By Camelia Nathaniel
“There were a few cases of some overzealous officials trying to influence some people to accept death certificates, get compensation and close the case. In one case, and that too quite by accident, the Terrorist Investigation Department was conducting its own investigations near the place we were holding our sitting. I had taken up these cases with the relevant authorities. Such cases are now rare.”
Justice Maxwell Paranagama
Chairman, Presidential Commission on Disappearances
Addressing a press briefing at a sitting of the commission in Mulangavil last Sunday, the chairman of the panel, Justice Maxwell Paranagama said that the charge that persons had disappeared after they had surrendered to the army or after they had crossed into army-held territory, needs to be investigated by a competent agency. “I have put in a request for such a team to the President, but have not got a response so far,” Paranagama said.
Asked who might head the proposed Investigating Team, he said that it would not be a police or army person, but a retired judge, so that no one can complain of a pro-state bias.
The Investigating Team would collect evidence and see whether a case is fit for legal action or not. Citing one such example in which investigation had been useful, Paranagama pointed out that a proper probe carried out regarding a missing person had revealed that the person who had allegedly disappeared was living in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu. Paranagama clarified that the recommendations of the commission and the investigating team are not binding, and that it is entirely the President’s prerogative to accept or reject a recommendation.
The commission has so far received more than 19,000 complaints of involuntary disappearances and has interviewed almost 1,300 affected families. It has had six sittings in the North Eastern Tamil-speaking districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Mullaitivu, prior to the four sittings in the Kilinochchi district.
However in spite of some parties alleging that the panel is under pressure from the government, Paranagama asserted that his panel is not under any pressure from the government. Despite propaganda about bias, people are coming to place their grievances before it, and people are speaking freely, he pointed out.
“There were a few cases of some overzealous officials trying to influence some people to accept death certificates, get compensation and close the case. In one case, and that too quite by accident, the Terrorist Investigation Department was conducting its own investigations near the place we were holding our sitting. I had taken up these cases with the relevant authorities. Such cases are now rare,” he said.
However, while the panel is supposed to be on war crimes as well, those who testified were talking only on the missing persons aspect. There were no questions on treatment of the people by the army or LTTE except the time worn one: “Who do you think shelled? Or did the LTTE prevent you from fleeing?”
There were only two commissioners who were present at these sittings and both were Sinhalese. It is also noted that while they asked routine and very basic questions, they also seemed to be rushing through to finish as many interviews as possible.
Meanwhile, there were concerns raised regarding the translator on the first day of the sittings where observers claimed that the translator was intimidating the people by saying things like, “answer straight”, “You are changing your story”. Further the commission during their line of questioning, also gave the impression that Samurdhi and housing are enough for those who had lost their loved ones to get over the trauma. One woman even said, “I don’t want your goats. I want my child,” when she was offered goats for her livelihood.
Suranjana Vidyaratne, one of the members of the panel told newspersons on the sidelines of the public hearing last Monday, that the commission would do their best to trace missing persons, but if the efforts are fruitless, it will recommend the issuance of a ‘missing person’ certificates to bring the cases to a close.
The commission is setting up a well coordinated counselling system to help persons traumatized by the disappearance of a relative. Presently, there are counsellors doing the job but coordination is necessary, she said.
In July this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had enlarged the mandate of the Missing Persons Commission to include charges of war crimes, as sought by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Asked if the commission would be able to cope with the addition, Chairman Maxwell Paranagama said that enforced disappearance is also a war crime. “We have begun asking questions to elicit information on forcible recruitment by the LTTE; charges of disproportional use of destructive power by the armed forces; use of humans as shields by the LTTE; and the brutal methods the LTTE used to prevent civilians from fleeing to safety.
“Although those who come before the commission are more concerned about finding the missing person, some are answering questions relating to other violations of humanitarian law,” he said, adding that complaints of persons disappearing after they had surrendered to the army would have to be examined in detail, and the guilty brought to book.
“We are examining records in detention and rehabilitation centers and hospitals. Some may be living abroad as refugees. For locating them we need the cooperation of other countries which is not forthcoming,” Paranagama said.
