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Sri Lanka Probe of Aid Workers' Massacre 'Flawed' - Jurists

by Tamil Guardian, April 25, 2007

In his report Mr. Birnbaum urged the authorities to seriously consider reforms to the criminal justice system "to ensure impartial and effective investigations and independent decisions as to prosecution."

Seventeen tsunami aid workers were shot dead by government forces in Mutur (Tamil Guardian, April 25, 2007)
Seventeen tsunami aid workers were shot dead by government forces in Mutur

Investigation by Sri Lanka authorities into the massacre, blamed on government of troops, of 17 aid workers in Muttur last year was seriously flawed, a group of international lawyers said last week.  

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a collection of international legal experts based in Switzerland, accused the Sri Lanka state of a lack of impartiality, transparency and effectiveness in its investigation and warned the rule of law in island was under threat.   "We are very disappointed," ICJ Secretary General Nicholas Howen told Reuters.  

"These are grave concerns that are being echoed not only in Sri Lanka but internationally. Clearly this is a great test of the ability of the criminal justice system in Sri Lanka to deliver justice."  

Seventeen tsunami aid workers, 16 Tamils and 1 Muslim, from French aid group Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Famine) were found dead with close range gun shot wounds in the northeastern town of Muttur, south of port town of Trincomalee, last August after fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).   Following the discovery massacre, Sri Lankan military forces blocked off the area and prevented ACF officials and international ceasefire monitors from retrieving the bodies of the victims.  

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) later investigated the murders and said the evidence pointed to government troops being responsible.  

“When NGO employees are targeted, the whole humanitarian community is directly affected. If the independence and neutrality of humanitarian workers is not respected, then their activities are undermined,” the SLMM said at the time.   The massacre was the worst attack on humanitarian workers since a suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 killed 22 UN staff.  

Later, under intense international pressure the government invited Australian forensic experts to carry out investigations. After two visits to the island the forensic experts complained of unnecessary hurdles by authorities and returned without concluding their investigations.  

The French aid agency at the time lamented the delays and hurdles in the investigation and warned that if a thorough investigation is not conducted it would pull out of Sri Lanka.   In a final attempt to see an end to the ongoing case, ACF have requested another “ballistic investigation” be carried out, but this time around though with the presence of the Australian observers, The Nation newspaper reported.  

“We have discussed pulling out of the country, and halting the work of our mission here, which is definitely a possibility, if nothing comes out of these investigations,” said Lucile Grosjean, ACF’s Communication Officer.  

According to an agreement signed between the governments of Sri Lanka and Australia, Sri Lankan experts should have conducted a ballistic examination in the presence of Australian observers, however the investigation had been carried out without the latters’ involvement.   “The Australian observers were in the country during the previous investigation but were not allowed to participate [in the tests] and so left the country,” Ms. Grosjean added  

ACF also expressed strong concerns that the Sri Lankan CID did not always follow the orders given by the investigating judge and appealed for a closer adherence to the court requests in the future to pave way for an open and proper proceedings.  

The ICJ report, compiled by senior British barrister Michael Birnbaum QC, was highly critical of the authorities.   "Collection of evidence has been incomplete and inadequate. In particular, the CID has not interviewed any member of the Sri Lankan security forces, nor any Tamil, apart from the family members of those killed," the report said.  

"The observer made a detailed analysis of the relevant documents and reports and found many apparent inconsistencies,"  

In his report Mr. Birnbaum urged the authorities to seriously consider reforms to the criminal justice system "to ensure impartial and effective investigations and independent decisions as to prosecution."