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Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01
Tamil prisoners murdered in custody - December 1997
[see also Report by Peace Brigades
International Sri Lanka Project and
Tamils appeal to world leaders to end Sri Lanka torture & murder of detainees]
"Amnesty International today appealed to Sri Lanka's Minister of Justice to order a full and impartial inquiry into the killing of three Tamil detainees on 12 December at Kalutara prison, south of the capital, Colombo. In its letter to Professor G. L. Peiris, the human rights organization expressed concern for the safety of other detainees who witnessed the killings and are currently under guard by prison staff who may have been involved in the act. Amnesty International urges that all necessary steps be taken to protect these witnesses.
During a magisterial inquiry into the killings, several detainees who reportedly saw the killings refused to give evidence out of fear for their lives. To Amnesty International's knowledge, those responsible have not yet been identified. Muthulingam Dharmalingam and Shanmugarajah Sivanesan, from Jaffna, and Sharif Jehan, a displaced person from Mannar, were among 137 Tamil detainees held at Kalutara prison. The three were reportedly hacked to death in front of Ward D at around 1 pm on 12 December by a group of Sinhalese common criminal prisoners in what appears to have been a premeditated attack.
Prison staff and army personnel deployed at the prison appear to have failed to take measures to protect the Tamil detainees at the time and, according to some reports, were even actively involved in the attack which lasted more than an hour. According to some sources, prison staff had opened the gate to Ward D around 11 am, and ignored pleas made in the next two hours by several of the Tamil detainees to lock the gate. Reports also indicate that an armed soldier on sentry duty on the southern side of the prison ignored pleas for protection from the three detainees while they were hacked to death in front of him.
Army personnel and prison staff are also said to have failed to take action against a group of civilians who had gathered outside the prison and were throwing stones and other objects into the prison throughout the attack..... the human rights organization urges the government to initiate a review of measures to safeguard the security of political prisoners held in the same prisons as common criminal suspects and convicts, albeit in separate wards." (Amnesty International Press Release, 15 December 1997 ASA 37/30/97)
Report by Peace Brigades
International, Sri Lanka Project
It remains to be seen whether the promised state investigation into this death will give the family members the answer to the question "why?" ...
A graveyard is an unusual place for escorts by the team members of the Sri Lanka project. That is however where we found ourselves on the 20th of December 1997. Sitting on the side of a grave, which, although it felt awkward, was not considered disrespectful. We waited for the remains of the deceased, Mr. Muthulingam Dharmalingam, in the shade of the trees while talking to the lawyer of the family, the relatives and other mourners, the police and the attending press.
The deceased and two others had been killed on the 12th of December by other inmates of the Kalutara prison, just south of Colombo.
A dispute had arisen between the Sinhala inmates, mainly imprisoned on criminal charges, and the Tamil prisoners, mainly held under 'suspicion'. Several incidents had taken place in the course of a few days when on the 12th of December the Sinhala inmates charged the part of the prison where the Tamils were held.
The direct cause of the incident was a dispute over food distribution. The attackers were holding knifes and other weapons that they had taken from the prison kitchen. Reportedly the prison officials did nothing to stop them, claiming to be unequipped to deal with incidents of mob violence. The three men who were killed are said to have pleaded for help from one of the prison officials but were slaughtered in front of him.
Most of the Tamils imprisoned in Sri Lanka are charged with "suspicion" under regulations aimed to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)and other violent groups. The use of these regulations is however generally considered to be too wide and arbitrary. The legal system is overloaded with work causing many delays in addressing the charges and getting the too often innocent people released.
When they have been found guilty the Tamils imprisoned in Kalutara prison or at other places, could be considered political prisoners and therefore entitled to special treatment,such as being held in seperate facilities from those imprisoned under criminal charges. In Sri Lanka however there is no such thing as a "political prisoner".
The death of the three inmates received a lot of media attention with the Tamils in most English language press being referred to as 'terrorist-suspects' and 'LTTE-suspects', terms considered to be to accusative,and prejudicial, by many human rights activists.
In their grief over the loss of the life of Mr. Muthulingam Dharmalingam, the family contacted PBI through their lawyer. They planned on taking the body of the deceased back with them to their home in Jaffna district. Since the incident had a distinct racial undertone, they felt unsafe in collecting the body from the hospital and taking it to Jaffna. This escort, although requested, never took place. Due to the risk of civil unrest the Magistrate did not allow for the body to be transported to and buried in the North.
The burial itself was already a legal requirement: normally Hindus practise cremation but since investigation of the body might be necessary, cremation is not allowed in the case of murder.
And that is how we ended up attending a funeral in Colombo. One of the relatives at the funeral said, refering to the other mourners, that they felt that any of them could be next. He himself could have handcuffs on his wrists tomorrow. He had tried to get asylum in Europe but was refused since the situation in Sri Lanka is not considered dangerous enough. This made him say cynically, "and that is why we are at a funeral today".
There was delay of several hours in the arrival of the body, presumably because there were problems with the release of the body. The family of the deceased arrived with a police escort. They had been flown from Jaffna and Vavuniya by the state. The press took their photos of the wife and three young daughters of the deceased before the funeral. They were not allowed to take pictures during the funeral itself. The Hindu rites were performed under the burning sun, with the sound of family members crying.
It remains to be seen whether the promised state investigation into this death will give the family members the answer to the question "why?"...