V. Government Complicity and Official Denials
Residents of Sri Lankas eastern districts frequently spoke of government complicity in Karuna group abductions as an obvious fact. Tamils in Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee districts say they have seen Karuna members working with the army and police at checkpointsan allegation the government deniesand that armed Karuna cadre walk freely through villages and towns in areas under government control, sometimes wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms.
Among international monitors and aid workers the connection is also clear. We have known for some time that there is a level of co-operation between certain elements of the security forces and the Karuna faction, a spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission said in November 2006. We are compiling more information and will present the government with a comprehensive report on the matter.46
Regarding recruitment of children by the Karuna group, the staff member of one international agency was more blunt. Recruitment is happening openly and with impunity, the person said. Its incomprehensible for us that the government would say they dont know whats going on.47
Until mid-November 2006, the government denied any knowledge of abductions by the Karuna group. But the following, each already noted above, demonstrate that government officials must have known of the abductions, at least since the middle of June 2006, and probably before.
Additional evidence of government knowledge and complicity in Karuna abductions can be gleaned from the location of Karuna camps where abducted children are held. According to parents who visited their children in these camps near Welikanda, the area is under close government control, to such an extent that in some places Karuna checkpoints are within eyesight of the army or police (see map). Communication and coordination between the Karuna group and Sri Lankan army and police was evident from accounts of parents going to Karuna camps to see their sons. To get to the Karuna camps, most parents took a bus to the Sewanpitiya junction with the main A11 road, where the Sri Lankan army has a checkpoint. There, visiting parents sometimes had to give their names to the soldiers (sometimes also their identification cards), who informed persons indicated to be members of the Karuna group that the parents were on their way. Then the parents took trishaws or buses to the Karuna camp. Karuna forces speaking Tamil and wearing green Sri Lanka army uniforms were in the area, they said. I had to go through a Sri Lankan army checkpoint at the junction. The head of our group gave the names of our kids to the army officer at the checkpoint and the camp we were going to, the mother of an abducted 16-year-old said. The army let us go.51
In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, Sri Lankan soldiers spoke with the mothers while they were trying to visit their sons. The mother of a young man who with other parents saw her son in a Karuna camp said the soldiers based nearby were aware of the reason for the visit but did nothing to secure the abductees release:
In one of the most egregious reported cases of government complicity, local human rights activists and the mother of an abducted young man told Human Rights Watch that one child who escaped from a Karuna camp had gone to the Sri Lankan army for protection, but the soldiers handed him back to the Karuna group.53 Human Rights Watch did not independently verify this case.
The main road from the eastern districts to the Welikanda area is firmly under government control and highly militarized. Transporting several hundred abducted boys and young men during the year to the Karuna camps would have been impossible without the knowledge of government security forces. Travel in the area requires going through numerous checkpoints of the army and police.
Along the A15 road, which runs north-south from Trincomalee down the coast to Batticaloa, and along the A11, which runs east-west from north of Batticaloa town to Welikanda, it is impossible to travel more than 10 kilometers without some form of security control. When Human Rights Watch drove the roughly 50 kilometer stretch between Welikanda and Batticaloa town on October 13, researchers counted more than 14 checkpoints, ranging in size from mobile controls to permanent camps. According to a humanitarian agency active in the east, government security forces typically maintain about nine checkpoints between Welikanda and Valaichchenai on the A11 alone; two of them are where passengers get out of their vehicles and are searched.54
Transporting abducted boys and young men from Ampara district would prove even harder. The coastal A4 road from Ampara to Batticaloa town has a strong presence of the police Special Task Force (STF). On October 17, Human Rights Watch observed three large STF camps along the route.
Another place where parents have seen their abducted sons is the TMVP office in Batticaloa town. International aid agencies have also seen armed children on the premises. When Human Rights Watch walked by the office on October 16, it was guarded on three sides by the Sri Lankan police. International aid workers said that the police had been protecting the building since construction began in early 2006. Human Rights Watch also observed the TMVP office in Akkaraipattu, which was guarded by the STF. The TMVP office in Trincomalee was guarded by the navy.
