Alleged abduction of embassy employee:
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 299
Amidst diplomatic row with Switzerland, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa received Norwegian Ambassador Trine Joranli Eskedal at the Presidential Secretariat on Monday, Dec 02. A smiling President shaking hands with a Norwegian delegate as Ambassador Eskedal standing on his right looks on. During the war, in his capacity as the Secretary Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa dealt forthrightly with the controversial Norway led peace process (pic courtesy President’s Media)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Having battled high profile accusations for several days in the wake of an alleged abduction of a local Swiss Embassy employee, the government, on Sunday night, Dec 01, 2019, accused Ambassador Hanspeter Mock of lying. A one page statement, issued by the Foreign Ministry, following consultations with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had been closely monitoring the developments, set the record straight.
Pointing out that the Swiss Embassy deprived law enforcement authorities of interviewing the alleged victim, who claimed to have received injuries in captivity, the government alleged that the sequence of events, and time-line of the alleged incident, as presented by the Swiss mission, on behalf of the alleged victim, did not in any way correspond with the actual movements of the alleged victim on that date, as borne out by witness interviews and technical evidence, including Uber records, CCTV footage, telephone records and the GPS data.
The government insisted that the alleged victim should be examined by a judicial medical officer, and that law enforcement authorities be given access to her. On behalf of the government, Foreign Secretary Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasingha and Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne briefed Ambassador Mock and the Deputy Chief of Mission on Sunday evening. The statement was put out immediately after that.
Sri Lanka thawarted a calculated move to undermine the new government. But, it would be the responsibility of the government to bring the case to a successful conclusion. The Swiss shouldn’t be allowed to side-step the inquiry, having been publicly humiliated by being caught lying.
President Rajapaksa’s government struggled to cope up with demeaning accusations as regards the alleged, abduction on Nov 25, 2019. The alleged abduction received international media coverage with the New York Times alleging that the government agents had sought information regarding a police officer who fled the country on the previous day.
Switzerland wouldn’t have undertaken the operation without approval from big brothers. Perhaps big brothers wanted Switzerland to carryout the operation, at its expense, as they tackled the new government.
The New York Times quoted officials in Colombo as having said that the "men forced the embassy employee to unlock her cellphone data, which contained information about Sri Lankans who have recently sought asylum in Switzerland, and the names of Sri Lankans who aided them as they fled the country because they feared for their safety after Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency at the election this month." The story headlined ‘Sri Lankan critics fear a crackdown is underway, and some flee," first posted on Nov 27 and updated on Nov 29, also alleged Defence Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne of commanding a unit that the United Nations accused of conducting summary executions of LTTE cadres in custody. The NYT also quoted Gunaratne as having denied the UN accusations.
The government lacked courage to counter the NYT report, authored by Maria Abi-Habib and Sameer Yasir. There had never been specific accusations against Gunaratne’s 53 Division during the Vanni campaign, in 2009. Interested parties renewed there war crimes accusations, in the wake of the alleged abduction of an embassy employee, with some sections of the international media even having the audacity to target President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself.
Swiss Ambassador in Colombo, Hanspeter Mock, raised the abduction with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov 27, at his Wijerama Mawatha residence. His Embassy provided some information, on Nov 29, while continuing to deny access to the alleged victim.
The unprecedented allegations, close on the heels of Switzerland providing refuge to Chief Inspector Nishantha Silva of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), his wife and their three children, caused a crisis ahead of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first overseas visit to New Delhi. President Rajapaksa had to address the ‘Swiss issue,’ during the two-day Indian visit. It was the first real crisis the wartime Defence Secretary had to cope up with since his election as the President over a week ago.
The Swiss accusations in the immediate aftermath of CID investigator receiving refuge in Switzerland underscored the pivotal importance in swiftly and decisively addressing such issues.
The Rajapaksa government cannot afford to allow unsubstantiated accusations cause turmoil especially in the run up to the Geneva sessions, in March 2020.
The war-winning Rajapkasa government pathetically failed to counter high profile projects meant to haul up Sri Lanka before the Geneva Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka’s failure led to Western powers adopting an accountability resolution, in Geneva, in Oct 2015, against the country.