As for war crimes, those who testified spoke only of the missing and did not point an accusing finger on either the LTTE or the army as regards war crimes such as cruelty or torture or senseless bombing. Search for the loved ones was the main concern of the people who testified.
My daughter Rajitha has been missing since April 14, 2009. The LTTE abducted her from our bunker at Mathalan. She was 17 years old and was a student. After capture, the LTTE allowed me to see her. She was last seen by relatives at Wattawaikkal in Mulliwaikkal with the LTTE.
After release from the refugee camp, I went looking for her at the detention centers but I was told that no such person was with them. I have two other girls. One of them is doing the A levels and the other has completed A levels. My husband left me 18 years ago.
Mrs. D. Indrani of Pooneryn, Kilinochchi District, a coolie.
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My eldest son Thayanandan went missing on February 4, 2009. He was 18 when he was abducted by the LTTE from our tent at Puthumatalan. I kept looking for him but within four days we had to move to the army lines because of shelling of the area.
After the war, I went about looking for him but to no avail. I am a mother of six. My husband had deserted me. I am the only earning member of the family. I make about Rs.10,000 per month. I get Samurdhi and I have a house too.
Mrs. S. Bhagyam of Pooneryn, Kilinochchi District, a cook
My son Y. Anton Nandakumar has been missing since May 16, 2009. He was 31 at the time he disappeared. He was abducted by the LTTE but he would always manage to give them the slip and come home. But at Mulliwaikkal, he was not lucky. The LTTE took him. His wife was injured in the eye (which she subsequently lost). Since we were treating her at the Vavuniya hospital, we could not go in search of our son. We learnt from others that he too was injured in the shelling.
After we were released from the displaced persons camp, I went in search of my son and found that his name was there in the ICRC list of detainees at the Boosa camp. I went to Boosa but was told he was not there as some of the detainees had been shifted to other camps. There is no knowing as to where he is.
Mrs. Yahappan Theresamma of Kariyalai, Nagapaduwan, Kilinochchi District. Livelihood: poultry
My sister, K. Dharshani, has been missing since February 2, 2009. She was 18 at the time she was abducted by the LTTE from Puthumatalan. After the war I went to Joseph camp in Vavuniya to look for my son, but he was not there.
‘I entered complaints with the relevant authorities at the Joseph Camp and the Human Rights Commission but the girl is yet to be traced. I have eight members in the family including four children. I had to undergo surgery so I cannot do heavy work. My husband too cannot do heavy work.
Mrs. K. Radhamani of Pooneryn
My husband, S. Jeganathan, had been missing since September 2009. He was 43 then and living in Mannar in a rented house with my son, who was schooling there. He had a shop there. I was in Mulangavil.
Some time in September 2009, when I was in Arunachalam refugee camp, three people called and asked me if he came to see me. I said no. He had been arrested by the army. My son is in Malaysia now and my daughter is married. I am living alone.
Mrs. Jegannathan Udayamalar of Mulangavil, Kilinochchi District
My son Kajeevan has been missing since March 4, 2009. He was taken by four men from our temporary shelter at Rettaivaikkal. A boy from the neighborhood was also taken away. We protested vehemently but to no avail. I can’t say which group took him as the LTTE and the army were both there in this region. The other boy was later released but my son was not. In 2012, I saw the name of my son in a list displayed by the CID at Mulliyawalai. I was directed to inquire at Joseph camp. I went there but my son was not there. I am a beneficiary of the house construction program and got Rs.150,000 to complete the house.
Kandasamy of Pallavarayankaddu, Kilinochchi District
Son Rathishkumar has been missing since April 2, 2009. He was 19 when he was kidnapped at Pokkanai. We were en-route to Valainyarmadam at that time. At that time, the area had both army and LTTE. Can’t say which group took him. At any rate the LTTE had asked for his services in 2006 but he did not go because he had a problem with one leg. After the war, I tried to locate him at Joseph Camp, and complained to the Jaffna police and the ICRC.
Ms. Nirmaladevi of Solai Pallavarayankaddu,