Government protection of the TMVP is understandable because party offices have come under repeated attack by the LTTE. But the presence of security forces around the buildings makes it highly unlikely that they failed to see abducted children on the premises.
Both the government and the Karuna group deny any coordination between them. Sri Lankan defense spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella told the media: We have been right throughout denying that we are involved with them, referring to the Karuna group.55 Karuna told Human Rights Watch in late November 2006: We do not cooperate with the army and the army does not cooperate with us. As if to suggest that cooperation would mean impunity for his forces, he added: Thirty of our cadres have been arrested by the army for carrying arms.56
But residents in eastern districts routinely observed the close ties between government and Karuna forces. Staffers from two international agencies working in the eastern districts told Human Rights Watch that the easiest way for them to contact the Karuna group was through the Sri Lankan military.
The Sri Lankan government is ultimately responsible for providing security to ensure that civilians are not abducted by armed groups and that children are not recruited, voluntarily or otherwise, to take part in armed conflict. This is particularly the case in areas under the governments effective control.
The government security forces active in the eastern districts are the Sri Lankan army, the navy, the regular police, and the polices Special Task Force, which is engaged in counterinsurgency operations. Unless stated otherwise, officers noted below were, according to the information available, in command during Human Rights Watchs visit in October 2006.
In Batticaloa district responsibility for security is primarily with the army, which maintains a network of outposts and camps. Three army brigades operate in the district: The 231 brigade, commanded by Colonel Veeraman, is responsible for the districts west. The 232 brigade, commanded by Colonel Napagoda, is responsible for the north.57 The 233 brigade, commanded by Lt. Col. Anura Sudasingha, is in Batticaloa town. All of the Batticaloa brigades report to the armys 23rd division headquartered in Welikanda, commanded by Brigadier Daya Ratnayaka. For most of 2006, Commander of Security Forces Headquarters-East was Major General Nissanka Wijesinghe. In late December he was replaced by Major General Parakrama Pannipitiya.
In Trincomalee district, the armys 22nd division has official responsibility, commanded by Maj. Gen. Samarasinghe. Trincomalee has a large navy presence because of its major naval base, and knowledgeable sources say that Navy Commander Rear Admiral Samirathunga is the de facto commander.
President Rajapakse is the commander-in-chief of Sri Lankas armed forces, and he holds the portfolio of Minister of Defense. The Secretary of Defense, Public Security, Law and Order is the presidents brother, Gotabaya Rajapakse.58 Chief of the Defense Staff is Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera. Commander of the army, since December 6, 2005, is Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka.
In Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee districts the STF also plays an important role, especially since July 2006 when the military mobilized for the fighting further north.59 Around that time the STF assumed security responsibility for Batticaloa town.
It remains unclear who are the leaders of the Karuna group in the eastern districts. According to the parents of abductees, local human rights activists, and international aid workers, the TMVP political leader for Ampara and Batticaloa is a man named Pradipan, who runs the office in Batticaloa town. Another leader mentioned is a man called Mangalan. In Akkaraipattu, the TMVP office is run by a man named Sindujan. A man named Bharathy has been implicated in conscription by the Karuna group in Welikanda.
In early November 2006, a special advisor to the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, Allan Rock, visited Sri Lanka to investigate conditions for children, primarily in the north and east. He focused on compliance with the 2003 Action Plan for Children Affected by Conflict, which the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had endorsed. Both sides had pledged to work with UNICEF to end child recruitment and to release children in their ranks.
At the end of his 10-day mission, Rock met with President Rajapakse and later held a press conference in Colombo to announce his preliminary findings. First, he said, the LTTE had not respected its commitments under the Action Plan. The recruitment of children continues and the LTTE had failed to release several hundred children in its ranks.60
Rock also criticized the Karuna group for continuing to abduct and recruit children, particularly in Batticaloa district. Between May and November 2006, he said, UNICEF has recorded 135 cases of underage recruitment, and the evidence suggested the trend was on the rise.
