IX. Karuna Group and State Complicity

With the government’s acquiescence if not open backing, the Sri Lankan security forces continue their support for the abusive Karuna group, the Tamil armed group that split from the LTTE in 2004. The LTTE’s loss of key territories in the east has permitted the Karuna group to extend its influence over the districts of Ampara, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. In 2007 the group was expanding its operations in the Vavuniya district in the north, working in tandem with government forces, and continuing to engage in extortion and abductions.

In late 2006 and early 2007 the Karuna group, with the complicity of the security forces, continued to forcibly recruit children for use as soldiers, as well as commit abductions and murders of suspected LTTE members and supporters, and kidnappings for ransom of wealthy Tamil businessmen.

International criticism of the Karuna group has grown. On April 27, 2007, UNICEF publicly criticized the Karuna group for stalling on its promises to end child recruitment.220 On May 10, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher called on the government to rein in paramilitary groups, a clear reference to the Karuna group. At a press conference after a three-day trip to Sri Lanka, he said,

[I]t is also important that the government ensures security for everybody. And in the current circumstance that means stopping and controlling the paramilitary groups that have operated in various parts of the island and who are suspected, believed, known to be involved in many of the abductions and killings that have occurred in recent months.221

On May 11 the chairman of the UN Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict released two statements condemning the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the LTTE and Karuna group. The statement on the Karuna group said the working group “[s]trongly condemns the recent recruitment and use of child soldiers and all other violations and abuses committed against children by the Karuna faction.”222 The statement called on the group to end the abduction, use, and recruitment of children and to engage with UNICEF to release all children among their ranks.

Human Rights Watch and others, notably UNICEF and Allan Rock, a United Nations advisor on children and armed conflict, have frequently condemned the Karuna group’s use of child soldiers, and the Sri Lankan government for tolerating such abuse.223 They have all called on the government to take action.

President Rajapaksa and other Sri Lankan officials have repeatedly said the government would investigate the allegations of state complicity in Karuna abductions and hold accountable any member of the security forces found to have violated the law. In a letter to Human Rights Watch sent on May 8, 2007, Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States Bernard Goonetilleke reiterated the point. He said the government “unreservedly condemns such abductions, recruitment and use of children by the Karuna Group and will investigate the allegations made against individual members of the armed forces and take appropriate action following investigation.”224

On June 18, 2007, Human Rights Watch asked the Sri Lankan government to explain the status of the government’s investigation into state complicity in abductions by the Karuna group. The government provided no information on the investigation, stating that it “has no complicity with the Karuna group in any allegations of child recruitment or abduction.”225

On the contrary, a clear pattern of the government turning a blind eye to abductions, extrajudicial executions, and extortion committed by the Karuna group, and of open cooperation between Sri Lankan security forces and the Karuna group, has emerged. Armed Karuna members regularly walk or ride throughout Batticaloa district in plain view of government forces. On February 26 Human Rights Watch saw a Karuna commander named Jeyam riding atop a Sri Lankan armored personnel vehicle outside Valaichchenai. In Batticaloa town residents have seen Karuna cadre patrolling jointly with the police. Local residents in Batticaloa district said that Karuna members sometimes manned checkpoints together with government security forces, helping them identify suspected members or supporters of the LTTE.

In Batticaloa district the Karuna group now abducts and uses child soldiers with blatant complicity of the Sri Lankan military and police. In February Human Rights Watch observed armed children guarding Karuna political offices in plain view of the Sri Lankan army and police.

Parents of abducted children told Human Rights Watch that members of the Karuna group had taken their children in early 2007. Parents of one abducted child and two abducted young men told Human Rights Watch how Karuna cadres had abducted their sons in recent weeks. In the first case, Karuna group members first abducted the child in July 2006, allowed him home for a family visit, and about one week later came and took him back. In the second, Karuna cadre abducted two young men on the A11 road between Welikanda and Valaichchenai in February 2007. When relatives of the two complained at the nearby Karuna camp in Karapola, Karuna cadres told them not to report the case—or else to say the LTTE took their sons.

The mother of one of the young men explained how Karuna members took her son away:

The bus stopped. A white van came and three men with pistols came inside. One guy took my son and pulled him out. I was crying and they pushed me and I fell.226

As of July 1, 2007, UNICEF had documented 145 cases of recruitment or re-recruitment of children by the Karuna group since December 2006.  Figures for the individual months are as follows: December—16, January—37, February—19, March—15, April—19, May—19, and June—20.227

The actual number is likely to be higher because many parents are afraid to report cases, and these numbers do not reflect the forced recruitment by the Karuna group of young men over 18.

According to Sri Lankan human rights groups and some kidnap victims, the Karuna group is also implicated in the kidnappings for ransom of dozens of Tamil businesspeople and, increasingly, Tamil professionals (see Chapter VI, “Abductions and Enforced Disappearances”). Such kidnappings have taken place in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Vavuniya, and Colombo. At first the victims were wealthy businessmen, but over time the Karuna group targeted smaller businessmen and then professionals, such as bankers and lawyers.

Human Rights Watch asked the Sri Lankan government what steps it has taken to end kidnappings for extortion by the Karuna group. The government replied generally that it “takes action on any allegations of abductions, disappearances and killings who so ever may be the perpetrator, on the basis of a complaint filed.”228

In late 2006 and early 2007, Human Rights Watch interviewed the family members of more than one dozen abducted boys and men in the east, however, who said the police had failed to accept their complaints.229According to Judge Tillekeratne, head of the government commission looking into “disappearances,” the police did not always record complaints.230

The accounts of a Colombo businessman abducted in Colombo—he believes by members of the Karuna group—and of a Vavuniya couple who fled the town after getting demands for money from individuals who identified themselves as from the Karuna group are included in Chapter VI. The couple told us, “We are afraid to go to the police. The police are attached to this. If we file a case in court the Karuna group will throw a grenade at my house,” one of them told us.231 Vavuniya businesspeople who were threatened into giving money frequently did so to a person near the Joseph Camp, the Sri Lankan army’s largest camp in the area, the couple said.

Sea Street in Colombo is the location of many Tamil-owned businesses and shops. Since mid-2006, the Karuna group has been implicated in the abductions of Tamil businessmen and holding them for ransom. © 2007 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

220 “UNICEF Says Karuna Faction ‘Not Serious’ About Child Releases,” UNICEF news note, April 27, 2007, (accessed May 13, 2007).

221Remarks by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher, Colombo, May 10, 2007.

222 Statement by the Chairman of the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, April 11, 2007, (accessed May 12, 2007).

223 See Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka – Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Forced Recruitment by the Karuna Group, vol. 19, no. 1(c), January 2007,; “UNICEF Condemns Abduction and Recruitment of Sri Lankan Children by the Karuna Group,” UNICEF news note, June 22, 2006, (accessed May 13, 2007); and Statement from the Special Advisor on Children and Armed Conflict, (accessed May 13, 2007).

224 Letter from Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States Bernard Goonetilleke to Human Rights Watch, May 8, 2007.

225 Sri Lankan government response to Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2007.

226 Human Rights Watch interview with mother of abducted young man, Batticaloa, February 27, 2007.

227 Information provided to Human Rights Watch by UNICEF, email communication, July 9, 2007.

228 Sri Lankan government response to Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2007.

229 See Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka – Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Forced Recruitment by the Karuna Group.

230 Susistha R. Fernando, “Majority of ‘Abductees’ Found to Have Returned,” Daily Mirror, June 29, 2007.

231 Human Rights Watch interview with couple from Vavuniya, Colombo, March 4, 2007.