Photo courtesy of The New York Times
In one of the most heinous crimes committed against humanitarian personnel, 17 Sri Lankan workers of Action contre la Faim (ACF), a French aid organisation, were murdered in their office in Muttur in the Trincomalee District on August 4, 2006. The aid workers, who were wearing T shirts with the ACF emblem, were made to kneel and were begging for their lives when they were shot at point blank range.
The killings of the ACF workers – 16 Tamils, including four women, and one Muslim – occurred after several days of fighting between government forces and the LTTE for control of Muttur. The ACF team had been providing assistance to survivors of the December 2004 tsunami. Fifteen years later, no one has been held accountable for this terrible crime.
The security forces blame the LTTE for the killings but the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) published a report based on accounts from witnesses and weapons analysis that implicate government security forces present in the area. The group alleges that two police constables and naval special forces commandos were directly responsible, and that senior police and justice officials were linked to a cover-up, according to a statement by Human Rights Watch to mark the 10th anniversary of murders in 2016.
“In July 2007, President Mahinda Rajapaksa established the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate 16 major human rights cases, including the ACF case. Families of ACF workers who testified before the commission reported threats by security force personnel. And the commission’s international monitors resigned in protest in 2008, citing grave problems with its investigations. The commission’s full report was not released until September 2015, and while stating it had insufficient evidence to determine the perpetrators of the ACF killings, it effectively exonerated the army and navy in the massacre and indicated that LTTE forces or Muslim militia carried them out,” the statement said.
Fed up with waiting for the government to bring the perpetrators to justice, ACF published a detailed report in 2013, bringing the evidence it had gathered into the public domain and demanding justice for its slaughtered colleagues. There was testimony from the victims’ families, witnesses, diplomatic contacts and other sources. The report concluded that, “…the 17 humanitarian aid workers were likely assassinated by members of Sri Lankan security forces and the criminals must have been covered up by Sri Lankan top authorities.”
The report begins with the results of independent investigations and individual testimonies which implicate Army, Navy and Police personnel in the killings and continues with a description of how the security forces attempted to destroy the evidence in the days immediately after the massacre. The report explores the multiple irregularities of the official investigation that have helped the killers avoid justice and the role that the top Sri Lankan authorities have played in providing impunity.
An article in the New York Times of August 30, 2006 quoted a statement by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission accusing the security forces of the killings. “It cited three reasons for its conclusion. First, it noted, security forces had been in Mutur at the time of the killings. Second, the government had barred the monitors from the scene immediately after the bodies had been discovered. Third, confidential conversations with “highly reliable sources” had pointed to the culpability of the security forces.” No other group, the Monitoring Mission concluded, would have been in a position to carry out the killings, the article said.
The last that was heard about any investigation into the murders – often cited as one of the emblematic cases where justice eludes victims along with the Welikada prison massacre, the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge and the abduction of 11 youth in Colombo – was on June 13, 2019 when then Attorney General Dappula de Livera ordered police to speed up investigations on the ACF case and three others. Mr. de Livera said that he was singling out four cases because delays had caused public distress. He ordered the acting police chief to report on progress. Two years later, all investigations are at a standstill.
In a recent tweet, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “We are committed to work with the United Nations to ensure accountability and human development to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. We are dedicated to resolving the issues within the democratic and legal frame to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”
It is now time to walk the talk.