Rock also charged certain government elements of complicity in abductions by the Karuna group. He said that his mission:
Rock announced that the Karuna group and the Sri Lankan government had responded constructively to the allegations. The TMVP told him it would forbid underage recruitment and release any children in the Karuna group. The party also agreed to work with UNICEF to arrange the release of abducted children.
Rock said that he received assurances from President Rajapakse that he would order an immediate investigation to determine whether any security forces were complicit in Karuna abductions. Should such evidence emerge, the president said, he would hold accountable those who violated the law.62
Other sectors of the government sought to discount Rocks allegations. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera criticized Rocks diplomatic skills. A responsible member of the international community would not have made such unfounded public statements in such an irresponsible manner, he said. Even if they were true, a person of that nature should have had the decency to bring it to the notice of the government discreetly.63 The state-owned Daily News newspaper stated in an editorial: The UN representative needs to take stock of the adverse repercussions his groundless allegations could have on Sri Lankas national interest.64
The Sri Lankan military denied any connection to the Karuna group and in a statement said Rocks allegations were completely misleading and deserve a deep sense of revulsion and explanation in view of their serious nature and repercussions.65 The most scathing denunciation came from the Media Centre for National Security, a website run by the media wing of the Sri Lankan armed forces. In an article entitled Who is this Rock?, the military website accused the UN official, a former Canadian government minister, of taking money from a pro-LTTE community in Canada during his political campaign and then blocking the Canadian government from banning the LTTE. However, with the help and support from the Tamil community living in Canada and certain LTTE sympathizers Rock managed to secure a position in the UN, the article said.66
Notwithstanding its agreement to work against underage recruitment, the TMVP still denounced Rock for repeating fictitious, fallacious and frivolous information provided by quislings in the east.67
One of the governments complaints against Rock, Sri Lankas minister of disaster management and human rights stressed to Human Rights Watch, was that Rock failed to provide evidence to support his claims.68 On November 27, 2006, Rock sent a letter to President Rajapakse, together with a detailed memo on his findings. In his letter, Rock called on the president to establish a credible, objective and effective investigation of the governments involvement in the Karuna abductions.69
The governments public expressions of surprise were disingenuous. As documented above, the government knew of Karuna abductions since at least June 2006. Parents of abducted children were reporting their cases to the police, and in some cases to the military. Both failed to take any meaningful steps to get the children back.
On November 28, 2006 Human Rights Watch issued a statement about Karuna abductions based on its mission to Sri Lanka in October, which formed the basis for this report. The statement said that the Sri Lankan military and police are complicit and, at times, directly cooperating with the Karuna group.70 Defense spokesman Kehiliya Rambukwella promptly denied any state involvement with the Karuna group. Human Rights Watch should give us this credible evidence that theyre talking of. Once we have that, we can pursue it, he said. We will certainly take necessary action to control it and completely take the perpetrators to justice.71
The day after Human Rights Watch issued a press release on abductions by the Karuna group, V. Muralitharan, a.k.a. Colonel Karuna, contacted the organization to discuss the allegations. In a telephone interview from an undisclosed location, Karuna denied any involvement in child abductions or forced recruitment. I do not like these things, he said. I dont like child recruitment and abduction.72
He said the minimum age to join the Karuna group was 20, and that the group would take action against any commander who recruited a person below that age. We would send him out of the movement, he said.
His comment contradicted the statement of a TMVP spokesman, who in an interview with a Sri Lankan newspaper did not deny that the Karuna group had children among its ranks. We don't abduct children, we enlist only those who offer to join us, a spokesman in the partys Chenkalady office said.73
Karuna said his forces had a code of conduct. He agreed to share a copy with Human Rights Watch but, as of January 15, 2007, the group had not sent any text.
Regarding contact with the Sri Lankan military, Karuna said the relationship was of a political nature. We have no military contacts, but we have some political contacts, he said. When asked to explain how his military supporters operate freely in government-controlled areas, he said: As far as political cadres are concerned, they have contact with the police, because the police provide protection. The military is working in restricted areas, Karuna areas. We have captured some areas from the LTTE, so we control some areas.
