Tuesday, 14 June 2016

SL faces daunting task of probing disappearances




By Shamindra Ferdinando

Close on the heels of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on the night of May 21, 1991, in Tamil Nadu, the then government of India sought Sri Lanka’s assistance to verify the identity of the woman suicide bomber Dhanu (not her real name) as well as that of Pakiachandran alias Sivarasan, the leader of joint LTTE-Indian team tasked to carry out the operation.

Then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government swiftly responded to India’s request for assistance. Sri Lanka fully cooperated with India in spite of the absence of a formal agreement on such matters.

It would be pertinent to examine Sri Lanka’s support in respect of India’s efforts against the backdrop of Sri Lanka deciding to establish Office of Missing Persons (OMP) in accordance with a resolution adopted at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Oct 1, 2015.  Sri Lanka’s efforts cannot succeed unless foreign governments shared information in respect of those who had secured citizenship after having entered respective countries both through legal and illegal means.

The Foreign Ministry on behalf of the government on June 7, 2016 declared that various Presidential Commissions had received over 65,000 complaints in respect of missing persons. The FM statement dealt with complaints received since 1994.

The post-cabinet media briefing was told of the decision to amend the Registration of Deaths (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 19 of 2010 to enable the issuance of Certificates of Absence.

The FM said: "The suffering and distress of the families of those missing is exacerbated as, at this point in time, the government does not recognize the status of missing persons. This means that the families of missing persons face a range of practical issues including inability or difficulty in facilitation of property transfer and ownership, applying for compensation, qualifying for social welfare payments and pensions and accessing frozen assets. Although a number of ad hoc measures have been attempted in the recent past, they have failed to successfully address issues faced by the families of the missing."

The FM added: "Certificates of Absence have been used in a number of countries with a high incidence of missing persons and has been considered as an effective interim measure that balances the psychological and practical needs of family members and loved ones without dismissing the need for active investigation into cases of missing persons."

However, the Paranagama Commission placed the number of persons categorized as missing since 1983 at over 19,000. Retired High Court judge Maxwell Paranagama politely declined to comment on the sharp discrepancy in the numbers quoted by his commission and the government. The Island raised the same issue with the National Peace Council (NPC) as the prominent NGO recently placed the number of missing at 20,000. Responding to The Island query in respect of varying figures propagated by interested parties, Dr Jehan Perera on behalf of the NPC said: "The NPC quoted the most reliable and recent figure which was given by the Paranagama Commission on Missing Persons, and which is about 19,000 complaints. It is very important to ascertain what the correct number is.  This is why we need a Truth Commission with persons who are credible and trusted by all sides. This is also why we may need to bring in international persons or third parties whom all sides find acceptable.  Whether the number is 20,000 or 65,000 or less than that it is important to find a number that people can accept on all sides. Or else we will be arguing about numbers and not dealing with the issues of accountability, responsibility why these disappearances occurred at all."

Having destabilized Sri Lanka through terrorism in accordance with New Delhi’s objectives, the regional power had no option but to seek Sri Lanka’s help to investigate Gandhi assassination. Confirming the identities of key players involved in the assassination plot required Sri Lanka’s assistance.

Soon after the assassination, India sent a group of personnel from the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to Colombo. The Indian team included no less a person than D.R. Kaarthikeyan, head of the investigation. India made available photographs of the suspected assassin as well as kurta pyjama clad man to Sri Lankan police as the two governments cooperated closely in a bid to establish the LTTE’s role in the assassination. SIT personnel were flown to Palaly and from there escorted to a house where Sri Lankan authorities believed the suicide bomber lived. Although, information provided by the then government of Sri Lanka in respect of the suicide cadre whom the Sri Lankan police identified as Sundari had proved wrong, Sri Lanka cooperated fully with the Indian investigation.

Sri Lanka confirmed the identity of kurta pyjama clad man as one-eyed Sivaraja Master alias Sivarasan of the LTTE. His LTTE name was Raghuvaran. Sri Lanka provided a range of information regarding LTTE operations in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka never hesitated in providing the required assistance to India whenever the SIT got in touch with authorities in Colombo. In early 1992, President Premadasa’s government facilitated India’s efforts to establish Sivarasan’s identity through DNA testing. Sri Lanka obtained blood samples of Sivarasan’s mother, Sivapackiyam Chandrasekeran and brother, Ravichandran and passed them over to India. India successfully matched DNA profiles of one-eyed Jack prepared from blood and tissue collected from his body with those of his mother and brother. Sri Lanka also provided SIT photographs of Sivarasan and other documents available with the Registration of Persons, Colombo.

 Sri Lanka also facilitated Indian government pronouncements in respect of Velupillai Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman as accused in the Gandhi assassination. The international community never acknowledged the pivotal role played by Sri Lanka in the successful Indian investigation into the first suicide attack on its soil. The probe and the subsequent prosecution of LTTE personnel and their Indian associates cleared possible foreign government involvement in the conspiracy.

