Featured images courtesy Ian Treherne
The ‘Trinco 5 case’, involving the murder of 5 students on a beach in Trincomalee on 2 January 2006, is an emblematic case of impunity in Sri Lanka. The case became well-known thanks to the courage of Dr Manoharan, the father of one of the students. Dr Manoharan knew the security forces were involved with the killings and testified at an early inquiry. International human rights organisations joined with local activists to demand justice for the Trinco 5. Such was the attention the case garnered, it was included in a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI) established by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2007. The Commission acknowledges “[strong grounds to surmise the involvement of uniformed personnel in the commission of the crime” and yet effective investigations have stalled.
Despite recommendations by the 2007 COI to effectively investigate the case, along with later repeated recommendations by Sri Lanka’s Lesson Learned and Reconciliation Commission, progress was limited. Suspects have been detained and released with the case proceeding at a glacial pace at a Magistrate’s Court in Trincomalee. Then, on 3 July came the announcement that the Special Task Forces suspects were ‘acquitted’ due to lack of evidence. For the victims’ families, this development was a bombshell shattering their lack of faith in Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system.
The failure to deliver the right to truth in cases like the Trinco 5 highlights the failure of Sri Lanka’s justice system to hold the security forces responsible for crimes. Dr Manoharan has sought redress, despite his personal pain, through long years of campaigning. When the 2007 Commission of Inquiry suspended video testimony and failed to release its report, Dr Manoharan took his quest for justice to international human rights bodies. In 2009, he spoke out at a side event at the Human Rights Council in Geneva asking the government of Sri Lanka to tell the truth about what happened to the five boys cruelly killed in Trincomalee. The government asked for more time and space. Then, during the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka in 2012, Dr Manoharan made another appeal and the Government of Sri Lanka informed the Human Rights Council that the case of Ragihar and his four friends who were also murdered was referred to the Attorney General to determine whether a prima facie case existed to launch prosecutions. The Attorney General advised the Inspector-General of Police to conduct further investigations. Once again, the government sought more time and space. Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission referred to the Trinco 5 case and strongly recommended further investigation and prosecution of the killers. Now 13 years has passed and what has the government done to provide answers for the victims’ families?
The Trinco 5 case is a litmus test of what the Sri Lankan government is able to deliver on accountability. The 5 students murdered were killed at close range for no reason other than being young Tamil men. Dr Manoharan who has Sinhala and Muslim friends has resisted attempts to politicise the case – he has simply sought answers. We should all want answers.
The latest development compels Dr Manoharan to speak out once again and appeal to the Sri Lankan public to support his efforts to get to the truth of the Trinco 5 case. I spoke with him following the announcement of the acquittals and this is what he wants to share:
My name is Dr Kasipillai Manoharan.
My beloved son Ragihar was murdered by Sri Lankan forces on 2 January 2006. Since that terrible day I have campaigned for the truth about what happened.
The last time I heard from my son, Ragihar, was a mobile phone message. It just said “DAD”. That was 2 January 2006. My son was a good boy and was celebrating finishing his exams with friends on the Trincomalee beach. That day I heard a bomb blast on the beach and 3 of my other sons returned home immediately. Ragihar did not. Within minutes of the explosion I got a call from him which said “Daddy, the forces are surrounding me”. He meant the security forces. That was all he said. Then there was silence – just the last unfinished text.
I immediately rushed to the scene but was blocked by Navy guards who wouldn’t let me through. I heard voices crying in Tamil “Help us! Help Us! But I couldn’t see properly as the lights where my son had been sitting near the Gandhi statue had purposefully been turned off. I then heard gunfire and lights go down near the statue.
Because I’m a medical doctor who had treated the Navy I was able to get access to the mortuary. I wanted to know if one of the bodies taken was my son. When I entered, the first body I saw was my beloved Ragihar. He had five gunshot wounds. While I was there a police officer wanted me to sign a statement saying my son was a Tamil Tiger. If I agreed, they would release his body immediately. I refused. My son was a caring person. Ragihar was a good student, a table tennis and chess champion and a coach.
The government claimed my son was killed in a grenade attack. But 3 of the bodies I saw in the mortuary had head wounds showing they had been shot in the back of the head. I have photographs and the doctor’s report confirms this. The entry hole was small and the exit wound was big indicating the boys were shot at very close range. They were executed – 5 young men whose whole lives were ahead of them. That evening I made a decision. I would challenge the authorities to tell the truth. I had seen Sri Lanka’s Special Task Forces near the scene and wanted them to be investigated.
From the moment I spoke out I received death threats. My other sons were also threatened. The journalist Mr Sugirdharajan who came with me to the mortuary to take photos was gunned down a few weeks later. His photos disproved the army’s claim that the students were killed in an explosion. A Buddhist priest who condemned Ragihar’s murder was also killed. It was simply too dangerous for me and my family to stay in Sri Lanka. With heavy hearts we left in December 2006. We lost our friends, medical practice and property. But our biggest loss is Ragihar.
As a father, it is my duty to search for the truth. I have given video testimony to a Commission of Inquiry that was set up by former President Rajapaksa to investigate my case more commonly known as the ‘Trinco 5’ case. Nothing came of these efforts. The government showed a lack of political will to acknowledge the role of the security forces. I could not stand idly by and decided to take my search for truth to the Human Rights Council in Geneva lobbying UN member states to ask Sri Lanka to tell the truth. The Trinco 5 case has been included in the 2015 OISL report on Sri Lanka as an emblematic case of impunity or in simple language – a state cover up.
13 years on, the case remains stalled. It was proceeding as a non-summary case in a Magistrate’s Court in Trinco but on 3 July the 13 Special Task Forces suspects were apparently released.
How can the government fail to effectively investigate this case? This is a very serious murder case. The doctor’s report from the mortuary acknowledges the gunshot wounds. I cannot have any trust in the Sri Lanka criminal justice system if they can’t offer families like mine some answers.
Before Ragihar died, he cried out to me for help… when justice is served – when Sri Lanka finally tells the truth about what happened to my son – then we can say that Ragihar’s call for help has finally been heard.
Please join me in asking the Sri Lankan government to ensure the Trinco 5 case is properly investigated and that the murderers are held to account.
Yolanda Foster, an independent researcher, previously worked with Amnesty International and travelled with Dr Manoharan to testify before UN bodies in New York and Geneva 2009-2017.