The treacherous yahapalana government co-sponsored the resolution. Western powers engineered twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat, in 2015 having failed in a similar project in 2010. War-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka challenged Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 presidential poll. The celebrated war veteran, however lost by a staggering 1.8 mn votes with the country clearly rejecting his allegations against his former Commander-in-Chief Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The alleged abduction, of the Swiss Embassy employee, took place between 5 pm – 5.30 pm on Monday, Nov 25, on R.G. Senanayake Mawatha, a little distance away from the Swiss Embassy. A section of the media quoted diplomatic sources as having said that the employee alleged she was sexually molested.
The new government should solve the Swiss mystery soon or be prepared to face the consequences. Having accused of war crimes, in addition to several other high profile killings, attacks and disappearances, during the 2005-2014 administration, the Rajapaksas should ensure a speedy conclusion of investigations into the Swiss accusations. The delay, on the part of the government, will help those propagating lies, both here and overseas. However, the government should be mindful of the consequences, in case law enforcement authorities operated beyond accepted norms.
The new administration cannot afford under any circumstances, fresh controversies against the backdrop of still unsolved cases - disappearance of 11 youth in the hands of the Navy, mostly in 2008, torturing of Deputy Editor of The Nation, Keith Noyahr, on May 22, 2008, assassination of the founding Editor of The Sunday Leader, attorney-at-law, Lasantha Wickrematunga on the morning of January 08, 2009, on Attidiya Road, near Bakery Junction, attempt on the life of Rivira editor, Upali Tennakoon, on January 23, 2009, at Imbulgoda, Gampaha, abduction and assault on well-known journalist and civil society activist, Poddala Jayantha, on June 1, 2009, near Embuldeniya Junction, in Nugegoda, and disappearance of media personality, Prageeth Ekneligoda, on the eve of the January 26, 2010, presidential poll. Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon sought political asylum overseas.
The war-winning government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for killings, attacks and disappearances happened under its watch. Killing of three persons, at Rathupaswella, on August 01, 2013 and killing of 21-year-old worker Roshen Chanaka Ratnasekera, of the Katunyake EPZ, in late May 2011, caused severe problems for the Rajapaksa administration. The Rathupaswella killings took place in the wake of protests, demanding clean drinking water, whereas Ratnasekera was killed during protests against a controversial move to introduce a new pension scheme.
It must, however, be noted that the killing of Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, abduction and torture of Associate Editor of The Nation, Keith Noyahr, and the attempt on the life of Rivira Editor, Upali Tennakoon, were squarely blamed on rogue Army units, operating under then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, by none other than the then opposition, led by the UNP, in public, backed by the NGO lot. It is a supreme irony that no sooner Fonseka turned against the Rajapaksas that narrative changed suddenly.
It would be pertinent to examine the failure on the part of the Rajapaksa administration to address accusations in the South, as well as in the North and East. A thorough examination of past failures is required now, amidst fresh accusations that may have a significant impact on the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government.
SLMM reverses death toll
The Scandinavian Truce Monitoring Mission, aka Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), issued a controversial statement to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), signed on Feb 21, 2002. The Norway-led mission, comprising five countries, declared that nearly 4,000 people had been killed since the change of government in Nov 2005, whereas 130 persons perished during the remaining period, covered by the CFA (Feb 2002-Nov 2005).
Fighting erupted in August 2006 following the Mavil-aru battle in the East.
The Rajapaksa administration never bothered to seek an explanation from the SLMM. The media, including The Island, carried the SLMM statement meant to step up pressure on the then government. The SLMM declared that it had arrived at a death toll of 4,000 on the basis of daily reports from truce monitors, based in the northern and eastern districts where every case, related to the conflict, had been recorded. The SLMM conveniently refrained from differentiating the number of civilian deaths.
By not making any reference to combatants, the truce monitoring mission implied the dead were civilians.
As the writer felt that there couldn’t be any basis for the SLMM’s claim, a clarification was sought from its headquarters, in Colombo, in early March 2007. After a series of telephone calls, the mission admitted that the dead included combatants and civilians. However, the mission refused to provide a breakdown of the number of persons killed during the 15-month period. The mission placed the number of civilian deaths at 1,500 (Deaths due to the conflict: SLMM backs down on breakdown with strap line Changes figure to 1,500 from 4,000 - ‘The Island’ March 12, 2007).
The SLMM statement was meant to draw attention to the fact that there was a sharp escalation of violence since November 5, 2005, following the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the fifth executive president of Sri Lanka. The monitoring mission also refused to divulge its sources.