In addition to Sri Lankan government backing, India also received assistance from various armed Tamil groups operating in Colombo and Tamil Nadu to establish the LTTE’s involvement in the assassination. Sivarasan had been an employee of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and initially served the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) before switching allegiance to the LTTE. Sivarasan had been among those who received combat training in India in the early 80s. Having lost an eye in early 1987 during a confrontation with the military, he was among those airlifted to India by the IPKF soon after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in July 1987.

Sri Lankan and Indian authorities believed that the suicide cadre Dhanu was actually Kalaivani alias Akino, a daughter of Tamil nationalist Rajaratnam who passed away in Chennai way back in 1975. The SIT thoroughly investigated the possibility of the suicide bomber being Rajaratnam’s youngest daughter from his second marriage. However, Rajaratnam’s second wife and the second daughter (also a fighting cadre of the LTTE) maintained that Akino was killed in a confrontation with the Sri Lankan Army on Sept 8, 1991. Akino who had held the rank of ‘Captain’ was among seven female LTTE cadres killed on that day according to the LTTE’s ‘diary of heroes.’

 The LTTE never revealed the real identity of the woman suicide bomber. But, if Akino had actually carried out the suicide attack, Gandhi’s assassin was 23 at the time she gave her life for Prabhakaran’s macabre cause.

Now that India had endorsed the Geneva as a member of the 47-nation body, it would be New Delhi’s responsibility to assist Sri Lanka track down those who had been categorized as missing. The Indian High Commission in Colombo didn’t respond to The Island query whether New Delhi would share information available with her agencies with the proposed OMP. Can Sri Lanka be deprived of international assistance to help address a major accountability issue. The Report on the Second Mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances especially referred to foreign governments refusing to share information, thereby undermining its efforts.

Sri Lanka’s fresh efforts will certainly suffer a debilitating setback in case foreign governments continued to decline to share information citing domestic laws.

Let me briefly discuss three cases to highlight the pivotal importance of the OMP being given the much needed international assistance. 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 Thayapararajah during the second week of September, 2009. Allegations persisted though Thayapararajah’s body was never found. Accusations persisted 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 Norway-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) is still languishing in an Indian jail. Thayapararajah’s case is certainly not an isolated incident. Perhaps, Thayapararajah can help Sri Lanka to identify a network/s responsible for facilitating clandestine entries into India. 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.

 Sri Lanka should seek an opportunity to interview Thayapararajah without further delay. In spite of defeating the LTTE in May 2009, Sri Lanka never made a genuine effort to examine accountability issue until former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed an International Advisory Council (IAC) headed by Sir Desmond Silva, QC to assist the Paranagama Commission.

Case No. II is equally interesting. Australia admitting that it issued a new passport to leader of the Frontline Socialist Party Kumar Gunaratnam in the name of Noel Mudalige. Although a large scale issuance of passports bearing new identities to those seeking political asylum on various grounds is common knowledge, the admission by former Australian High Commissioner in respect of Kumar Gunaratnam now behind bars 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 2013.

 The third example underscores the absurdity of some accusations pertaining to missing persons. Former LTTE combatant Jesuthasan Antonythasan who had been listed among the disappeared starred 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. The former LTTEer was portrayed as a person with battlefield experience. 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."

Now that the government has placed the number of missing over 65,000 on the basis of complaints received by presidential commissions since 1994, for the first time the total number of missing is far more than the number allegedly killed by the Sri Lankan military during the final phase of the Vanni offensive (March 2007 to May 2009).

Anthonythasan refrained from mentioning who forcibly conscripted him at the age of 16 to fight for terrorists.

France subsequently experienced the folly of accommodating various undesirable elements within EU borders. Terrorists having citizenship of EU member states massacred 130 persons in coordinated attacks in Paris. Subsequently, terrorist struck in Belgium. In fact, LTTE operation directed against Rajiv Gandhi and Paris massacre can be compared.

The Paranagama Commission, in its second mandate report emphasized the requirement to inquire into specific complaints in respect of disappearances during the final phase of the war. The Commission recommended a judge-led investigation into this incident is necessary and indeed the Commission has already taken steps to appoint an Investigative team that has begun its work in relation to this incident. The Commission said: "We have made a finding that there is a reasonable basis to believe, having heard evidence on this issue, that these individuals may have been executed."

The Commission also referred to several other disappearances, including those levelled by Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa and former UN Adviser on Post-war Accountability issues in Sri Lanka alleging 110 disappearances on 18 May 2009

The Commission, too, referred to the Thayapararajah disappearance in Sept 2009 and re-emergence in Tamil Nadu in May 2014.

The Paranagama Commission alleged that foreign governments had declined to assist its efforts to locate missing persons due to their strict domestic laws.