By Zahrah Imtiaz
Fifteen years is a long time, it was going on for so long but we are thankful to God that justice is finally served, said Gnanachandran Parameswari, the wife of Kathiran Gnanachandran and mother of Gnanachandran Santhan.
Kathiran and Santhan along with Gnanapalan Raviveeran, Sellamuttu Theivakulasingham, Vilvarajah Pratheepan, Sinniah Vilvarajah, Nadesu Jeyachandran, and Vilvarajah Prasath were allegedly massacred by five members of the Army on 19 December 2000 at Mirusuvil, Jaffna. Prasath was only five years of age at the time of his death.
On Thursday (25) Army Staff Sergeant R.M. Sunil Ratnayake was found guilty of murdering the eight civilians by slashing their necks and was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court. He was found guilty on15 counts. The second, third, fourth and the fifth defendants in this case, Army personnel, R.W. Senaka Munasinghe, H.M. Jayaratne, S.A. Pushpakumara and Gamini Munasinghe were cleared of all charges, as the charges were not proved beyond reasonable doubt.
Parameswari now has five children left, three daughters and a son. Whilst the first three have been married off, the youngest studies in Grade 9. She said one of her daughters had returned home as her in-laws and husband were not happy with the dowry given; she has returned home with a baby girl. Parameswari is the sole bread winner in the family now, having lost her husband and eldest son,
“Life has been very difficult over these 15 years, I am the only one who works in the family and I manage to earn a meagre sum of Rs 400 a day as a labourer in the fields,” she said.
Work however, is seasonal and is dependent on the harvest. On days where there is no harvesting done, Parmeswari makes a living by selling firewood she collects from the surrounding areas. They currently live on the land her husband and son died for and the Indian housing scheme has been very generous to her. She now has a house with four walls and a sheet on top of it as a makeshift roof.
An NGO she said was generous enough to give her Rs 100,000 at the start but she added, “15 years is a long time for it to last”.
The story of the murders is an old one, Attorney-at-Law K.S. Ratnavelu was one of the first lawyers in the case and recalling the massacres, he said,
“When the incident happened there was a huge outcry and pressure on the government to take action. It was then that the Chief Justice appointed a three member Trial-at-Bar comprising High Court Judges S. I. Imam (President), Sarath Ambepitiya and Kumar Ekaratne. Later Judge Ambepitiya was killed, and the other judges were promoted so there were many delays,” he said.
Ratnavelu speaking on the challenges faced in the case said, “During the early stages, the witnesses had to be brought in from Jaffna and there were problems with accommodating them in Colombo. An NGO at the time helped. It was also at the height of the war and the Courts did not function well. The identification parade at the Chavakachcheri Courts had to be moved to Pt. Pedro. It would have been better if it was ultimately heard in Jaffna for the witnesses but war made it impossible”.
There were 20-30 supporting witnesses, whose family members were among those killed and they were brought in to give evidence in the case.
“Unlike the other cases like the murder of 17 ACF workers in Trincomalee, the Army and the Military Police (MP) conducted a very thorough preliminary investigation in this case and that helped a lot,” he said.
The case was significant as it was between the Army and Tamil civilians who were killed in a time of war, “In time of conflict ethnicity matters,” said Ratnavelu.
Ratnavelu also appealed to the government to provide compensation to the families of the deceased as those who were killed were the breadwinners in their homes, “The Court decision was a good one but we also request that the government give them compensation as it was an arm of the State that committed this crime. They should do this on moral grounds.”
Additional Solicitor General (ASG), Sarath Jayamanne the Chief Prosecutor for the case recalled the events at the time:
“The year 2000 had heavy fighting with the LTTE but the fighting ceased for a bit and there was respite for the civilians. It was at this time that the eight people travelled from their homes in Udupitty to Mirusuvil to visit their lands there. They would visit their original lands from time to time to look at their houses and collect firewood.
The eight included a father, his two sons, one five and another 13, another father with his 13-year-old son, and two cousins. Our key witness in this case was Ponnuthurai Maheshwaran.
On 19 December 2000, at 10 a.m. they visited the area on four bicycles to collect firewood; by 4 p.m. the young boy had wanted to eat guava from the tree nearby and he along with the others were near the tree.
It was then that they were approached by two Army men and were questioned; one had a gun and the other a knife. The soldiers then left and came back with 2-3 other men. They were suspicious of one of the civilians who had an amputated arm; the man had lost it in a mine accident.
He was questioned separately for an hour. Then they blindfolded all the civilians, our witness fainted when he was blindfolded and said he did not remember anything of what happened until he woke up. When he became conscious he was aware that he was thrown over barbed wire to the adjacent land and in that process, his blindfold came off. He saw that he was being taken to a toilet pit, there were two Army men near the pit and he could hear voices from within the pit. One of the soldiers at the pit was armed with a knife and Maheswaran knew what would become of him and while the men were talking, he managed to escape. He had been tied up using his sarong. This was at 6 p.m.
