Ex-Sri Lanka leader stalled police probe into mass graves: Report

Activist groups accuse former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of tampering with police records to hamper investigations into mass killings.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected Sri Lankan president in 2019 but was forced to resign last year amid angry public protests over the economic crisis [File: Andy Buchanan/Reuters]

Former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been accused of tampering with police records to hamper investigations into mass graves discovered in an area where he was a military officer at the height of a bloody Marxist rebellion in 1989.

In a report released on Thursday, activist groups including the International Truth and Justice Project, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka and Families of the Disappeared said even though hundreds of remains were unearthed in about 20 exhumations of mass graves in the past three decades, no action has been taken to identify the victims and return their remains to their families.

Tens of thousands of remains could still be buried in undiscovered mass graves, the report said.

None of the numerous commissions of inquiry established by successive Sri Lankan governments was mandated to look into mass graves. Instead, efforts to uncover the truth were stymied, the report said.

When mass graves were discovered and investigations began, judges and forensic experts were transferred abruptly, families’ lawyers were denied access to sites, no effort was made to find living witnesses, no post-mortem data were collected and, in the very rare cases in which someone was convicted, they were later pardoned, it said.

“It is a story of a lack of political will – an inadequate legal framework, a lack of a coherent policy and of insufficient resources. For the families of the disappeared it is a story of unresolved tragedy; the bereaved are forced to live and die without ever finding their loved ones,” it said.

Rajapaksa’s alleged role in the exhumations of mass graves was an example of political interference, it added.

The report said Rajapaksa, then a powerful defence official, ordered the destruction of all police records older than five years at police stations in the region after mass graves were discovered in the Matale district of central Sri Lanka in 2013.

The mass graves were suspected to date from the time of a violent Marxist rebellion in 1989 when Rajapaksa, as a military officer, was involved in operations against the rebels in the region.

The report called for action against Rajapaksa and senior police officials involved in the alleged hampering of the investigations.

Rajapaksa was elected president in 2019 but was forced to resign last year amid angry public protests over the country’s worst economic crisis in history.

Sri Lanka has faced three major armed conflicts, including a 25-year separatist civil war, since gaining independence from the British 75 years ago.

An office created in 2017 to trace details of those reported missing in the conflicts received 21,374 complaints, including from family members of security forces.

The report recommended enactment of special laws and policies to manage mass graves and exhumations, including their identification, preservation and investigation.

It also recommended strengthening forensic capacity in the country, the creation of an independent public prosecution service to ensure that prosecutions resulting from exhumations are conducted in an impartial manner and the establishment of a skilled unit to look into other potential mass graves.

Source: News Agencies