It was the second day of the year 2006. Five Tamil students from the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee were playing near a Gandhi statue on the beach, when uniformed men killed them using a grenade, reportedly suspecting they were from the LTTE. With little actual progress on the investigation into the murder — barring the arrest of 12 Special Task Force members who were later discharged on account of inadequate evidence — the only reminder of this troubling incident is the annual memorial event held for the five boys.
Sharing a photograph of the remembrance observed earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador Atul Keshap said on Twitter: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The delay is nearly a decade old now, including the three years that the families have spent with new hope, after the current government, which came to power in 2015, promised to expedite such cases. The ‘Trinco 5 case’, as it came to be known, is resting on a pile of long-pending cases.
Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka was quick to respond to the diplomat on Twitter. He said: “We could not proceed with the case as the main witness was overseas and was not in a position to support proceedings. The case is now progressing as new reforms have allowed the use of Skype evidence.” While he pointed to evidence via Skype as a new, reform-linked development, use of such evidence has precedence in the island.
The ‘Trinco 5 case’ was among the 16 cases investigated by the Justice Udalagama Commission, appointed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in 2006. “At that time, several victims and witnesses had fled Sri Lanka due to security concerns and they were interviewed by a panel of counsel assisting the Commission via video links,” said Bhavani Fonseka, lawyer and senior researcher at the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives. However, the facility was suddenly discontinued during the sittings.
In April 2007, the Jaffna-based University Teachers for Human Rights released a report, painstakingly highlighting the many “twists” in official evidence. Retired Supreme Court Judge Nissanka Udalagama, who headed the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, observed in an interview in 2009: “The evidence we heard was that the students were shot by men in uniform.” Despite the witness testimony, “unfortunately, no prosecutions have taken place 12 years after the killings”, said Ms. Fonseka.
The Minister’s tweet neither points to a specific law enabling witness testimonies through Skype, nor clarifies the circumstances in which witnesses living overseas, many of whom fear of their lives, will be able to testify, said human rights activist Ruki Fernando. The question becomes pertinent, given that some who remotely testified before the Udalagama Commission faced security threats.
Whether it is the ‘Trinco 5’ case, the November 2006 killing of Tamil legislator Nadarajah Raviraj or the murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on January 8, the government’s promises were loud, but the follow-up action has been hardly promising for the families. “I am aware of the exceptionally determined efforts by some of these families, such as (those of) Dr. Manoharan (father of one of the Trinco Five) and Sandya Ekneligoda (wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth), to seek truth and justice, braving the trauma of loss, responsibilities of looking after children, threats and the discrediting they had to face,” Mr. Fernando said.(The Hindu)