the truth. The documentary explores the connection between disappearances and mass graves in Sri Lanka by focusing on different narratives, including those of affected families and loved ones, the press release said.

Investigations into a mass grave found near the Matale hospital prompted the joint report. The remains exhumed at that location in 2013 are believed to be of the hundreds of people who went missing during the late 1980s.

“Matale was the scene of hundreds of disappearances in 1989 when the former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the district military coordinator of the area; he was later named as an alleged suspect by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry” the press release said.

It added that a group of UN experts “wrote to the Government of Sri Lanka this year to ask what it had done to investigate and hold Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other alleged perpetrators accountable but there was no reply.”

Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the International Truth and Justice Project in South Africa was quoted in the release as saying that this “shows that documenting the crimes, collecting the evidence and preserving it is just the first step – thirty years later we still find ourselves fighting for truth and justice; without which the guarantee of non-recurrence remains elusive.”

“Accountability is not an optional exercise – it’s essential for building a future for all Sri Lankans,” she added.

The report examines the way investigations throughout the island have been stymied whether the mass graves are in the south or the north and east.

Magistrates and forensic experts have been transferred abruptly, police have delayed carrying out judicial orders, families’ lawyers have been denied access to sites, no effort has been made to find living witnesses, no ante mortem data has been collected, the Attorney General’s Office has dropped the case, and, in the very rare instances where someone was convicted, they were then pardoned, the report alleged.Though a new inquest law and standard operating procedures have been drafted, they have not been made public, nor have the families been consulted.

“There is total lack of political will with regard to mass graves investigations and enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka,” said K.S. Ratnavale, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Development who has represented families in mass grave cases.

“Added to this, the Attorney General’s Department views such mass grave investigations as part of ordinary criminal proceedings and is hostile to victim families.

This was evident in the Mannar mass graves investigations. While in Matale the magistrate who held an impartial inquiry was transferred with immediate effect. Thus, political interference is rampant in order to protect the interests of the Sri Lankan military and their political masters,” he added.

In Mannar, 318 bodies (including 28 children) were exhumed in 2018. Among the objects that were recovered were metal bindings which had been used to tie legs together.In Matale, some of the skeletal remains reportedly had bullet holes, and others were found to have their hands tied behind their back. There too, objects were found that a forensic archaeologist dated to the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, the Department of Archaeology stated that the Mannar site was a normal cemetery and a Commission set up by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa concluded the Matale grave dated from the 1950s.

“We are good at burying in this country but not at unearthing the truth,” says Bashana Abeywardane of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka which co-authored the report.

“We need to collect ante-mortem data from the families of the disappeared and meticulously locate the hundreds, if not thousands, of remaining mass graves with the help of international experts. Only then should excavations start” he added.

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