(New York) - New evidence links the Sri Lankan army's 53 Division to the alleged summary execution of prisoners on May 18, 2009, during the final hours of the 26-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the United Nations to undertake a full investigation into wartime abuses by both government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Human Rights Watch has obtained a longer version of a video broadcast on November 30, 2010, by British Channel 4, and photographs of the same incident from other sources. The videos and photos show what appear to be the summary execution of prisoners by government troops. At least a dozen dead bodies are visible.
"This horrific new evidence demonstrates graphically that the Sri Lankan army engaged in summary executions of prisoners during the final days of fighting in May 2009," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government's failure to investigate these serious war crimes in the face of overwhelming evidence shows the need for an independent, international investigation."
In August 2009 Channel 4 broadcast excerpts from a video showing what appears to be Sri Lankan government soldiers executing several undressed, blindfolded, and handcuffed men believed to be captured LTTE members.
The Channel 4 broadcast on November 30 showed excerpts from a longer, five-minute video, which shows more dead bodies, including those of two unclothed young women.
One of the dead bodies in the video and photographs is of a woman named Isaippiriya, a 27-year-old reporter for the LTTE. Human Rights Watch has received independent confirmation from multiple sources, including family members, identifying one of the dead women in the photographs and video as Isaippiriya.
One source, "Kavetha" (not her real name), submitted a written statement to Human Rights Watch in January 2010 stating, "On the morning of the 15th [of May, 2009], I saw a girl who reads the news on the Tamil Eelam National Television. She was an actor, a poem writer and a news reader. That was the last time I saw her, on the 15th. The next time I saw her was on the Internet [when I was] sitting at home, a photo of her dead body in an unimaginably horrible state."
After examining the photographs and the second Channel 4 video, "Kavetha" confirmed to Human Rights Watch that one of the dead women was Isaippiriya. "The undressed clothes are even the same as the ones she wore on May 15," she told Human Rights Watch.
Confirmation that Isaippiriya is among the executed people in the video contradicts the Sri Lankan government's account of her death. A June 21, 2009 post on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence website lists a Lt. Col. Issei Piriya of the LTTE Communications/Publicity Wing as one of 31 "[i]dentified LTTE leaders who were killed on 18 May 2009 by 53 Division" during "the Last Battle." Isaippiriya's body can be seen lying near three dead men who were bound and blindfolded. Isaippiriya's arms appear to behind her back but it is unclear whether she was bound.
The 53 Division of the Sri Lankan Army was one of three divisions directly involved in the final battle against the LTTE at the Nanthi Kadal lagoon, close to the northeast coastline. The division, under the command of Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the final months of the conflict.
The Sri Lankan government denies that its forces committed any violations of the laws of war during the final stages of armed conflict. Soon after the broadcast of the video by Channel 4 in August 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced that four hand-picked local investigators, two of whom were government officials, had concluded that the video was "fake." But the government failed to provide details to support such a finding. The authenticity of the video was strongly supported by independent expert analysis commissioned by the United Nations expert on extrajudicial executions.
The Sri Lankan government immediately responded to the broadcast of the second video, saying without substantiation that it "categorically denies that the Channel 4 News TV video is authentic."
In June 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a panel of three experts to provide him with advice on next steps for accountability for laws-of-war violations in Sri Lanka. The panel's report is expected in January 2011.
"Each time new evidence emerges of a wartime atrocity, the government's kneejerk reaction is to claim that it's all part of some bizarre plot against it," said Adams. "How many more photos and videos need to emerge before the government recognizes that it can't hide the truth forever?"