Asian Centre for Human Rights

Dedicated to promotion and protection of human rights in Asia

[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for 26 October 2005
Review: 96/05
The Bindunuwewa Massacre in Sri Lanka: A Cry for Justice

Yesterday, on the occasion of the 5th commemoration day of the Bindunuwewa Massacre, Asian Centre for Human Rights released its report, “The Bindunuwewa Massacre in Sri Lanka: A Cry for Justice” and made confidential “Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into incidents that took place at Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre, Bandarawela on 25 October 2000” headed by Justice PHK Kulatilaka public. In the face of increasing international criticism for the custodial massacre of 28 Tamil youth between the ages of 14-23 years and injury of 14 other

Courtesy: AHRC, Hong Kong

Tamil youth, on 8 March 2001 President Chandrika Kumaratunga set up the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The report was reportedly submitted in early 2002 but President Chandrika Kumaratung failed to make the report public. In the meanwhile, all accused of the massacre have been acquitted by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka on 21 May 2005.

Although Justice PHK Kulatilaka Presidential Commission of Inquiry was mandated to inquire extraneous issues and not to find the truth and prosecute the culprits, its report is important in more than one way. No other massacre so devastatingly illustrates the collective failure of the institutions of the Sri Lankan state to provide justice to the Tamil minorities.

First, unlike other massacres in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka, the killings of the inmates at the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre took place within the protective custody of the State. About 60 fully armed policemen remained mute witness to the attacks on the inmates by a Sinhala mob whom the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka had the audacity to describe as “peaceful Satyagrahis” demanding removal of the camp. The failure of the police was palpable. The conclusions of the Justice Kulatilaka Commission of Inquiry on the police conduct were unambiguous: 

“No meaningful steps had been taken by the police to prevent the mob from … coming into the Rehabilitation Centre.

Once the mob invaded the Centre, acts of setting fire to the buildings, attack on the inmates and the massacre of inmates continued unabated while the police were just looking on.

The police had opened fire on the unarmed inmates who were running for protection towards the police trucks parked outside the main gate, thereby causing death of one inmate and injuring two others.

The police (60 armed personnel) had failed to arrest any offender even though the assailants were seen moving about freely carrying weapons while the policemen were standing nearby.”

Second, Bindunuwewa Massacre was the only incident which reached upto the level of Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Regretablly,Sri Lanka once again failed the ethnic minorities. There has not been any trial of the perpetrators of the anti-Tamil riots in early 1980s. After 19 years, in July 2002, President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced the formation of a three-member Truth Commission to investigate incidents of ethnic violence between 1981 and 1984, including anti-Tamil riots in July 1983 that killed nearly six hundred people. This report was reportedly made public on 24th April 2003.

There was no trial for the killings of the 184 Tamil civilians at Kokkuvil and surrounding areas despite the fact that the Human Rights Task Force appointed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the Special Presidential Commission to Inquire into Disappearances in the East under Justice K. Palakidnar recorded evidence about the Sathurukkondan -Kokkuvil massacre.

The Inquiry Commission into the Kokkadicholai massacre of January 1991 was empowered only to inquire into the incident and recommend compensation and prosecute the culprits.

The trial of the Kumarapuram massacre on 11 February 1996 has been pending at the Trincomalee High Court. All the accused have been released on bail while one of the accused soldiers died. All material evidence, including weapons allegedly used in the killing of Tamil civilians in the Kumarapuram massacre, were destroyed when the office of the Government Analyst in Colombo was gutted by fire in 2004.

Third, the trial of the accused of the Bindunuwewa massacre exposes the biases which plague the administration of justice in Sri Lanka. The Attorney General filed wrong indictments by clubbing the accused civilians and the police together and charged them for unlawful assembly. It was a case of mixing oranges with apples, as the police were responsible for taking appropriate action against unlawful assembly. Without establishing the conspiracy angle, the court was expected to reject the charge. The Supreme Court justified erasing of the evidence, which were so “done to preserve peace in the area”. The Supreme Court judges also gave more importance to the testimonies of the police and Sinhala witnesses than the testimonies of the victims who were ethnic Tamils. The Supreme Court completely ignored the fact that photographs taken by the police after the massacre clearly showed senior police officers milling around the camp alongside armed attackers, as a dead or injured detainee lies at their feet. The Supreme Court also ignored one important observation of the High Court that to be able to burn the bodies of many inmates beyond recognition by the mob would have required the acquiescence of the police. The case against the accused had failed even before the indictments were filed - the fact that 60 fully armed policemen failed to arrest a single socalled peaceful Satyagrahi meant that there was no single accused and witness.

Fourth, the Bindunuwewa massacre also exposes ineffectiveness of the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. It failed to bring out its final report into the Bindunuwewa massacre and it only served to deflect international criticisms against the government.

Fifth, the failure of the Sri Lankan government to make the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Report public there is no intention even to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the policemen who were indicted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry for, what the Commission termed as, “indefensible inaction and attitude at the time of the incident”. After all, one of the main accused, then Headquarters Inspector Seneviratne who was indicted by the Presidential Commission, instead of being taken to task has been rewarded and is now the Senior Superintendent of Police of Traffic at Fort Police Station.

Sixth, Sri Lanka often boasts of its cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms. The Supreme Court having acquitted the four accused sentenced by the Trial-at-Bar of the High Court, there is no other domestic mechanisms to challenge the validity or procedural fairness of the acquittal. It is a fit case to be taken up with the United Nations Human Rights Committee under the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the Sri Lankan is a ratifying State party.

The Sri Lankan government suffers from tunnel vision with regard to the Tamil problem. It believes that the problem can be resolved by cooperating with UN mechanisms and focusing on the brutalities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It fails to realize that the resolution of the conflict goes beyond signing an agreement with the LTTE. It is about providing justice and accountability, and restoring the faith of the Tamil minorities in the mechanisms or the pillars of the Sri Lankan state. And it requires strong political will against the rightwing.

All successive governments of the past have failed to show courage. And the future looks equally bleak.

© Copy right 2003, Asian Centre for Human Rights, C-3/441-C, Janakpuri, New Delhi-110058, India