Both the local and international media gave wide coverage to the monitoring mission’s claim. But they never carried the SLMM clarification. The SLMM, too, conveniently refrained from correcting its original statement, for obvious reasons.
The Army headquarters, in response to a query by ‘The Island’, insisted that there had been only 694 civilian deaths, during the November 2005 –March 2007 period. Army headquarters rejected the truce monitors’ claim of 1500 civilian deaths during this period. But the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) accepted the controversial figures, in spite of the Army contradicting the figures quoted by the mission.
The Army, too, would have remained silent if The Island didn’t challenge the Nordic mission. The government never felt the need to challenge the SLMM.
The SLMM spokesperson repeatedly declined to discuss where the 4,000 killings took place and why there was absolutely no reference to such large scale violence in previous statements issued by the monitoring mission. The spokesperson also refused to estimate the death toll due to direct military action, or crossfire, between the armed forces and the LTTE.
The then Rajapaksa government squandered an excellent opportunity to expose the Nordic mission. In fact, the previous government never felt the requirement to systematically counter lies, propagated by the international community, or a section of the media, that had faith in the LTTE’s invincibility.
The Swiss mystery should be studied against the backdrop of previous accusations and attempts to undermine Sri Lanka.
Western strategy exposed
Lord Naseby, in the House of Lords, on Oct 12, 2017, debunked the much-touted UN accusations regarding the massacre of over 40,000 Tamil civilians, on the Vanni east front, in the last phase of the war, in 2009. On the basis of classified wartime dispatches from Colombo (January-May 2009) received by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Lord Naseby for once and for all countered UN accusations. Lord Naseby used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 to secure the much-sought-after information that disproved accusations pertaining to 40,000 deaths. The British dispatches placed the number of deaths at 7,000 to 8,000, with one fourth of them being LTTE combatants.
The previous government disregarded the British revelations. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has an opportunity to seek reappraisal of Geneva resolution on the basis of British dispatches. The new government can do so at the Geneva sessions, in March 2020.
The Swiss accusations shouldn’t be allowed to distract the attention of the government from its prime responsibility to exonerate the armed forces from the wild accusations levelled by the West and the UN hatchet team, with its panel of experts quoting unnamed accusers.
The government should also pay attention to revelation made by the wartime US Defence Attache in Colombo, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, in June 2011, at the inaugural defence seminar. Two years after the UN accusations of battlefield executions, Lt. Col. Smith contradicted them in the presence of military delegates from several countries. The then Rajapaksa government ignored the sensational statement. Sri Lanka never bothered to examine revelations made by Lt. Col. Smith, in 2011, and Lord Naseby, six years later, as authentic evidence which could be part of its defence. Western powers exploited Sri Lanka’s weakness. Sri Lanka never considered Lt. Col Smith’s statement and Lord Naseby’s disclosure as strong counter arguments against Western strategy here.
"The Government of Sri Lanka remains committed to national reconciliation processes aimed at realizing the vision of a reconciled, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation. Engaging in arguments and debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues, in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other," the then Foreign Ministry spokesperson? said. She was responding to The Island query whether the government would request the UK and Geneva to review the allegation that 40,000 civilians had been killed during the Vanni campaign, in the light of Lord Naseby’s statement in the House of Lords, disputing the figure, on Oct 12, 2017.
Mannar mass graves forgotten
Early this year, US lab tests proved sensational accusations that the Sri Lankan military was not responsible for the Mannar mass graves found in early 2018. The remains of over 300 men, women and children were found at a site in the northern Mannar district.
Sri Lanka’s Office on Missing Persons (OMP) funded, tests, on the remains, to determine whether the victims were killed during the conflict.
The LTTE and government forces held the Mannar district at different times during the conflict.
Radiocarbon dating analysis by the Beta Analytic Testing Laboratory, in Florida, US, in respect of six skeletal samples sent there, in January 2019, with the intervention of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), established, in accordance with Oct 2015 Geneva Resolution, that the skeletons belonged to a period that covered the Portuguese and the Dutch colonial rule.
But the Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet was in a great hurry to blame Sri Lanka. Bachelet, in a report titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka,’ submitted to the 40th session of the HRC, dealt with Mannar mass graves.
