Mass Graves in Jaffna
| Date: 19980703
Revelations by Corporal Rajapakse, the first accused in the rape and murder case of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, the Jaffna schoolgirl, that there were places in Jaffna where more than 400 dead bodies were buried, have had repercussions in the minds of the Jaffna public, said sources in Jaffna.
"300 to 400 bodies have been buried"[TamilNet, July 06, 1998]
On 3 July 1998, the Colombo High Court sentenced five Sri Lanka Army (SLA) soldiers and policemen charged with rape and murder in the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy case to death. Local and international human rights activists have welcomed the fact that a severe sentence was passed, indicating the gravity of the crimes, but there are doubts as to whether this marks an end to the climate of impunity in Sri Lanka.
Noting that "This is the first time that members of the security forces have been given such a heavy sentence for grave human rights violations", London-based Amnesty International said that the "landmark judgment could reinforce the message to the army and police that human rights violations will no longer be tolerated".
Welcoming the judgment as "as a positive step forward towards putting an end to 'disappearances'", the Tamil Information Centre (TIC), also based in London, noted that it "has come in the wake of constant pressure on the Sri Lankan government by the international community to protect human rights and end the climate of impunity widely enjoyed by the security forces".
"For too long the security forces have been literally allowed to get away with murder," Amnesty International said. "We hope this will be a decisive turning point in breaking the cycle of impunity".
The question of whether other rape or 'disappearance' cases involving security forces personnel would be brought to trial appears to be human rights activists' new concern with regards to Sri Lanka.
"Hundreds of other cases -- recommended in last year's reports by presidential commissions of inquiry for prosecution in relation to 'disappearances' and other human rights violations, including torture - have yet to reach the courts" said Amnesty International.
Last year Amnesty said that it believed that over 600 people who disappeared in the Jaffna peninsula had "died under torture or been deliberately killed" in Sri Lankan military custody.
Ironically, an admission by one of the soldiers accused in the Krishanthi case has highlighted the scale of the problem. On being asked why he should not get the death sentence, SLA Corporal Dewage Somaratne, reportedly denied murder and said in court "We only buried bodies. We can show you where 300 to 400 bodies have been buried". He also reportedly said "almost every evening, dead bodies were brought there and the soldiers were asked to bury them."
Some activists say that the extraordinary publicity given to the Krishanthi case, had taken the focus off the hundreds of unresolved cases. The further publicity that the death penalty could generate would further overshadow the other cases, they add.
"While on the one hand the intense media coverage drew attention to the problem of rape in Jaffna, its focus on this one case diverted attention from the pervasiveness of the problem" said the United States Committee for Refugees in its 1997 report on Sri Lanka.
"The 'Krishanthy case' has already been an important factor in bringing the level of 'disappearances' in Sri Lanka down to a lower, if still unacceptable, level," Amnesty International said, adding "We hope that [the] judgment will contribute to a full restoration of accountability for human rights violations."
The Tamil Information Centre said that the Sri Lankan government needed to initiate legal reforms if the problem of human rights violations by its security forces was to be addressed.
"A 'disappearance' does not constitute a crime under Sri Lankan law" says the TIC, adding that "Until the present judgment, no one responsible for 'disappearances' has been punished, even where those responsible were identified".
"Torture, deaths in custody, disappearances are widespread in Sri Lanka. A number of women and children have 'disappeared' after being taken by the security forces in the Tamil areas. Tamils continued to be held in secret places of detention especially in the Jaffna peninsula, Colombo and Vavuniya.", said the TIC.
"Sri Lanka ranked second highest in the world in its total number of recorded 'disappearances', as the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted in its 1995 report", said the TIC, adding that Sri Lanka still ranks second highest in the world, after Sudan.
"It is only when the existing indemnity legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations (ERs) are repealed and the obstacles to prosecution are removed entirely one can be proud of a major victory for all peoples of Sri Lanka and the international community", said the TIC.