There is an air of weariness around the small protest at Hulftsdorp outside of the Supreme Court. They silently unfold the banners as they have done countless times before, lining up in neat rows. People walking past glance up quickly and hurry by without studying the words demanding justice and accountability for the disappeared men. The protest is one of many the families have attended, mostly women dressed in white, some grey haired and bent and others with fight still in them. It is a problem that will not fade away, however much the government may wish it did. Although parents and spouses may die, their other children will remember and be there to take up the baton. The trauma and bitterness will be passed down the generations in a never ending spiral of anger and sorrow.
The relatives of the 11 men and boys allegedly abducted and killed by the Navy for ransom are standing in front of the Supreme Court to protest the exoneration of former Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as the 14th defendant. The cases against the other 13 accused will continue although activists hold out little hope for justice to be done.
On October 13, Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam informed the Colombo Permanent High Court Trial-at-Bar that the charges against Admiral Karannagoda would not be carried forward.
On November 1, the AG’s Department told the Appeal Court that it had decided to drop the charges against Admiral Karannagoda based on a confidential report. The Court of Appeal ordered the Attorney General to submit the report to the court.
The Court of Appeal made this order after a writ petition was filed by parents of the men challenging the decision of the AG to withdraw the indictment. The petitioners stated that the decision to withdraw the indictments were unreasonable, biased, illegal, unlawful and politically motivated with intention to gain undue advantage and against the rules of natural justice. They stated that during CID investigations, it was revealed that there was a direct connection between the disappearances and some Navy personnel including the former Navy Commander.
On November 2, the Colombo Permanent High Court Trial-at-Bar refused to allow a discontinuation of the case against Admiral Karannagoda as requested by the AG on the basis that it should have been made to the court by the AG personally or in writing along with his signature. The AG’s Department told the court that the charge sheet would be revised. The next hearing has been fixed for December 3.
“Wasantha Karannagoda knows everything. How can they (be) releasing him from the case? It is not fair,” protested Mrs. Sarojini Naganathan, whose 21 year old son Rajiv was one of the boys abducted in 2008, just before he was due to go abroad to study medicine. “We know they were taken to Trincomalee and killed there.” Mrs. Naganathan said Rajiv had spoken to her on the phone and told her not to pay the one million rupees ransom the abductors were demanding.
“We don’t want any cases. We are not expecting anything from the government. I just want them to release my son and bring him back to me.”
Police told a court in 2019 that the 11 victims were killed while in the illegal custody of the Navy although their bodies have never been found. Police said the victims were not linked to the LTTE and were kidnapped to extort money from families.
CID investigations found that the men were held at the Navy prison in Colombo and in detention cells inside the Navy’s Eastern Command Base in Trincomalee. Witnesses have seen the men inside the Trincomalee cells and investigators concluded that after their Navy captors collected the ransoms from their parents, they killed the men and threw the bodies in the sea.
“We are protesting the Attorney General’s release of Wasantha Karannagoda. The Chief Justice appointed a trial-at-bar because there is more than enough evidence to continue with the cases. The children had no protection of the law when they were abducted. There is a lot of evidence as to how they were abducted, where they were taken and even about the vehicles that were used. One reason for this is that the president has continuously said that security personnel would not be harassed. It is because of his political power,” said leader of the Families of the Disappeared, Brito Fernando.
“The AG is not representing us. If people lose faith in the courts and the justice system, how can we expect justice? The AG betrayed us because of the political system,” he added.
“This case, one of the few cases where investigations resulted in indictments in recent years, is also extraordinary for the fact that media reports exposed not only the gruesome details of the abduction for ransom racket involving navy personnel, but also the complicity of key individuals in this heinous crime and the complex web of cover-ups and action taken to subvert justice by politicians, state officials, and others,” wrote Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives Bhavani Fonseka on Groundviews.
“The case also stands out for another reason – it showed how an accused can outsmart a criminal justice system through shrewd legal measures to escape accountability in Sri Lanka. Despite the delays, stay orders, and now being discharged from the case, Karannagoda and his legal team were unable to prevent the publicity the case received including exposing the gruesome details of abduction, extortion, and murder of civilians, and the protection enjoyed by some; nor has years of watching the numerous setbacks in obtaining justice, including a system that continuously fails victims, diminished the courage and resilience of Sarojini Naganathan and other victims. The former Navy Commander, his political backers, and the legal team may celebrate this recent victory, but reckoning is far from over,” she wrote.
The sleepy opposition SJB has woken up to file a Right to Information application with the AG’s Department requesting for information on the indictments that were withdrawn since 19 November 2019.
“Since 19 November 2019, there have been a large number of reports of indictments being withdrawn by the AG’s Department. We need to know why these indictments were withdrawn. It is interesting to note that the withdrawn indictments are those that are in relation to individuals connected to the current Government,” said SJB parliamentarian Mujibur Rahuman, speaking to the The Morning newspaper. “How does this work? Do charges change when the AG changes?”
Earlier this month, lawyers for the National People’s Power raised concerns about the independence of the ongoing legal procedures against high profile individuals, pointing out that members of the government or close associates of its leaders were being released from indictments by the AG’s Department on almost a weekly basis. Most of the indictments that are being withdrawn by the present AG were filed by the former AG Jayantha Jayasuriya, who is now the Chief Justice.