What does the US know about alleged Sri Lankan war crimes?
The extrajudicial killing of civilians, surrendering soldiers and dissident journalists under the direction of the Sri Lankan government has been alleged by a former general in the Army who was extremely well-placed to comment on military activity during the island nation’s bloody civil war.
The source, whose name is withheld for reasons of safety, had high-level security clearance and access to the flow of orders during the final days of the conflict.
He made the assertions in legally binding testimony to a US lawyer in New York in 2010, recorded in an affidavit seen by Truthout.
His statements hold particular significance because they appear to corroborate claims made in reports by prominent human rights organizations, international media and a report for the United Nations by a panel of experts published in 2011. The allegations also closely corroborate the accounts of other members of the Sri Lankan Army during the civil war.
It is believed that representatives of the United States State Department have spoken to the source and hold a rich collection of testimonies and other evidence regarding alleged crimes committed during the civil war.
The most explosive claims have meaningful implications in terms of international law, given that they contribute to a body of evidence that places the command responsibility for alleged war crimes at the feet of key figures in Sri Lanka’s civilian leadership.
In one of these claims, the source makes the assertion that, during the war, an assassination unit operated out of “white vans” under the direction of the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in order to kill civilians.
These vehicles were mentioned in the United Nations report in 2011 as one of the many “credible allegations” of crimes against humanity made against the Sri Lankan government. The alleged assassinations were committed by what the source described as “hit squads” consisting of a group of men hand-picked by the defence secretary and assembled upon his appointment to high office.
The UN report refers to “an elite squad within the Special Task Force (STF) … implicated in running these white van operations” that were used to abduct civilians to “secret locations” where they were “interrogated and tortured in a variety of ways.” The report further states that many of the abductees “were killed and their bodies were disposed of secretly.”
This agrees with further statements made by the source, wherein he names a “Colombo Security” figure connected to the police, who oversaw the white van assassinations while “directly getting orders from the secretary.”
Internal US diplomatic memos released by WikiLeaks also appear to corroborate high-level ambassadorial awareness of the vans. In a memo dated 2 February, 2010, entitled “Post Election: New Threats to Media Freedom,” US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis refers to the suspicious disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist known for his dissenting views, as “one of many examples of what appears to be the government’s campaign to silence critical media.”
According to the memo, “white vans” had been “spotted outside” the offices where Eknaligoda worked “prior to the attack” and “death threats” were made to colleagues at his newspaper; additionally “paramilitaries surrounded the premises on the evening of January 28 and placed a padlock on the gate.”
Mangala Samaweera, the former foreign minister of Sri Lanka, has acknowledged the existence of white vans in an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published on February 16, 2009. Samaweera, who was close to President Rajapaksa until his resignation from the cabinet in February 2007, told The Telegraph that “it is an open secret that extra judicial death squads have been operating with impunity since 2006.”
Samaweera also remarked, “The notorious white van abductions … have been attributed to this group called the K9 group and lately this same squad under the name of ‘Mahasona group’ … Within Army circles these killers are also known as [Gotabaya's] sinha mafia’.”
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights Commission have noted with concern a large number of
cases of disappearances where witnesses describe seeing white vans. The US released a State Department report in 2010, which included acknowledgement of disappearances involving the same vehicles.
Elsewhere within his testimony, the source makes the allegation that extrajudicial killings of surrendering or captured members of the rebel LTTE group, with whom the government forces were at war, were committed as “standard operating procedure” during the last months of the conflict.
In a crucial exchange with the lawyer who took his deposition, the source confirms that he was informed that the defense secretary had passed on “some instructions to a field commander to get rid of those LTTE cadres who are surrendering.”
What Does America Know?
It is believed that the State Department holds a live file containing evidence of multiple offences committed by both sides during the war, including testimony from the source and other military, diplomatic and civilian figures.
According to a WikiLeaks-released cable, Sarath Fonseka, former commander of the Sri Lankan Army, spoke to the US Department of Homeland Security during a visit to the country in 2009 and he may have amplified previous statements he is known to have made on government responsibility for alleged extrajudicial killings.
