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15 years since Bindunuwewa prison massacre

Police officers who were convicted but then released on appeal for the massacre of Tamil political detainees in 2000 (Virakesari)

Fifteen years ago an armed mob of Sinhala villagers stormed a rehabilitation centre and killed at least 28 Tamil youths, as security forces stood by and even joined in.

The centre in the southern town of Bindunuwewa was jointly run by several bodies, including the Presidential Secretariat, under then-president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Child Protection Authority, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction.

Dozens of Tamil youths in their late teens and early twenties were held here on suspicion of supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, supposedly undergoing rehabilitation for a few months before their release. A few days before the massacre, detainees protested against prolonged detention, sometimes over a year, and the deliberate withholding of letters from relatives by the authorities.

The next morning a mob of local Sinhalese, reported by UTHR to be 2,000 strong, had formed outside the detention facility. They entered the centre and attacked the inmates with knives, machetes, clubs and iron rods, and set fire to the residence halls. Police officers stood by and in at least one instance opened fire on the inmates. A military detachment in the area was also withdrawn the previous day, indicating a premeditated attack.

At least 28 Tamil youths between 14 and 23 died in vicious, sustained attacks. Only 19 were identified as the remaining bodies were charred beyond recognition.

Relatives of one of the victims, Antony John, told TamilNet at the time that he was chopped into pieces by the attackers. One of Antony's eyes was removed from the decapitated head, both arms had been cut off, and the entire body was covered with deep cuts.

Almost immediately, officials attempted to shift the blame onto the detainees, saying they had attacked officers and provoked the Sinhala villagers by throwing stones and exposing their genitals to them. A few days after the massacre, President Kumaratunga said there were provocations on both sides. However Sri Lanka's Human Rights Commission investigated the massacre and found the allegations against the detainees to be false.

“All the information we have been able to gather so far does not suggest that what occurred on the 25th was an unpremeditated eruption of mob violence caused by the provocation of the inmates. It is more consistent with a premeditated and planned attack,” it said.

A commission into the massacre, initiated by President Kumaratunge denied that the attacks were planned and was not mandated to prosecute those guilty of the crimes.

According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry indicated the organised nature of the massacre. A section of the villagers were drawn to the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre and there was “also evidence that crowds were transported from outside to the Vidyapeetaya playground in buses, private vans and also three wheelers”. Posters like “why is the big man feeding the tigers with milk”, “Tigers’ flesh to our dogs” were displayed in and around Bindunuwewa one day before the massacre.

The LTTE also accused the government of planning the attacks.

"The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) accuses the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga of being responsible for the gruesome killing of 30 innocent Tamil political prisoners and seriously injuring 50 others at a detention centre in Bandarawella, Southern Sri Lanka," the movement said in a statement. 

"We have evidence to believe that Sri Lankan security personnel - the army, police and prison officials - were involved in organising, mobilising and instigating gangs of Sinhala thugs to commit this heinous crime. Sinhalese prison officials of the area facilitated riotous Sinhala mobs numbering more than two thousand persons to storm into the detention centre and brutally slaughter the Tamil youths with knives, swords, axes and iron bars,

"The victims of this savagery are not members of the LTTE nor are they surrendered 'child soldiers'. They are innocent Tamil youth arrested on suspicion and detained without trial under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act. These young detainees have been protesting against their unjust arrest and demanding release."

The TULF, the largest Tamil party at the time, said that only the involvement of international investigators could ensure a credible investigation.

"It is only the very early active involvement of neutral independent international investigators, that can infuse the criminal investigative process with an acceptable degree of credibility, " said TULF leader and current TNA leader R Sampanthan in a letter to the Ministry of Justice.

Mr Sampanthan also placed the blame on government officials.

"The manner in which the attack has been carried out is clearly suggestive of collaboration between officials at the camp and persons outside the camp who have planned and prepared to carry out the attack."

"The least that can be done is to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into all the circumstances relating to this inhuman attack and to bring the offenders before the law. Sadly our experience is that while condemnation and assurances of impartial investigation are easily forthcoming, the end result is that no tangible action is taken and the offenders carry on with a sense of impunity."
 
Criminal proceedings were initiated by the government, resulting in the indictment of 41 people, including 19 policemen. At the subsequent trial all but 5 were cleared. Two police officers, Senaka Jayampthay Karunaratne and Tyronne Roger Ratnayake, and three Sinhala civilians, Sepala Dissanayake, M.A.Sammy and R.M.Premananda, were found guilty and sentenced to death in 2003. At the sentencing, both police officers
maintained that they were carrying out orders from the top.

However, in 2005 all five convictions were overturned and the men walked free. The acquittal was condemned by human rights organisations and Tamil groups.

“These acquittals show a shocking failure of the police and judicial system in Sri Lanka to find justice for the dead and injured from this horrific incident,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch in 2005.

“As the victims were all Tamil, the government needs to move quickly to start fresh investigations and to prosecute the perpetrators, some of whom were police officers, or it will only further distance aggrieved Tamils.”

Fifteen years on, the perpetrators of this massacre remain free. The relatives of the dead continue to await justice for these crimes. Countless of parents whose children disappeared during the period are left to wonder whether their son was among the unidentified dead.

Names and hometowns of the dead who were identified:

Gunapalan Jeyavarthanam, Mannar
Antony John, Kallady, Batticaloa
Karunakaran Ramasamy, Santhacholai, Vavuniya
Rubeshkumar Visvaparan, Vepankulam, Vavuniya
Senthuran Vinayakamoorthy, Vanthrumoolai, Batticaloa
Mohan Sinnathurai, Aanathapuram, Trincomalee
Ravitharan Kanapathipillai, Lingapuram, Manalaaru
Vijeyenthiran Visvalingam, Navatkadhu, Batticaloa
Balakumar Marimuththu, Pullaveli, Batticaloa
Mathiyalakan Puniyamoorthy, Mutur, Trincomalee
Selvarajah Thurairajah, Thampanai, Jaffna
Mukunthan Sivayokarajan, Karaveddi East, Jaffna
Vipulanantharajah Sivayokarajan; Thirukovil, Amparai
Kokulamani Sajeewan, Kallady, Batticaloa
Perinpanayagam Nimlaraj, Batticaloa
Somasuntharam Sellarasa
Sivan Kubendran, Arayampathi
Vaisvaparam Rubeshkumar alias Sinnathamby, Urmila Kottam, Vavuniya
Ramasamy Karunakaran, Santhasolai,Vavuniya