Sri Lanka: International expertise ruled out in newly found mass grave exhumations

by Siva Parameswaran | Video & photos: S. Thavaseelan

As suspicion and fear grow regarding the findings of human remains in Kokkuthoduvai (KKT) in war torn Mullaitivu district, exhumations were further delayed a week after a high-level meeting ruled out any international involvement in the investigations.

War-affected Tamils have been constantly demanding international involvement since the suspected mass grave was found on 29 June this year to ensure the operation is not covered up and the truth is revealed.

However, after two weeks into the discovery, not only international involvement has been ruled out, but further excavation will be handed over to the state archaeology department assisted by a team of Judicial Medical Officers (JMO).

On Thursday (20) District Judge T. Pradeepan postponed the hearing of the case to August 8. The archeology department entrusted with leading the excavations was not present. At the request of Mullaitivu District JMO Kanagasabapathy Vasudeva, the judge directed to invite former professor of archaeology at Jaffna University Paramu Pushparatnam and Forensic Archeologist Professor Raj Somadeva to take part in the exhumation, said Lawyer VS Niranjan.

'No international observation'

Although direct international involvement has been rejected, state authorities assured that international standards will be adhered to and any international observation would not be hindered during the investigation.

Securing funds through the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), preserving body parts and other objects recovered during the exhumation and the methodology to be adopted for it, survey drawings regarding the land where the human remains were found, along with details of the ownership of the said land since independence and strengthening the present security to safeguard the site are also to be discussed in detail at the next meeting.

Tamils searching for their kith and kin who went missing during and after the war and their representatives have expressed their dismay after earth moving machinery was used in the early excavations of the site. Heavy machinery poses a risk of disturbing the remains and potentially damaging them.

Now, questions have been raised about the local capabilities in handling such a sensitive and complex issue coupled with the availability of funds and expertise.

JMOs of Mullaitivu district hospital Kanagasabapathy Vasudeva and Sellaiya Pranavan from Jaffna hospital participated along with senior police officers including the officer in charge of Kokkilai Police station. Attorney General’s department officials were not present.

A battery of lawyers too was present at the meeting to emphasize the disillusionment from the victims' perspective. Senior attorney for the Office for OMP Jaganathan Tatparan, Jaffna district MP and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran, attorneys Kesavan Sayanthan, V.S.Thananjayan, Ruchika Nithayanandaraja were present as also Ranita Gnanaraja and V.S.Niranjan representing the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD).

Another Jaffna district MP and secretary of the Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF) Selvarasa Kajendran too was present at the meeting which included Rev. Fr of Alambil Jude Amalathas and Hindu Cleric Velan Swamigal.

Former member of the Northern Provincial Council Thurairasa Ravikaran who was among the first to visit the site when it was found and the first excavation along with social activist Peter Elancheziyan was also present at the meeting with Mariasuresh Easwary, head of the Association of Relatives of Enforced Disappearances (ARED) in Mullaitivu district.

New report on mas graves

Based on the opinion of the lead JMO Vasudeva it was decided that a team comprising two more JMOs Pranavan and Rudrapasupathy Mayuran from Jaffna Hospital would assist the archaeology department who will direct the exhumation operations.

Representatives of victims expressed fear any exhumation not done according to international protocol and expertise will badly damage the existing human remains defeating the very purpose of digging them out to find the truth.

A recent report by four human rights organisations on failures in mass graves exhumations in Sri Lanka so far, put forward recommendations on how to conduct future excavations adhering to international protocols. Those recommendations have been accepted as the yardstick by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). A copy of the report “Mass graves and failed exhumations in Sri Lanka” had been handed over in Colombo to the OMP that is directed to provide funds for the Kokkuthoduvai exhumations.

The meeting suggested the excavations to start before the monsoon season (starting around mid-September) since heavy rain and flooding may inundate the present mass grave and potentially wash away the remains. Also, all the concerned state bodies have been directed to report back to the judge on the budgetary requirements for the operation during the next meeting on the 20th of July.

Human remains were accidentally found while laying water pipes in Kokkuthoduvai along the Kokkilai route on the 29th of June during which body parts and clothing apparently belonging to former LTTE cadres were found. Further excavation was ordered after a week on the 6th of July when at least 13 bodies were identified-mostly suspected to be of women.

More mass graves 

M.A. Sumanthiran who witnessed the initial exhumation was unhappy about the absence of international expertise.

“After observing this for many hours, it doesn’t seem to be done as per proper methodology. Whatever is being seen and found is just being kept as forensic evidence. It is not done based on international expertise. Therefore, there is a danger of evidence going missing, particularly important evidence has been found”

TNPF MP Selvarasa Kajendran says the area has been under military occupation for several decades since residents of Kokkilai, Kokkuthoduvai, and Karunattukerni were forced to leave their homes in 1984 onwards and resettled in 2011.

"If the military camps are dismantled more mass graves will come out because mass graves will be in places where military camps exist," says Manuel Uthayachandra of Mannar, a Tamil mother whose son Anton was abducted and disappeared 15 years ago.

Since the end of war almost 15 years ago, Tamils have been protesting the military occupation of vast areas of land in the north and east.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.