On November 24 last year, workers digging a trench in the compound of Matale hospital, central Sri Lanka, made a gruesome discovery. Using a backhoeing machine ahead of plans to build foundations for a new bio-gas unit behind a kitchen, workers began to unearth what appeared to be human remains.
Forensic excavation over the next three months confirmed at least 154 human skeletons, the largest mass grave discovered in Sri Lanka, where more than three decades of civil war ended with the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009. Preliminary forensic reports submitted to Matale court earlier this year paint a picture of torture and killings. Some bones showed evidence of nails hammered in before death and one leg bone was tied with a carefully knotted metal wire.
“There are several skulls that remain devoid of their skeletons,” a sign of decapitations, reads one of the forensic reports. Evidence also points to the use of firearms and blunt instruments before death.
For President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, the ongoing investigation into what happened in Matale has turned into a ticking political and judicial time bomb. Not only has the case subjected the president’s questionable rights record to embarrassing scrutiny, it has also implicated his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in serious abuses perpetrated against the country’s Sinhalese majority, the source of political support for both men following their victorious ending of the civil war four years ago.
With the next court hearing in Matale set for August 19, investigations continue to focus on three key unknowns: Who are the victims, and how and when did they die?
The discovery of artifacts buried with the bodies dates the grave to between 1986 and 1990 with further tests still needed for a more accurate timeframe, according to forensic reports. So far no bodies have been identified. But with each piece of evidence speculation is growing that the grave dates back to a two-year counter-insurgency operation by the Sri Lankan army resulting in more than 20,000 people disappeared in the Sinhalese south by the end of 1989, according to government inquiries.
At lunchtime on December 19 of that year, two soldiers wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms entered the home of Wedikara Kamalawathi, just outside of Matale, and detained her two teenage sons for questioning. Both had been involved in student rallies, said Kamalawathi, but she insisted they were not members of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), a group which killed hundreds of soldiers and police and their families during the uprising.
The next day, Kamalawathi said she and other parents followed a convoy of army vehicles transporting their children to a detention camp inside a college close to Matale hospital.
When she went there to search for her sons with her husband a few days later, a guard showed them a book with a list of names and then turned them away.
“The names of my two sons were crossed out in red ink,” said Kamalawathi, tears streaming down her face. Susantha Janaka, 18, and Rohana Nisantha, 17, were never seen again.
They were among more than 450 people recorded as missing in the Matale area during the period of the uprising, according to a later presidential inquiry. Only low-level police and soldiers have faced punishment for the atrocities of this period.
In May 1989, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was promoted and posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer “tasked with bringing the JVP under control,” notes CA Chandraprema in Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, published in May last year.
A glowing portrait of the defense secretary, the book details Gotabhaya’s earlier career in the army and notes that he remained in Matale until the JVP uprising was put down at the end of 1989. Only one senior JVP cadre in the country survived. Gotabhaya then moved to the U.S. and later secured an American passport, returning to Sri Lanka to help brother Mahinda’s campaign for the presidency ahead of his victory in 2005.
The mother of the two missing teenagers, Kamalawathi is among about 40 relatives of the disappeared in the Matale area who have submitted court petitions calling for a thorough investigation into the mass grave. At least 20 more are due to be filed at the next hearing in August. “Many people are afraid to come forward to share their painful experiences about disappearances because of Gotabhaya’s name,” she says.
Meanwhile, lawyers and rights activists in the country say authorities are operating an increasingly brazen campaign to undermine the investigation. As forensics experts started to excavate the site in December last year, Colombo police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody told the BBC that those buried were likely victims of a landslide in the 1940s. “We can’t pinpoint the exact time [of the grave],” he said. “But we can say it’s more than 60 years old. The doctors and neighbors say so.”
Other stories circulating around the case have linked the bodies to a malaria outbreak in the 1950s and a mass burial during British colonial rule in the mid-19th century. No evidence submitted to the Matale court so far backs these theories. The archaeological forensic report dates the grave “not earlier than the year 1986 and not later than the year 1990,” adding that physical deformations to some of the bodies point to “results of neither a natural disaster nor an epidemic.”
In a bid to more accurately determine a timeframe for the site, the court in February ordered the police to seek overseas help with radio-carbon dating the remains. Later the court recorded that Interpol was to be contacted for assistance. In April, national secretary spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle told the Sri Lankan Daily FT that the remains will only be sent overseas for carbon-dating “if the government feels that it is necessary … but I will not say that it is essential.”