A State Department human rights report on Sri Lanka issued on April 8, 2011, found that “the government [of Sri Lanka] and its agents” were responsible for “serious human rights problems.” These included possible arbitrary and unlawful killings; disappearances; discrimination against the Tamil minority; abuse of detainees by security forces; as well as restrictions on freedom of the press, assembly and association. It also observed that official corruption, government impunity and unaccountability were serious issues. (US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “2010 Human Rights Report: Sri Lanka,” April 8, 2011.)
Many of the Sri Lankan political and military figures suspected of responsibility for offences detailed by human rights groups hold dual citizenship and are both Americans and Sri Lankans, which puts the US authorities in a possibly pivotal position in terms of investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes that may have
occurred during – and after – the war.
A senior source from Channel 4′s news department informed Truthout that they were aware that certain figures from within the Sri Lankan political elite had in fact testified in the US in return for immunity.
Basil Rajapaksa, who holds a US green card, is documented as having privately told US diplomats that some of the behavior during the war was, of necessity, unlawful. “I’m not saying we’re clean; we could not abide by international law,” he was quoted as saying, adding, “[if we had, the war] would have gone on for centuries, an additional 60 years.” Rajapaksa is a senior adviser to the resident of Sri Lanka, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s admission could have resulted in charges being made against his brother, the defense secretary, as a United States citizen; however, to date, none have to our knowledge been made.
During the war, the United States used satellites to carefully monitor events in the Vanni region of the island where the war’s last battles occurred. Images sourced from the State Department have been referenced in a number of reports by non-governmental organizations and others, which provoked some speculation as to the evidence the US has which remains undisclosed to the public.
In August last year, Victoria Nuland, a representative of the State Department, was asked by a press questioner about the possibility of bringing the Sri Lankan president “to the International Criminal Justice Court” [sic] for “atrocities” committed against Tamils. Nuland stated: “We would like the Sri Lankan Government to take its responsibility … [on issues of] justice and accountability … But if that does not happen and does not happen expeditiously, then we reserve the right to discuss international mechanisms.”
Nuland welcomed the publication of the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) report in December, stating that it made “substantive recommendations” in terms of responding to human rights and other issues it addressed. However, she added: “we have concerns that the report, nonetheless, does
not fully address all the allegations of serious human rights violations that occurred in the final phase of the conflict.”
Extrajudicial Killings and Corroborating Accounts
The order to kill surrendered LTTE rebels as alleged by the source, if proven to have been given, would contravene the rules of war under the Geneva Conventions, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, and could mean that Defence Secretary Rajapaksa would be liable for prosecution for war crimes.
This allegation is particularly potent because it agrees with statements made by other key figures from within the Army, including General Fonseka, who was the commander of the armed forces during the final days of the war. Fonseka alleged that extrajudicial killings had occurred at the order of Rajapaksa in an interview with the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader newspaper in November 2009.
He stated: “Basil [Rajapaksa, a senior government figure] had conveyed … information to the defense secretary, Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who in turn spoke with Brigadier Shavendra Silva, commander of the Army’s 58th division, giving orders not to accommodate any [Tiger] leaders attempting surrender and that they must all be killed.”
Fonseka was recently sentenced to a three-year prison term for the statements he made to the Sunday Leader, which he initially had retracted in response to considerable criticism; however, later, he told the BBC journalist Stephen Sackur that he was willing to testify to an international authority regarding alleged crimes committed under government orders. See here, here and here.
An account from a member of Sri Lanka’s military, which corroborates that of the source and Fonseka’s claims, was quoted in a report by Britain’s Channel 4 news in 2011.
The witness, an officer who had served in Silva’s 58th division, made the allegation that “we received orders from the top to kill some of those who surrendered. All regiments received the orders unofficially – from the top.” To which he added: “I can confidently state … that those who ordered the killings were Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Brigadier Shavendra Silva.”
Both Rajapaksa and Silva deny the claims
The source also referred to an incident wherein the 12-year-old son of Villai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, was interrogated and killed in the same manner as rebel cadres. He stated, “I got to know at the latter stages that they found out where Prabhakaran is, through his son … And subsequently, I got to know that [the boy] had been killed.”