The following is a relevant section bearing No 23: "On May 29, 2018, human skeletal remains were discovered at a construction site in Mannar (Northern Province), Excavations conducted in support of the Office on Missing Persons, revealed a mass grave from which more than 300 skeletons were discovered. It was the second mass grave found in Mannar following the discovery of a site in 2014. Given that other mass graves might be expected to be found in the future, systematic access to grave sites by the Office as an observer is crucial for it to fully discharge its mandate, particularly with regard to the investigation and identification of remains, it is imperative that the proposed reforms on the law relating to inquests, and relevant protocols to operationalize the law be adopted. The capacity of the forensic sector must also be strengthened, including in areas of forensic anthropology, forensic archeology and genetics, and its coordination with the Office of Missing Persons must be ensured."
The Bachelet report dealt with the situation in Sri Lanka from Oct 2015 to January 2019. If Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock was here, at that time, he, too, would have followed his European colleagues to the Mannar mass graves. German Ambassador in Colombo Joern Rohde was among the diplomats who visited the site, accompanied by foreign and local media.
The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and some other interested parties, who couldn’t stomach the LTTE’s battlefield annihilation, asserted that a second opinion was required. Had the US report referred to a period less than 40 years, the Army would have been in serious trouble.
The Foreign Ministry never called a meeting of Colombo-based envoys to explain the government’s response. The Defence Ministry and Army Headquarters, too, did nothing as regards the Mannar findings. Had the US carbon testing report referred to a period less than 40 years, it would have become a major issue in Geneva and further strengthened the call for the full implementation of the Oct 2015 Resolution.
The US report brought the Mannar mass graves story to an end.
In March 2019, Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, flanked by Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy and Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva, asserted that responding to the Geneva allegations wasn’t their (the military) responsibility. Admiral Wijegunaratne said so when the writer pointed out to the top brass that the military had neglected their responsibility in this regard, for 10 years. The Island raised the contentious issue of the military conveniently forgetting its responsibility at a special media briefing called by the Defence Ministry at the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) to explain the role played by them in President Sirisena’s high profile battle against the lucrative narcotics trade.
Man killed by DMI arrested
One-time US Ambassador in Colombo Robert O Blake and several other international organizations and a section of the media accused the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of killing Kathiravelu Thayapararajah. The DMI was accused of torturing and killing Thayapararajah in Sept 2009. Allegations persisted though Thayapararajah’s body was never found. Accusations continued until Thayapararajah was taken into custody in May 2014 after entering Tamil Nadu illegally. The former head of Vanni Tech set up in Kilinochchi during the Norway-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) is now languishing in an Indian jail. Thayapararajah’s case is certainly not an isolated incident. Thayapararajah had never been wanted in Sri Lanka on terrorism charges though he chose to flee the country clandestinely with his wife and children. Had they died on their way to Tamil Nadu by boat, due to some mishap, they, too, would have been in the list of the disappeared.
Australian identity for high
Australia admitted that it issued a new passport to one time top JVPer and leader of the Frontline Socialist Party, Kumar Gunaratnam, under the assumed name Noel Mudalige. Although large scale issuance of passports, bearing new identities to those seeking political asylum on various grounds, is common knowledge, the admission by the then Australian High Commissioner Robyn Mudie in respect of Kumar Gunaratnam (at that time missing in Sri Lanka) surprised many. But, she had no option but to acknowledge Australia’s role due to circumstances beyond her control. This was during the previous Rajapaksa administration. The issurance of Australian passport came to light after Mudie intervened on Gunaratnam/Mudalige’s behalf.
Missing LTTE cadre in French movie
Another case that underscored the absurdity of accusations, pertaining to missing persons, is ex-LTTE combatant, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who had been listed among the disappeared, but acted in Dheepan which won the Palme d’Or award at the 68th Cannes film festival in May 2015. Antonythasan was introduced there as a Sri Lankan novelist and former child soldier. Interestingly, Antonythasan played the role of a former LTTE cadre who had fled the country. Antonythasan had reached France during 1993, using a fake passport, via Thailand, and was given political asylum.
The media quoted the award-winning ex-LTTEer as having said: "I came to France because at the time I was able to only find a fake French passport and not a fake British or Canadian passport," Anthonythasan said, noting how difficult it had been to learn the French language. He declared that it would still be dangerous for him to return home.
"Officially in 2009 the civil war came to an end. However, even today there are still armed attacks against minorities in Sri Lanka," Antonythasan was quoted as having said.
"Even today, we don’t know how many prisoners of war were captured by the government, we have no real information."
Anthonythasan refrained from mentioning who forcibly conscripted him at the age of 16 to fight for the terrorists.