This week marks 9 years since the murder of five Tamils students, who were executed by Sri Lanka's Special Task Force, whilst they spent an afternoon on the beach in Trincomalee.
The 'Trinco 5' case has been one of the highest profile killings in Sri Lanka to receive international attention, listed in 2014 by the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' report on the island as one of four ‘emblematic cases’ of the government's failure to ensure accountability.
As Human Rights Watch’s legal and policy director, James Ross, said in an op-ed entitled 'On the long road to justice',
“The 'Trinco 5' case is exceptional among the countless human rights abuses during Sri Lanka's civil war, which ended with the Tamil Tigers' defeat in 2009.”
“Unlike the vast majority of cases, in this case there have been some legal proceedings. The 'Trinco 5' has been the subject of government-appointed commissions and even discussions at the United Nations.
“Yet with all the attention, no one has been punished for the crime.”
On the 2 January 2006, five students were spending the evening at the beach in Trincomalee. At around 7:30pm, a grenade was thrown from a green three-wheeler towards the students, which according to reports then proceeded into Fort Frederick, the army headquarters. Three of the students were injured from the explosion.
Jeeps from the Sri Lankan police's Special Task Force (STF) arrived soon after, accompanied by the Superintendent of Police Kapila Jayasekara. Members of the STF, wearing full face masks, put the youths into their jeeps and beat them with their rifle butts.
The students were then pushed onto the road and shot on the seafront, by the statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
The five slain students, who were all 21-years-old when killed, are:
Yogarajah Hemachchandra (04.03.1985)
See a report by Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) into the murders, including an affidavit by one of the victim's father, Dr Manoharan, here.
'We know the STF did it'
The killings came just a month after current Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office and the island began to slide towards all out war. The Sri Lankan government, still involved in internationally mediated talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, initially announced that twelve STF members were arrested.
All twelve were released later that year.
In a leaked US Embassy cable from Colombo in October 2006, the then US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert O. Blake met with Sri Lankan Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa.
The cable stated,
Speaking with surprising candor, Rajapaksa explained the GSL's efforts to prove that members of the Security Task Force (STF) murdered five students in Trincomalee in January:
"We know the STF did it, but the bullet and gun evidence shows that they did not. They must have separate guns when they want to kill some one... We know who did it, but we can't proceed in prosecuting them."
The failure of justice
In June 2013, more than 7 years after the murders, the Sri Lankan government announced the re-arrest of the suspected killers.
Notably, the move was announced amid heightened international pressure on Sri Lanka regarding accountability for human rights abuses and ahead of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay's UNHRC resolution-mandated visit to Sri Lanka in August.
Sri Lanka was also due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo later that year, a summit that had brought intense scrutiny of the government's human rights record.
Commenting on the arrests, HRW’s legal and policy director, James Ross noted in August,
“Given the failure of justice so far, it is hard not to see the latest government action [arrests] as just another attempt to deflect criticism from the international community.”
To date, none have been brought to trial. Instead, 2013 saw Kapila Jayasekara, who reportedly spearheaded the executions, promoted to DIG in the Amparai district.
In October 2014, the suspects were released on bail.
Almost from the outset, the 'Trinco 5' case has been marked with the targeted intimidation of witnesses. Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty said of the case in 2012,
“Of the crowd of people on the seafront that night, Ragihar’s father was the only one prepared to speak out. Others were too scared.”
“And sure enough Dr. Manoharan’s courage triggered a campaign of intimidation against his family which would eventually lead to them fleeing Sri Lanka. They still live abroad.”
In discussing the case, an Amnesty International report in 2013, quoting Dr Manoharan, notes how “a Sinhalese police officer who attended a … hearing [at the Trincomalee Magistrates’ Court] called the witnesses ‘kottiyas’ (tigers)”.
Shortly after the murders, journalist Subramaniyam Sugirdharajan was shot dead after publishing photos showing the bodies of the 5 students with point-blank gunshot injuries, disproving government claims that they were killed by a grenade explosion.
The struggle for justice continues
The case has continued to become a rallying point for activists demanding justice for human rights violations, with over 700 activists in New York demanding justice for the killings, in 2012.
Despite Dr Manoharan's courageous and tireless efforts, justice has still not been delivered for the killings.
The case though, has drawn particular international attention in the context of the ongoing United Nations OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka. Reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council in February 2014, Navi Pillay cited the case as “emblematic” of Sri Lanka's resolve towards accountability.
“After eight years of investigations, commissions of inquiry and repeated commitments by the Government, it is of great concern that this case has not been brought to a conclusion,” said Pillay.
The killings have also drawn condemnation from various human rights organisations, with Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist of Amnesty International USA telling the Sunday Leader in 2013,
“The failure to properly investigate this case despite a recommendation by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry established in 2006 and repeated in the 2011 report of the LLRC, clearly shows that Sri Lanka is either unable or unwilling to ensure accountability for human rights violations, leading victims and their families to seek justice at the international level”.
Brad Adams, the Asia Pacific Director of Human Rights Watch, also said in 2013,
"The government has claimed this case is a priority, including it in the now forgotten presidential commission of inquiry and in its response to the UN Human Rights Council, but actual progress in this case is sadly nonexistent".
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Dr Manoharan told member states,
“With all the pain of losing my son Ragihar, I seek your help and that of the Human Rights Council to move the investigation of the murder of the five young men in Trincomalee to the international level because I have no hope for justice in Sri Lanka”.
With an OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka underway, examining potential violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law from 21 February 2002 until 15 November 2011, the case may feature in Geneva yet again.
As noted by Ross in his op-ed,
"Manoharan won't be giving up the fight for justice in Sri Lanka. The rest of the world shouldn't either."