The affidavit also contains a serious claim leveled at the government regarding the murder of Lasantha Wickremathunge, who predicted his own murder at the hands
of the Rajapaksa regime in an editorial published in the Sunday Leader newspaper in January 2009.
Mr. Wickrematunge wrote just before his death that “[w]hen finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me” adding, in a direct address to the president, “we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.” The source believed that a prominent cabinet minister called Mervin Silva was responsible for the killing, but added that he believed that the president sanctioned it. He told the lawyer: “this type of thing is coming from the top itself … the president … he is ultimately responsible.”
The Other Perspective
The Sri Lankan government and its representatives have consistently denied that war crimes took place or that the Army intentionally killed civilians in the final days of the war. President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself told Time magazine in July 2009 that “there was no violation of human rights [committed by the Army during the war]. There were no civilian casualties … These [allegations] are all propaganda.
Spokespersons for the government have stressed that a humanitarian aspect to the war effort had been exercised in very difficult circumstances, resulting in thousands of civilians being rescued from LTTE through government agency. In an interview with PBS, Sri Lankan ambassador to the US, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, regretted the degree to which Western reporting, in his view, omitted to mention the great lengths to which the Sri Lankan Army went to protect civilians. “What we did was, as a government, we rescued nearly 300,000 innocent civilians who were just taken by the LTTE … as human shields” he told Ray Suarez, “… we had to open up enough roads and take out these innocent civilians. In fact, we lost more than 6,000 soldiers by trying to do that.”
In addition, government efforts to “rehabilitate” former members of the LTTE and to rehouse internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been ostensibly successful with 96 percent of the IDPs having been returned to their homes or finding new residences. According to domestic news reports, rehabilitated ex-LTTE members have been successfully “reintegrated” into society.
The Sri Lankan Army fought a grim battle with the separatist LTTE for over two and a half decades, during which time the “Tamil Tigers” as they are also known, pioneered the use of suicide bombings, killed thousands of civilians and committed a series of atrocities that made the prospect of future Sri Lankan peace seem impracticable. The human cost of the civil war has been estimated as having deprived the nation of up to 100,000 lives; the financial cost over US $200 Billion, a figure that amounts to roughly five times Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product in 2009.
In addition to denying that surrendered soldiers or civilians were intentionally killed by the Army, the government has consistently suggested that certain alleged high-profile photographic or video evidence of alleged atrocities are unverifiable and likely to be faked by parties connected to the LTTE.
In response to the airing of footage obtained by Britain’s Channel 4 news, which appeared to show extrajudicial killings by Sri Lankan troops, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense published the paper “Unprofessionalism Revisited,” which examined some of the claims made by witnesses in a major news story by Channel 4. The report concluded Channel 4′s claims about Sri Lanka “appear to be largely a tissue of invention, unsubstantiated observations by unnamed witnesses and second-hand eyewitness reports, depending far more on imagination than any other factor.”
When questioned during an interview on Al Jazeera regarding some alleged footage of Sri Lankan troops executing Tamils also broadcast by Channel four in 2009, a representative of the government, Rajitha Wijesinha, disputed the authenticity of the film and stated that “this film seems to have been manipulated … some of [the films, alleged footage of killings] could very well have been done by the Tigers themselves.”
The Sri Lankan government appointed a panel of investigators to look into the footage in 2010; the group concluded that the recordings were untrustworthy and cited several aspects to the footage that they found were indications that the film was “fake.”
The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, however, declared the Channel 4 footage to be “authentic” and presented a point-by-point response to the central objections made by the government panel.
In a similar vein, senior politicians have asserted that misleading information from sources that have an anti-government agenda are feeding information to Western media as a part of a highly organized campaign of deceit.
An oft-referred to example of this is the case of photographic “evidence” broadcast by Al Jazeera in November 2010 that appeared to show atrocities, but which the broadcaster acknowledges came from “Tamil sources” and cannot be verified. See here and here.
The Sri Lankan government also disputed the findings of the UN report of April 2011, citing what it regards as flaws in the evidence referred to in the paper. An External Affairs Ministry statement described the document as “fundamentally flawed in many respects” the findings of which were “based on patently biased material which is presented without any verification.”