These soldiers from a particular platoon had just moved into the area the day before, and were not familiar with the area. By this time the area was government controlled and any gun shots would have given rise to suspicion in the area; so the soldiers did not shoot while Maheshwaran ran. The latter was more familiar with the area and used shortcuts to get away and the Army men could not trace him. He ran to his aunt’s house half naked and terrified and related the story to his family. He hid himself in the jungle for the night and later went to the EPDP offices in the area and informed them of the crime. He was then hospitalized with minor injuries.
The EPDP related the story to the UN and the UN contacted the higher ups in the Army over the incident. The Army high command without much hesitation ordered an immediate inquiry into the incident. The MP (Military Police) questioned Maheshwaran but he was too afraid of them but they finally convinced him to cooperate and he took the MP to the site. When the MP visited the toilet pit, they noticed a concrete block on top of it, with blood stains and mud. Maheshwaran said the bodies were inside the pit. When they opened it, they only found a carcass of a goat. The suspects knew that Maheshwaran had escaped and would lead the Police to them, so they had tried to cover the blood stains by trying to make it seem like the blood came from the goat.
The head of the MP unit however, was unconvinced and he searched the area and found a military uniform that had been left behind, it belonged to a special platoon in the Gajaba Regiment. So they tracked the platoon down and asked them about the soldier who had recently killed a goat, the first accused then admitted to the slaughter, and Maheshwaran immediately recognized him as the assailant. He was arrested and had made a confession to the MP of what happened, he also led the MP to the graves of those killed. The site was 500m away from the original toilet pit and the bodies were exhumed after four days of the ‘murders’.
ASG Jayamanne stressed that this case was unique in that as soon as the Army Commander was made known of the incident, he had complained to the Police, “They did not try to suppress it. The case was handed over to the Kodikamam Police. SI Tennekoon of the Kodikamam Police and MP Major, Soysa acted very bravely in this case,” he said.
The bodies were identified by the relatives given the clothing they were wearing.
“There were cut injuries on the neck of all bodies and that was the cause of death for all, and the clean cuts showed that only an expert could have done it. The first accused also led the Police to where the four bicycles of the victims were hidden. So, there was a strong case against the first accused. There was no such corroborative evidence against the other accused. The judges also said that there was doubt in the manner in which the identification parade was handled,” explained Jayamanne.
Though the first accused Ratnayake had confessed the whole story to the MP, under civil law any statement made to the Police under custody cannot be used as evidence in Court. In 2004, the lawyers for the defence went to the Supreme Court to prove that evidence collected by the MP too was similar to that of the Police and thus, could not be used in Court. This took two years and the case was delayed.
With the original three judges being changed due to promotions and a killing, Jayamanne went back to the Colombo High Court asking for three new judges.
“In this case the Police and MP conducted independent investigations; there was no interference. The Army Commander himself complained against these soldiers. Maheshwaran was brought to Colombo and gave evidence in Tamil to a Sinhala audience. We are capable of dispensing justice, and this was a good case where justice was tested and the law was implemented impartially,” he continued.
When asked about why the other four were acquitted, he said, “The second accused who was the platoon leader had come up with a strong alibi and produced documents saying that he was elsewhere in training when the incident happened, so that threw some doubt to his case, and thus, this questioned the credibility of Maheshwaran at the identity parade. But the blood tested on the concrete slab was proven to be human and not animal; so this proved that Maheshwaran was credible. And the evidence against the first accused also showed that Maheshwaran was telling the truth”.
He added, “I am overjoyed at the sentence. I am a Sinhalese but I did not leave any stone unturned to deliver justice to these people; some may say I am against the Army, but ethnicity does not matter to me, I did my job.”
At the time of sentencing, the Court inquired what Ratnayake had to say prior to sentencing him to death. In response he said that he had not engaged in a crime serious enough to warrant the death penalty. He also said that while he was serving in the Army he had entered LTTE camps where other soldiers were fearful of going and engaged in fighting as well. He stated that he was not guilty of all the charges against him.
Parmeswari is 48-years-old today and her current struggles are more to do with her everyday needs, “I have various ailments with all the work I have to do, but I do my best to bring up my children. I am trying to get a few poultry and have a small farm so I could earn some money through that without having to travel great distances”.
When asked about the sentencing, she said, “I never expected a death sentence to be given. I am happy that at least one man was convicted, though he did not kill them on his own. My husband and son simply went to collect firewood and they were tortured and killed. It is all up to God now”.