Sri Lanka’s largest mass grave probe risks being abandoned

The site of Sri Lanka’s largest mass grave has been left unprotected leading to fear that if any evidence remains in the soil it may become contaminated and unfit to be admissible in court.

A video footage received by JDS shows the abandoned state of Mannar mass grave where over 300 bodies were found at a construction site near the old Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE) building.

The site discovered in May 2018 and appeared to be a grave with a few skeletal remains soon transformed into the largest mass grave in Sri Lanka, which by January 2019 had spawned 323 bodies, including 28 children.

Although there was some buzz about the grave, mainly due to its size, the then National Unity Government and a subservient national media managed to mask the seriousness of the discovery from the public.

In Mannar and adjacent areas however, families of the disappeared became agitated that the bodies were of their missing relatives.

Evidence removed

Meanwhile, concern rose that some objects already excavated from the grave and stored in a room in the Mannar magistrate’s court in north-western Sri Lanka could either have been tampered with or removed.

On 11 February the Mannar magistrate informed that the room where the evidence had been stored appeared to have been broken into, inspected the site and ordered it be sealed.

With the site declared a crime scene, law enforcement stepped in with Dr Saminda Rajapaksa, a judicial medical officer, in charge of the excavations. Forensic archaeologist Professor Raj Somadeva, of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Keleniya provides expert advice.

Even as bodies were being unearthed, it was decided in December 2018 that six sets of skeletal remains would be sent for radiocarbon testing to Beta Analytics, a laboratory in Florida USA. The Office of Missing Persons stepped forward to finance the radiocarbon testing.


Lawyers representing relatives of the disappeared were not consulted on the selection of remains, their number or the laboratory they were sent to for testing.

Meanwhile, Professor Somadeva objected to send the remains to be tested before all what the mass grave could yield was excavated. The objection did not stop the government from its purpose.

The results came back in March 2019. Beta Analytics dated bodies to a period between 1499 and 1719 ACE, which provoked outrage from the relatives of the disappeared.

The controversy prompted the lawyers appearing for the relatives of the disappeared to issue a statement: “[t]here are several more tests, which may also have to be referred to experts for analysis and Report. Only on receipt of the reports of all such tests that any meaningful conclusion could be reached as to the age and position of such skeletal remains.”

Among the material to be tested were a biscuit packet wrapper and shackles discovered in the grave that appeared to make the site more recent than early the 18th century. Some of the testing at least was to be undertaken by the University of Keleniya.

Then for almost a year the Mannar mass grave disappeared from the news before reappearing on 11 February. But political developments in the interim have cast a shadow on the future of the mass grave inquiry.



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.