There is also considerable suspicion in patriotic Sri Lankan circles over the political neutrality of many prominent Western-based human rights groups such an Amnesty International, which have been critical of the government response to claims of misconduct.
Amnesty’s alleged ties to the “Global Tamil Forum” (GTF) and Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), groups that some believe to be connected to or sympathetic toward the LTTE have been scrutinized by bloggers who assert that the nonprofit organization is receiving politically motivated funding from the CTC.
Despite their consistent denials of wrongdoing, representatives of the government have at times been self – contradicting in their responses to some of the purported
evidence. Foreign Minister Palitha Kohona told Al Jazeera on May 1, 2009, that the government had shelled a government-declared no-fire zone (NFZ) after denying it in a previous interview.
Faced with satellite imagery that appeared to show shell damage and indications of the use of weaponry with the NFZ, Kohona was quick to add that this occurred before any civilians were in the safety area. Al Jazeera then proceeded to show footage from an earlier interview with Kohona, which was broadcast on April 19 – the same day that some of the satellite images were taken – in which Kohona had insisted that the “the government does not shell this area, because we know … this area is full of civilians.”
In response to allegations of misconduct at the end of the war, the government issued its own LLRC in 2010 to investigate the conduct of the Sri Lankan military during the war’s denouement.
In December 2011, the LLRC report was made available to the public. It found that there were civilian casualties during the war and made a number of criticisms of the government, but absolved the Rajapaksa administration of any responsibility for serious breaches of international law.
In marked distinction to the position of the government, critics of Sri Lanka’s policies toward the Tamil minority in the island see the crisis in the Vanni in 2009 as simply one of the more extreme events in an on-going pattern of intentional government-directed violence against Tamils since the creation of modern Sri Lanka.
The Indian writer Arundhati Roy called the endgame in the northeast “a racist war on Tamils” and wrote that such “racism has a long history – of social ostracism,
economic blockades, pogroms and torture.” Elsewhere, Roy opined “what happened in the war [in Sri Lanka], cannot be called anything short of genocide.”
The prominent Washington-based human rights lawyer, Bruce Fein, is attempting to prosecute Defence Secretary Rajapaksa under the US Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows prosecutions of foreign politicians who are suspected of being responsible for torture or extrajudicial killings. Fein recently told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that, in reference to the last days of the war, “it’s hard to come to conclusion that the aim wasn’t to destroy the Tamil people in whole or substantial part.”
Tamils against genocide or TAG, a group committed to the defense of Sri Lankan Tamil rights and the prosecution of alleged crimes against Tamils, including the charge of genocide as defined by the Geneva Conventions, have compiled a large body of evidence that they believe indicates that a systematic campaign to undermine or destroy Tamil life in Sri Lanka was practiced by successive governments.
TAG submitted an 800-page indictment document prepared by Fein to US courts, which refers to allegations of genocide against Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.
The well-known musical artist M.I.A, in an interview with the talk-show host Tavis Smiley in January 2009, talked of “a systematic genocide” against ethnic minority Tamils in Sri Lanka over the past two decades or more. She expressed the view that “it’s escalated because Obama’s coming to power … only under Bush’s presidency you could get away with doing as much [damage].”
The Diminishment of Courage?
In the second presidential debate in 2008, Obama impressively declared “when genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us.” See here and here.
Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, perhaps the world’s foremost critic of Western foreign policy, averred that such a demeaning stance was, in fact, taken by the inaugurated Obama administration in response to Sri Lanka’s crisis in 2009. At a forum on the “responsibility to protect” at the United Nations in 2009 , Professor Chomsky opined that an “atrocity” comparable in terms of Western failures to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 occurred in Sri Lanka. See here and here.
The LTTE leadership and organization were decisively defeated by Sri Lankan forces at the end of the war. Most of the high-level members of the “Tigers” were killed or captured in the process of engaging the Army. This was hardly the ideal outcome in terms of seeing justice done for their crimes. The state actors who oversaw the conduct of the war, however, remain as yet free from the scrutiny of an internationally enforced UN-delivered investigation into alleged offences committed under their direction.
To date, no member of the Sri Lankan civilian or military chain of command has been prosecuted for alleged offences committed during the war.