On the occasion of World Human Rights Day on Friday, the US State Department designated 12 officials of foreign governments under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriation Act, 2021, for their involvement in gross violations of human rights.
Among the sanctioned were Lt.Commander Chandana Hettiarachchi of the Sri Lankan Navy, and Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake of the Lankan Army.
They and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States, a State Department release said.
Chandana Hettiarachchi, a Sri Lankan naval intelligence officer, has been sanctioned for the “flagrant denial of the right to liberty of at least eight Trincomalee 11 victims, from 2008 to 2009.” He was part of a 14-member gang of navy men who had abducted kids of wealthy Colombo families for ransom. This case related to the forced disappearance of 11 persons between the ages of 17 and 50.
Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake of the Sri Lanka Army, was involved in the extrajudicial killing of at least eight Tamil villagers including a five year old child on December 20, 2000.
Lt.Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi alias “Navy Sampath’’ who had been involved in the killing of Jaffna district MP N.Raviraj in 2006, was arrested in the Trincomalee case in 2018. But got out on bail. He jumped bail and was arrested again. At the end of 2019, he got bail for a second time.
All 11 victims in the Trincomalee case were abducted in Colombo between August 25, 2008 and February 2009 and held for ransom at navy bases in Colombo and Trincomalee, before being murdered, presumably.
The eleven victims were Kasthuriarachchi John, Thyagarajah Jegan, Rajiv Naganathan, Soosaipillai Amalan, Soosaipillai Roshan, Kasthuriarachchi Anton, Prageeth Vishvanathan, Thilakeshwaran Ramalingam, Mohamed Dilan, Mohamed Saajid and Ali Anwar. Two fathers and their sons are among the victims and their ages ranged from 17 to 50 at the time of abduction.
Police told a court in 2019 that the 11 victims were killed while in the illegal custody of the navy, although their bodies have never been found. Initially arrested and detained in a Navy cell in Colombo port, they were moved to Trincomalee naval base and detained in eerie subterranean prison cells. Their bodies were never recovered, but investigators believed the boys were killed sometime in May 2009.
Police said the victims were not linked to Tamil separatist rebels and were kidnapped purely to extort money from families. Some were killed even after cash was handed over.
In 2018 Chandana Hettiarachchi was arrested but was later bailed out. He was arrested again and again bailed out in December 31, 2019. In November 2018, the Chief of Defense Staff Adm.Ravindra Wijegunaratne was arrested for allegedly aiding and abetting Chandana Hettiarachchi. Wijegunaratne was subsequently released.
In 2019, the Navy Chief at the time the crime was committed, Adm.Wasantha Karannagoda, had been named in this case as the 14 th. accused. But in mid-October 2021, the government dropped Karannagoda from this case. He was recently appointed Governor of the North Western Province, thus completely rehabilitating him.
The killing of the 11 persons was raised at the UN Human Rights Council, which called for independent investigations into atrocities during the separatist war.
After a lengthy and meticulous CID investigation finally led to the arrest of over a dozen Navy Officers. On the same day that the CID was to name Karannagoda as a suspect and seek his arrest, Karannagoda filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court seeking to block his arrest. The Attorney General’s Department told court that indictments against the former Navy Chief were “framed and ready to go”. But Karannagoda’s Counsel Romesh De Silva claimed that the CID investigations were frivolous, politically motivated and mala fide. “This is the man who won the war for us – we should be grateful to him. It is people who live on NGOs, who deal with NGOs who are trying to do this,” De Silva PC said.
However, at least five witnesses, including former Admirals and a former cabinet minister, had given statements to the CID implicating Karannagoda in the conspiracy to murder the abducted children.
Sergeant Ratnayake was sentenced to death in 2015 for the murder of the 8 Tamils, including 3 children, in the town of Mirusuvil in Jaffna on December 20, 2000. The following day, their bodies were found in a mass grave with their throats slashed, according to the District Medical Officer’s post-mortem report. All but two of the bodies had been stripped naked. The youngest to have been murdered was a 5-year-old child. The killings have since been dubbed the “Mirusuvil massacre”.
Ponnathurai Maheswaran, who managed to escape from army detention, testified in court and identified at least five of the soldiers responsible. After a lengthy court process only Ratnayake, a member of the military’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), was convicted and sentenced to death in 2015. The others were cleared of all charges. The conviction and death sentence was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2019.
But the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned Sunil Ratnayake as he had promised in his election manifesto that he would free “war heroes languishing in prison over false charges and cases”.
But the International Committee of Jurists (ICJ) said that Ratnayake’s pardon cast “serious doubt” upon the Government’s commitment to accountability and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.
Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific said: “Such a pardon is incompatible with international standards relating to impunity and access to justice, and reinforces the well-founded public perception that the military is exempt from any form of accountability, even for the most heinous crimes”.