posted February 14, 2001 12:28 PM
Krishanthy Kumaraswamy: The Army must take responsibility
[ Fri Jul 10, 1998, GMT 21:36 ]
The verdict of the special High Court Bench which tried the Krishanthy Kumaraswamy gang rape and murder case has let the army grappling with many troubling questions and issues. The main question is: How much is the army responsible for what happened to the Kumaraswamy family, and by broader implication to civilians throughout the north, east, and the rest of the country, Tamils and Sinhalese alike.
Many may say that the case is now closed. That justice has been done, and that the culprits will be hanged, barring appeals to the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, and the leniency of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
But in handing out the maximum possible sentence, and brushing aside the pleas for clemency of the accused, the three judges, Justice Nimal Dissanayake, Gamini Abeyratne and Andrew Somawansa, have sent a clear and unequivocal message that human rights abuses in the name of national security cannot and will not be tolerated by a civilized system of justice.
In the past, flagrant human rights abuses have been buried under the carpet by successive governments and the top brass of the armed forces and police. The unwritten rule was that in the name of national security, be it in fighting the JVP or the LTTE, security forces personnel had carte blanche in committing whatever human rights abuses they wanted to.
Even though everyone in the country was aware that the gang raping of young girls who had no connections with either terrorist group was a frequent occurrence, nothing was done against the culprits. The very fact that they were security forces personnel made them above the law, especially since the armed forces are so short of men.
But in handing out sentences of death for the murderers, on top of 10 years rigorous imprisonment and fifty thousand rupee fines for unlawful detention, and 20 years rigorous imprisonment for gang rape, the judges, drawn from the High Courts of Negombo, Balapitiya and Colombo, made it abundantly clear that the opposite applied.
That is, the very fact that the culprits were security personnel meant that they should be given the maximum penalty for their dastardly crimes.
Justice Abeyratne put it very clearly when he noted in Sinhala during the sentencing that "the accused held responsible positions in the armed forces and police, but they attacked this young girl like a pack of savage animals."
This runs directly opposite the stand taken by courts martial appointed by the Sri Lanka Army in previous human rights cases, where lenient punishments were doled out to officers and men, simply because they were members of the armed forces.
For example, after more than 50 civilians were massacred by soldiers at Kokkadicholai in the Batticaloa district in 1991, the army investigation and court martial didn t find anyone guilty of the killings.
Instead, a single officer was found guilty of not keeping proper control over his men. Even he did not receive a prison sentence.
The major difference between earlier cases and the more recent ones is that while previous governments allowed the massacres to be investigated by the army itself, with the clear intention and knowledge that it would all be buried under the carpet, President Kumaratunga has handed over human rights abuse cases to civilian courts.
In fact, one could say that the earlier stand is very similar to the Sinhala proverb of "horage ammagen payner ahanawa wagey" (asking for help from the rogues mother).
The question now is: What is the army going to do about human rights abuses, now that the High Court has so succinctly said that murderers and rapists cannot hide behind their uniforms?
The High Court s verdict echoes the growing feeling in Sri Lankan society that the time to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses is past. That criminals should be treated as such, and not as heroes protecting the nation.
This is something which human rights organisations around the world have been saying for a long time, something journalists have wrote about and died for in this country, and which the government has accepted.
It is now up to the army to accept this, and take action to prevent this happening again.
How, you may ask, can this be done? Well, there are several steps.
First of all, compensation must be paid to the families of the victims. This must be done not with just public funds, such as the army forking out money, but by making the culprits pay from whatever assets they have. A system must be worked out which will allow for this.
Perhaps most importantly, the army s top brass must come clean and accept their part of responsibility in human rights abuses. Starting from the army commander himself, down to the lowly second lieutenants, they should accept that most of them turned a blind eye to human rights abuses, although it is their sworn duty to uphold the law.
Take for example, the accused in the Kumaraswamy case. A corporal, seven soldiers and a reserve police constable.
Where was the lieutenant in charge of the platoon? What about the captain in charge of the company? The major in charge of unit? The Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel in charge of the brigade? Although they probably weren't involved in the kidnapping, rape and murders, didn't they know what was going on, and turn a blind eye?
Even if they didn't know, which seems highly improbable, the officers bear some responsibility for the actions of their men. The charge brought against the officer in the Kokkadicholai case, that of allowing his men to go berserk, should apply to the officers in the Kumaraswamy incident.
When the incident was first reported, the army conducted a cursory investigation, and announced that these four civlians had not been detained at the checkpoint, despite the fact that dozens of civilians witnessed it.
As far as the army was concerned, that was the end of it all. It was only when human rights organizations brought pressure to bear on the president, and she ordered a thorough investigation, that the bodies were found, and later the culprits arrested.
The army has stayed mum over the verdict so far, but this is a damning indictment of its refusal to say mea culpa.
Overshadowing the entire case is the fact that every single one of the condemned men stood up in court and said that they could show where up to four hundred bodies of Tamil civilians were buried in mass graves in the Jaffna Peninsula, and the officers knew what was going on.
Human rights organizations,Tamil politicians, Tamil people, and most of all, army officers and men, are watching keenly to see what the army will do about this. Will there be a search for the graves, which shouldn't be too difficult to find. Or will the issue be buried like the hundreds of bodies?
When Friday's verdict became known in Jaffna, there was no rejoicing. People there have lived with terror for too long, from both sides. Although people were happy that a court had done justice, especially since the judges happened to be all Sinhalese, they know only too well that it is the army which must change.
Some may argue that with a ferocious war going on, the army has no time for such niceties. We would argue the exact opposite. It is exactly because there is a conflict going on, and the Tamil people must be won over to the government side, that the army must heal the wounds.
In the early eighties, when the war had just begun, human rights abuses were widespread in the north. But the government and the armed forces turned a blind eye. Such abuses were necessary, it was believed, so that the war could be finished off soon. Torture of suspects was especially condoned, as has been documented by human rights organizations and Tamil politicians, to get information about the terrorists. If civilians got tortured by mistake or on purpose, it didn't matter.
What most armed forces officers know now is that this was one of the biggest causes of the growth of the LTTE, and is directly responsible for the fanatical attitude of Tiger cadres.
Some day, when the war is over, someone should make a list of LTTE members, and trace how many had been victims of human rights abuses before, either directly, or through having a member of their families abused or killed. Chances are, many of the cadres fighting today, who were only toddlers in the early eighties, will be among them.
Amnesty International put it best when it commented on the case:
"For too long the security forces have been literally allowed to get away with murder. We hope this will be a decisive turning point in breaking the cycle of impunity. We hope that the judgemet will contribute to a full restoration of accountability for human rights violations."
Source: The Island (July 08, 98)
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