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Three new ambassadors, three accused war criminals

The Sri Lankan government announced that three retired military personnel, who are all accused of committing atrocities, have been appointed as international diplomats in a move that may be aimed at shielding them from prosecutions for war crimes.

Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne was appointed High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Damith Nishantha Sirisoma Ulugetenne was appointed High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the Republic of Cuba and Sudarshan Karagoda Pathirana was appointed Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Nepal.

Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne

Wijegunaratne with US troops during a training exercise in 2018.

Wijegunaratne, who served as Sri Lanka's Chief of Defence Staff, is accused of being involved in the cover up of the disappearance and murder of 11 Tamil youths. He was also accused of trying to shoot and abduct a key witness in the case. In 2016, he was caught on camera assaulting a journalist covering a story on Hambantota port.

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Damith Nishantha Sirisoma Ulugetenne

File photo. Ulugetenne.

Ulugetenne had previously commanded the 4th Fast attack Craft flotilla and the SLNS Nandimithra at end of the armed conflict, where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. Naval bombardments were instrumental in the targeting of the “No Fire Zones” in the final weeks of the war. Ulugetenne is regarded as a key member of a team that introduced missiles to the naval fleet.

From 2011, Ulugetenne worked as the Director of Naval Intelligence and worked alongside other senior naval figures implicated in the overseeing of ‘Gun Site’, a secret detention and torture site situated in the Trincomalee naval complex. The torture site has also been referred to as "Gota's camp" in court documents.

In the International Truth and Justice Project’s 2019 report, ‘The Sri Lankan Navy: A Collective Blind Eye,’ Ulugetenne was listed as one of several navy commanders who “knew or should have known about ‘Gun Site’ (2009-2012) and/ or crimes allegedly committed by the special intelligence unit,” including torture and sexual violence. 

Read the ITJP's report here.

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Sudarshan Karagoda Pathirana

File photo. Pathirana.

Pathirana joined the SLAF in 1985, and was a part of the first batch of pilots to fly supersonic jets in Sri Lanka. He then went on to command the No 5 Fighter squadron and the infamous No 10 Fighter squadron, which was formed in 1996 and consisted of Kfir jets. Pathirana frequently flew Kfir C2 / C7, the jets were synonymous with the targeting of Tamil civilians and non-military targets and with Pathirana accumulating more than 3,500 flying hours, he would have likely participated in the bombing raids.

Tamil activists have labelled many of those attacks war crimes. Kfir jets, the types that were flown by Pathirana have been extensively used by the Sri Lankan Air Force to carry out bombing raids across the North-East, and have killed thousands of Tamils throughout the years.

A return to a previous strategy?

For years the Sri Lankan state has adopted the tactic of appointing military officials accused of war crimes as ambassadors to states and institutions around the world, granting them diplomatic immunity from being charged for a variety of crimes.

Shavendra Silva, a man who is currently barred from entering the US due to his role in overseeing war crimes, was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN, and managed to claim diplomatic immunity against proceedings brought against him by Tamil victims in 2012.

Former general Jagath Jayasuriya was also appointed as Sri Lanka's ambassador in Latin America, fled the region despite his diplomatic immunity after human rights groups filed lawsuits in Brazil and Colombia.

The latest appointments may be a return to a similar strategy by the Sri Lankan state, almost 15 years since the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians.

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