According to Karuna, the TMVP has 16 political offices throughout Sri Lanka. When asked why families had seen their abducted children in TMVP offices, he replied, Anybody can come and see our offices. It is very transparent, like an MPs [Member of Parliaments] office. He continued, Definitely there are no underage children in our political offices. Anyone can come and inspect. He attributed the reports of abductions by the Karuna group to the LTTE and their supporters. All these things are propaganda campaigns by the LTTE and the diaspora, he said.
Regarding Allan Rock, Karuna was adamant that the LTTE was behind Rocks statements. The LTTE set up families to make accusations to Allan Rock, he said. There was no way for Rock to verify their stories. When Rock was in our office, we explained these things very clearly.
Five days after the interview with Human Rights Watch, Karuna contacted UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy to discuss child abductions, in particular the inclusion of the Karuna group in the latest report of the Secretary-General to the UN Security Council on children and armed conflict.74 According to the UN, Karuna denied abducting children and said he would cooperate with UNICEF to guarantee the protection of children. He said he would take the following steps, to be formalized in an action plan between UNICEF and the Karuna group:
Special Representative Coomaraswamy welcomed Karunas statement. This is a major step forward that will help to prevent children from being used by armed groups in Sri Lanka, she said. I hope that this will lead to effective actions on the ground.76 The office of the special representative said it hoped to receive a similar commitment from the LTTE granting access to their camps for independent verification.77
On January 2, 2007 the TMVP provided UNICEF with what it called regulations for the military division of Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). (See Appendix V.) The regulations state that all recruits must be over 18, provide a birth certificate to prove their age, and consent to join the military group. The regulations state that members of the Karuna group who conscript children into the force will be immediately subjected to punishment. Examples specified include cooking in the camp or farming for a period of at least three months.
In contrast, the regulations state that violations such as murder, sexual abuse, and looting will result in the member being removed from the organization and handed over to the police. Violations such as smoking, consuming liquor, and the abuse of women result in expulsion from the organization.
As of January 15, 2007, discussions with UNICEF were ongoing regarding the content of the regulations and implementation of Karunas commitments. According to the agency, the Karuna group released six children in November and December, but it also abducted at least 21 others during that time.78
To date, abductions of boys and young men in the eastern districts by the Karuna group persist. Although no complete figures are available, local human rights activists and international aid workers report that abductions have continued, both by the Karuna group and the LTTE. According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, in late November both the LTTE and Karuna group were under suspicion for assassinations and abductions.79
According to UNICEF, parents and others reported 21 abductions by the Karuna group in November, and another eight in December. The group released four children in November and two in December.80 The UNICEF statistics do not specify whether any of the November abductions took place after November 13, when the UN made its allegations against the Karuna group and government security forces. According to human rights activists and aid agencies working in the eastern districts, however, some abductions took place in the second half of the month.
According to University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Karuna forces abducted three boys in Batticaloa district around December 10. It is not known if these three cases were also reported to UNICEF.81
On November 21, Human Rights Watch wrote to President Rajapakse and to the minister for disaster management and human rights to convey the organizations initial findings on Karuna abductions and government complicity from the research mission in October (see Appendix I). The letter welcomed the presidents stated willingness to investigate the allegations of state involvement and asked the president to provide details on how that investigation would be pursued. The letter was resent in early December. As of January 15, 2007, neither the presidents office nor the human rights ministry had replied.
46 Namini Wijedasa, UNs Allan Rock Ridiculed in Sri Lanka, Toronto Star, November 23, 2006. SLMM confirmed for Human Rights Watch that it had prepared the report but said its contents were not public. (E-mail communication from SLMM to Human Rights Watch, December 27, 2006).
47 Human Rights Watch interview with international aid agency staff member, Batticaloa town, October 2006.
48 UNICEF Condemns Abduction and Recruitment of Sri Lankan Children by the Karuna Group, UNICEF news note, June 22, 2006, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/media_34677.html (accessed January 9, 2007).