The bodies remain under the supervision of the Sri Lankan police.
While further testing is required to date the bodies, DNA would need to be matched with family members to attempt identification. In a bid to encourage more families of the disappeared and witnesses to come forward, at the end of May the court instructed police to issue public notices in the Sri Lankan media, but this has also not yet happened.
Then, on June 24, Matale judge Chathurika de Silva was transferred. Earlier, the president appointed a three-man committee of inquiry reporting to his office, another sign that “the government is trying to cover it up,” said Chandrapala Kumarage, chairman of the Sri Lankan Bar Association’s human rights committee. He added: “I keep my fingers crossed with this case because this really affects the president’s brother, the most powerful man in this government today after the president himself. He’s in charge of the police department, he’s in charge of the armed forces and he’s in charge of many more things.”
In September 2010, eight months after winning a second term in a landslide with a two-thirds majority in parliament, Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a constitutional amendment abolishing a previous limit of two terms in office. Then, in January, he removed Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake after she opposed a bill by Economics Minister Basil Rajapaksa, another sibling. In charges read out in parliament by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, a fourth brother, she was accused of failing to disclose financial interests and violating the constitution. Former presidential advisor and attorney-general Mohan Peiris was installed in her place, a move later deemed illegal by the country’s highest court.
In response, the Bar Association for the first time disavowed the new chief justice, further adding to tensions between Sri Lanka’s lawyers and the Rajapaksas. “The junior judiciary in this country is dependable – the magistrates,” said Kumarage. “When it comes to human rights they are the ones who matter most.”
At the Matale courthouse, the Bar Association at the end of May filed to intervene to protect and restore human rights should it be in the public interest, an unprecedented move suggesting that lawyers in the country are not only digging in but also expecting the worst. “They might prevent this magisterial enquiry continuing,” said Kumarage. “So far they have not done it.”
Rights activists and lawyers in Sri Lanka point out that efforts against the investigation are particularly unsavory given that Mahinda Rajapaksa in the early 1990s led political efforts to look into disappearances as an opposition MP and head of the parliamentary human rights committee directly after the JVP uprising was put down.
In September 1990, police at Colombo airport apprehended Mahinda with 500 photographs of missing persons while en route to Geneva for a special session of the UN on Sri Lankan rights abuses. When the incident was raised in parliament, Mahinda was defiant: “Tears of innocent grieving mothers compel us to tell their story of pain and sorrow to the world. We will do it today, tomorrow and always. Remember that.”
Dr Nimalka Fernando, a rights activist and lawyer, recalls working with him in Geneva. They were part of the lobbying effort which managed to secure a first visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) to Sri Lanka in October 1991. Although the WGEID has requested to come to Sri Lanka since its last visit in 1999 it is yet to receive an invitation from the Rajapaksa government.
Fernando has remained a key figure in the international lobbying effort on Sri Lanka throughout the Rajapaksa administration, during which time she said that she and other civil society groups have endured a campaign of intimidation including physical threats by members of the cabinet.
“It’s a double-standard, it’s lying and it’s unacceptable,” said Fernando. The offices of the president and the defense secretary did not respond to emailed questions.
When the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a second resolution on Sri Lanka in March citing grave violations during the final stages of the war, Fernando said she had to leave the country for two weeks over fears for her safety. The government has said that the resolution is motivated by politics and driven by countries including the U.S.
With the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay due in Colombo for a week-long visit from August 25, Sri Lanka’s state-run media has initiated a vilification campaign considered unprecedented in recent UN history. Reports have focused on Pillay’s Tamil ethnicity as motivation against the country. A South African of south Indian origin, she does not speak Tamil.
Pillay’s schedule in August is yet to be finalized, a spokesman said, but she is expected to meet with the president and possibly the defense secretary. “We ask her to talk not just about present violations but also cases like this (Matale),” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The high commissioner’s visit is the first of a series of forthcoming events expected to place Sri Lanka’s rights record under scrutiny. A UN rights council session in Geneva is due in September followed by a Commonwealth of Nations meeting in Colombo in November which has prompted a boycott by Canada over rights concerns. The UNHRC is again in session in March during what could be a tricky period for the Rajapaksa administration, said Jehan Perera, a Colombo-based political analyst. “Anything positive will be due to international pressure because there’s limited domestic pressure on them,” he said. “It’s going to be slow progress.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.