(New York) - The Sri Lankan government's gross mishandling of the investigation into the execution-style slaying of 17 aid workers in the northeastern town of Mutur three years ago demonstrates the need for an international commission of inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. Since mid-July 2009, government actions in the case - for which no one has been arrested, let alone convicted - raised further concerns about an already deeply troubling investigation, Human Rights Watch said.
On August 4, 2006, 17 Sri Lankan aid workers with the Paris-based international humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim (ACF) were summarily executed in their office in Mutur, Trincomalee district, following fighting between government security forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for control of the town. The aid workers, 16 Tamils and one Muslim, were engaged in a program to help survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
"For three years since the ACF massacre, the Rajapaksa government has put on an elaborate song and dance to bedazzle the international community into believing justice is being done," said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. "It's time the UN and concerned governments say ‘the show is over' and put into place a serious international inquiry."
Since mid-July, the government commission investigating the case has, without sufficient basis, ruled out the involvement of the Sri Lankan armed forces. It unfairly and dangerously denounced local human rights organizations participating in the commission. And government authorities improperly pressured the families of the murdered aid workers to demand that France obtain for them greater compensation from ACF.
On July 14, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, created in November 2006 to investigate 16 major human rights cases, publicly announced its findings in the ACF case. The commission exonerated the Sri Lankan army and navy in the ACF killings, primarily on limited witness testimony that these forces were not in the vicinity at the time. It blamed the killings on either the LTTE or auxiliary police known as home guards. Its full report to the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, remains unpublished.
The commission rejected the detailed findings of the nongovernmental University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), which in April 2008 published eyewitness accounts, weapons analysis, and information on the government security forces that it believes were responsible for the atrocity. However, the commission chair told the media that the commission was hindered by the absence of a witness-protection program and noted that the government blocked video testimonies that would have permitted at-risk witnesses to testify from outside the country.
Excerpts from the commission's final report posted on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense website sharply criticize the role of local organizations in the ACF inquiry. These organizations provided legal support for witnesses and made a number of written submissions on the case. The commission stated that the "main function" of seven named nongovernmental organizations was to "attempt to discredit every possible institution and authority of this country before the Commission, and attempt to hold one party responsible for the gruesome crime.... They appeared not to ascertain the truth but to engage in a fault finding exercise of the security forces of Sri Lanka." The commission said the groups adopted "a suspiciously narrow outlook" and engaged in a "preconceived plan or conspiracy to discredit the Commission ... for the consumption of some of the international organizations."
Human Rights Watch said that such accusations, made in the current context of continuing threats and physical assaults against media and civil society groups labeled "traitorous" or otherwise anti-government, place individuals and organizations at serious risk.
Sri Lanka sources and the media reported that the Sri Lankan authorities have also placed improper pressure on the families of the ACF victims. Victims' families summoned to a government office in Trincomalee on July 19 were given three letters to sign and return by July 25. All three form letters demanded that the French government seek further compensation for the families from ACF on the basis of the commission's finding of ACF's "gross negligence."
One letter was addressed to the French embassy and another to Sri Lanka's attorney general. The third letter, to Rajapaksa, explained that the signatory was "extremely grateful" to the president for appointing a commission of inquiry and for "ensuring that justice prevailed." Some families expressed apprehension about possible retaliation if they did not sign the letters, though several reportedly refused to do so.
"Instead of doing all it can to get justice for this horrific crime, the Sri Lankan government is further traumatizing the ACF victims' families by trying to shift the blame to others," Ross said.
Human Rights Watch called for the United Nations secretary-general or other UN body to create an international commission of inquiry to investigate the ACF killings and other human rights abuses by all parties to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, and make recommendations for the prosecution of those responsible. On May 23, Rajapaksa and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a joint statement from Sri Lanka in which the government said it "will take measures to address" the need for an accountability process for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
Human Rights Watch has long reported on the government's failure to impartially investigate and prosecute those responsible for the numerous human rights abuses committed during the 25-year armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers, which ended in May with the Tigers' defeat.
Human Rights Watch previously criticized the Presidential Commission of Inquiry for being an insufficient governmental response to ongoing human rights abuses, the absence of a presidential obligation to act on its recommendations or make its findings public, and improper interference in the commission by the attorney general. In April 2008, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) withdrew from its role monitoring the commission because it had "not been able to conclude ... that the proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards."
"On the third anniversary of the murder of 17 aid workers, the Sri Lankan government is no closer to uncovering the truth or prosecuting those responsible," said Ross. "Instead, the government is using the atrocity to threaten local rights groups, intimidate the victims' families, and score political points against the French government."