49 Human Rights Watch interview with Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe, Geneva, December 1, 2006.
50 Namini Wijedasa, Tiger Pledge on Child Recruits no HonouredHuman Rights Minister, The Island (Colombo), January 14, 2007.
51 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted boy, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
52 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
53 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa district, October 2006.
54 Human Rights Watch interview with international aid agency staff member, Batticaloa town, October 2006.
55 Anthony Deutsch, Government-condoned Militia Abducting Hundreds on Sri Lankas East Coast, Associated Press, October 4, 2006.
56 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with V. Muralitharan, a.k.a. Colonel Karuna, November 29, 2006.
57 Col. Napagoda commanded the 232 brigade at least since July 2006 (see Sri Lanka: ICRC Hands Over Soldiers Remains to the Sri Lankan Army, ICRC press release, July 15, 2006, http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/srilanka-regnews-150706 (accessed January 9, 2007)). His predecessor was Col. Chandana Rupasinghe, but it is not known when he left the post.
58 Gotabaya Rajapakse is a retired army infantry officer. He became minister of defense, public security, law and order in November 2005. On December 1, 2006 he survived an LTTE suicide attack on his convoy in Colombo.
59 For official background on the STF, see http://www.police.lk/divisions/stf.html (accessed January 9, 2007).
60 Statement from the Special Advisor on Children and Armed Conflict, Colombo, November 13, 2006, http://www.un.org/children/conflict/pr/2006-11-13statementfromthe127.html (accessed January 9, 2007).
63 Namini Wijedasa, UNs Allan Rock Ridiculed in Sri Lanka, Toronto Star, November 23, 2006.
64 Watch Your Words, Mr. Rock, Daily News (Colombo), November 15, 2006, http://www.dailynews.lk/2001/pix/PrintPage.asp?REF=/2006/11/15/main_Editorial.asp (accessed January 2, 2007).
65 Krishan Francis, U.N. Accuses Sri Lanka Government Forces of Aiding Child Soldier Recruitment, Associated Press, November 13, 2006.
66 Who is this Rock?, Media Centre for National Security, December 5, 2006, http://www.nationalsecurity.lk/fullnews.php?id=2665 (accessed January 3, 2007).
67 UN Rock Repeats Tiger AccusationsKaruna Group, Asian Tribune, November 16, 2006, http://www.asiantribune.com/index.php?q=node/3241 (accessed January 2, 2007).
68 Human Rights Watch interview with Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe, Geneva, December 1, 2006.
69 Personal communication from Allan Rock to Human Rights Watch, January 16, 2007.
70 Sri Lanka: Stop Child Abductions by Karuna Group, Human Rights Watch news release, November 28, 2006, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/11/28/slanka14678.htm.
71 Rights Group Criticizes S. Lanka over Child Soldiers, Reuters, November 28, 2006. See also Krishan Francis, Rights Group Asks Sri Lankan Troops to Stop Aiding Child Recruitment, Associated Press, November 28, 2006.
72 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with V. Muralitharan, a.k.a. Colonel Karuna, November 29, 2006.
74 Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, October 26, 2006, S/2006/826, http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/577/95/PDF/N0657795.pdf?OpenElement (accessed January 5, 2007).
75 Karuna Commits to Work with the UN to Prevent Recruitment and Use of Children, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict press release, December 4, 2006, http://www.un.org/children/conflict/pr/2006-12-07srilankakarunaco134.html (accessed January 3, 2007).
78 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
79 Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, SLMM Weekly Situation Report, 20-26 November 2006, http://www.slmm.lk/W_Report/SLMM%20WSR%2020%20-%2026%20Nov%20public.pdf (accessed January 3, 2007). The SLMM reported in its weekly situation report for December 4-10, 2006 that it was aware of 12 abductions in Batticaloa, several of which were of children, but the report did not indicate the responsible party.
80 Data supplied to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, January 12, 2007.
81 University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) communication to Human Rights Watch, December 20, 2006. For more from UTHR, see www.uthr.org.