Last week, Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda was sanctioned by the United States for gross violation of human rights. Though the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not detail the accusations against Karannagoda, it was announced that the allegations against the former Navy commander are “serious and credible.”In February 2019, Karannagoda, was named as the 14th suspect in the Navy 11 case. He was accused of having known about the enforced disappearance of civilians by naval personnel he had command responsibility over but he chose to take no action. In 2021, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration dropped all charges, including conspiracy to murder, against Karannagoda. After the Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam told the Court of Appeal that the State will not pursue charges against Karannagoda, the lower courts released him from the case. Soon after he was appointed as the Governor of the North-Western Province by the President.
Karannagoda now joins an unholy group of individuals under international sanction which includes Presidents Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa who were sanctioned by the Canadian government recently. The US had previously sanctioned Chief of Defence Staff and former army commander Shavendra Silva and in 2021 added Chandana Hettiarachchi, a Sri Lankan naval intelligence officer who is also involved in the ‘Trinco 11’ case along with Sunil Ratnayake, a soldier found guilty of murdering at least eight Tamils, and later pardoned by Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Navy 11 case remains one of the most heinous crimes committed by the security forces against civilians. Members of an intelligence unit of the Navy are accused of abducting, holding to ransom, and executing at least 11, mostly Tamil civilians. These crimes were committed after the end of the war. Subsequent investigations by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) proved that none of the victims were connected or suspected of being connected to the LTTE. The case has become a symbol of the impunity granted to the military and the sheer impotency of the Attorney General and the courts to deliver justice to victims.
This case which was investigated by the CID was an opportunity for the Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate a semblance of justice for crimes ensuring that those reasonably suspected of criminal responsibility, including those implicated for aiding and abetting and under command responsibility, are brought to trial. It would have also demonstrated that the local justice system was able to handle a case of this nature which would have softened the demands for international judicial actions against the military for the alleged crimes committed in the context of the war. The case concerned crimes such as abduction, holding to ransom and murder, that were well established within the criminal code and did not require additional legislation or invoking international law as would be the case for crimes committed within the context of an armed conflict.
However, the failure to deliver justice in the Navy 11 case, a crime that took place outside of an armed conflict, is ample evidence that the Sri Lankan judiciary is incapable of dealing with accusations of gross violations of International Humanitarian Law that would have occurred within the conflict. As this inaction has now landed the highest-ranking naval officer in the history of the country on a list of sanctioned individuals, the lack of domestic accountability for past crimes will continue to haunt the Sri Lankan State, particularly its military for years to come. By refusing to bring perpetrators to justice, and even taking extraordinary steps to protect them, Sri Lanka has paved the way for the wheels of international justice to turn against them.