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(London) - The British government’s failure to file criminal charges against a former Tamil Tiger leader for grave human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is a tragic missed opportunity to bring a notorious rights abuser to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

In spite of strong efforts by the Metropolitan Police, on May 9 the United Kingdom government announced that the Crown Prosecution Service found there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction for any criminal offences in the UK” against Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, known as Colonel Karuna Amman.

“Britain is missing a golden opportunity to show that human rights violators like Karuna will be tried for grave abuses, no matter where they took place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If he escapes prosecution, it will be a tragedy both for his many victims and for international justice.”

Karuna was the top commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in eastern Sri Lanka, and the reputed number two in the LTTE hierarchy until he left to form his own armed group in March 2004. Tamil Tiger forces under Karuna’s command were directly involved in some of the worst crimes of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war, including torture, summary execution, and use of children as soldiers. Because his armed group fought against the LTTE in recent years, the Sri Lankan government did not prosecute him.

Immigration authorities in the UK arrested Karuna on November 2, 2007. After a criminal conviction, he served half of a nine-month term for possessing illegal documents. He was transferred on May 9 to immigration custody and now awaits deportation.

The British government has frequently raised concerns about Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation with the government and has long criticized the LTTE for serious human rights abuses.

Tamil Tiger forces under Karuna’s command were directly involved in some of the worst crimes of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war. In June 1990, some 400 to 600 police officers who surrendered to the LTTE were bound, gagged, and beaten. The Tamil Tigers, including forces under Karuna’s control, then executed the Sinhalese and Muslims among them. In July 1990, Karuna’s forces stopped a convoy of Muslims traveling in Batticaloa district and executed about 75 people, including women and children. In August 1990, Karuna’s forces killed more than 200 civilians in two incidents in Batticaloa district.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch investigated the Tamil Tigers’ recruitment and use of children as soldiers. Karuna’s forces played a prominent role, routinely visiting Tamil homes to tell parents to provide a child for the “movement.” The LTTE harassed and threatened families that resisted, and children were abducted from their homes at night or while walking to school.

After Karuna broke away from the Tamil Tigers, his armed group operated with the complicity of the Sri Lankan security forces. The Karuna group, as it was known, engaged in abduction of children for use as soldiers in Sri Lanka’s eastern districts, taking boys from their homes, work places, temples, playgrounds, public roads, camps for the internally displaced, and even a wedding. These abuses are documented in the Human Rights Watch report “Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group,” published in January 2007.

British law permits the prosecution of individuals for serious violations of international law, including torture and war crimes, committed abroad. For example, in 2005, UK courts convicted a former Afghan warlord, Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, for acts of torture and hostage-taking in Afghanistan.

“British prosecutors should look hard again at the evidence presented by the police before they let Karuna leave British soil,” Adams said. “If he does leave, the Sri Lankan government should be preparing to prosecute Karuna should he return to Sri Lanka. Its failure to do so would only highlight its complicity in his recent crimes.”

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