(New York) -- Last week’s acquittal by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court of all defendants in the mob killing of 27 Tamil detainees at the Bindunuwewa detention facility in October 2000 demonstrates the failure of the Sri Lankan justice system to address crimes against alleged Tamil Tiger members, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called for a new investigation to be launched immediately to identify those, including senior police officials, responsible for the killings.
On the night of October 25, 2000, following days of rumors in the local community that detainees were armed and dangerous, an angry mob stormed the detention facility. In spite of the presence of armed police, the mob killed 27 of the inmates, hacking and clubbing them to death. Some victims were burned to death. The remaining 14 detainees were seriously injured.
“These acquittals show a shocking failure of the police and judicial system in Sri Lanka to find justice for the dead and injured from this horrific incident,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “As the victims were all Tamil, the government needs to move quickly to start fresh investigations and to prosecute the perpetrators, some of whom were police officers, or it will only further distance aggrieved Tamils.”
Though there were approximately 60 police officers stationed around the camp, not a single officer arrested any member of the attacking crowd. Subsequent independent investigations revealed that not only did the police not do anything to prevent or stop the killings, but some police officers also participated in the attack.
The Bindunuwewa detention facility housed a total of 41 inmates, all of them Tamil men or boys with real or suspected links to the armed opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The youngest inmate in the camp was 12 years old, the eldest was in his mid-thirties. Among the inmates were youths who had been abducted by the LTTE, had escaped and sought refuge with the Sri Lankan government. Others were accused by the Sri Lankan government of being LTTE members, although none of them was ever formally charged. The detention facility was set up as a transitional rehabilitation centre, and despite many problems was regarded by many, including international observers, as a model center where the inmates had better conditions than at other detention facilities in Sri Lanka.
After years of investigation and prosecution, on May 27, 2005, the Supreme Court acquitted the last of the accused in the case, citing lack of evidence.
The police conducted investigations into the killings. Prosecutors charged 41 persons with various crimes, including murder. Most of those charged have been acquitted. Last year, five of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death. These convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court last week.
Impartial observers of the Supreme Court hearing said the justices were openly hostile to the prosecution, and seemed to have decided beforehand that the accused were unfairly sentenced. One justice publicly reminded the courtroom to remember that the inmates who had died were members of the LTTE, suggesting that this might mitigate the guilt of the accused.
“The judgment of the Supreme Court calls into question its impartiality in dealing with cases related to the Tamil Tigers,” said Adams. “The Court must put aside politics and personal feelings when dealing with criminal offenses involving Tamils.”
Following a public outcry over the deaths, on March 8, 2001, the government established a Commission of Inquiry into the killings. The Commission faulted the local police commanders––Assistant Superintendent of Police, A.W. Dayaratne, and Headquarter’s Inspector, Jayantha Seneviratne––for failing to protect the detainees from the attack in spite of prior knowledge of a planned demonstration by local villagers in front of the detention centre. Both are alleged to have known that an attack was likely, but neither acted to prevent the attacks. Neither officer has taken any disciplinary action against their subordinates for failing to protect inmates under their control. However, to date, neither Dayaratne nor Senivaratne has been indicted or even disciplined.
“To ensure that justice is done and seen to be done, investigations of senior police officials such as Dayaratne and Seneviratne should be re-opened,” said Adams. “To date, those in authority who should accept responsibility for the mob killing appear to be protected instead of investigated.”