(London) - The British government today regrettably allowed an abusive former Tamil Tiger leader who had been in its custody to return to Sri Lanka as a free man, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate and prosecute Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, known as Colonel Karuna Amman, for war crimes committed as a commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and later as head of an anti-LTTE armed group.

Karuna was the top commander of the 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.

“The British government had an alleged war criminal in custody for six months and couldn’t manage to file charges,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This was a rare opportunity to hold a leader of the Tamil Tigers accountable for horrific human rights abuses, and the British government blew it.”

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. Despite assistance from nongovernmental organizations and others, the government on May 9, 2008 announced that the Crown Prosecution Service found there was insufficient evidence to convict Karuna for any criminal offenses in the UK.

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

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.

“Karuna’s escape from justice in the UK is a failure for international justice,” Adams said. “Now that Karuna is back in Colombo, the spotlight is on the Sri Lanka government to do the right thing or be deemed complicit in his crimes.”