The Pottuvil Massacre
@ Source: University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)
- Special Report No. 23 - 7th November 2006
The Choice between Anarchy and International Law with Monitoring
3.1 Accusations and Counter-Accusations
On 17th September, 8 Muslim labourers who went south to repair the bund of Rattal Tank and some others who went in a tractor to bring them back in the evening were abducted. The following morning a search party found 10 bodies blindfolded, tied and hacked to death.
The Muslims in Ullai just south of Pottuvil had a history of problems with the Sastriveli STF camp. They accused the STF OIC Chief Inspector S.N. Gunaratne of helping the Sinhalese to get control of the place at the expense of the Muslims and Tamils. Earlier a dispute had arisen over the STF’s attempt to erect a Buddha statue in Ullai, the beach resort next to Pottuvil town, often the first step in pushing out other ethnic groups. There are also traditional tensions between the two communities over the use of the forest near the village. Just a day or two before the incident, the Muslims had a heated exchange with Gunaratne over a dispute involving the Muslim cemetery. According to them, Sinhalese had built houses in the cemetery allocated to them and sought to bury one of their dead in the Muslim cemetery. These sources said that Gunaratne was threatening and abusive in his speech and told them that he knew the Muslims had made representations seeking his transfer and that he would take care of them or teach them a lesson.
According to local sources, when the labourers failed to return home on 17th September, others concerned for them went to the Satriveli STF camp about 4 miles away the same evening and asked the STF to organise a search party. The STF sent them away saying that the labourers would come back in the morning. Nevertheless some Muslims went independently the same evening and found some liquor bottles not far from the work site.
Four friends and relatives of the missing went to the area on motorcycles the following dawn, 18th, and seeing a corpse with the throat slit near the anicut on which the labourers had been working, went to the Shastriveli STF camp and informed Chief Inspector Gunaratne. The relatives complained that the STF OIC took a very long time to go to the place after being told of the body. According to the Nation (24th Sep.), a senior STF officer said that they had to take maximum precautions going to the place about 4 miles away, taking account of possible ambushes. “When the STF did arrive at the scene of the incident the Pottuvil residents had already collected the bodies and were taking the lone survivor to the hospital,” the Nation said.
This is slightly misleading. It was under the instructions of the Police from Pottuvil that the bodies were removed. A search party that morning found 10 bodies of their colleagues blindfolded, tied and hacked to death in the same area where they found arrack bottles the previous evening. They rescued a lone survivor, Meera Mohideen (60) with cut injuries. The dead are Abdul Rasool Rizhard (23), Anurdeen (19), Kalandar Jabbar (22), Anees (18), A.M. Samsudeen (20), all from Pottuvil; Firoze (19), Ajeer (19) and Faizal (19) of Akkaraipattu; and Shiyam (20) and A.M.A. Rashid (35) of Addalachenai. They were all daily paid labourers working under a local contractor.
The search party then brought the Police there, who instead of bringing the magistrate, asked for the bodies to be removed. The evidence – the arrack bottles, one of them half full, cigarette butts – and foot prints, was all there. These too the people accused the Police of removing without allowing the Akkaraipattu Magistrate Mr. Manaf to see them. When the STF came to the scene, the people there found them watching indifferently, and for all their zeal about security, they took no action to cordon off the area and search for the perpetrators, nor have they so far claimed to have taken any measures to apprehend the killers.
In the judgment of the local Muslims the area was totally under STF control. They ruled out any possibility of LTTE involvement. They accused the STF and demonstrated demanding the immediate removal of Gunaratne. The SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem reported what the people had told him and called for a UN inquiry. Many still had reservations about excluding LTTE involvement until the widely felt impact of the Government’s subterfuge in dealing with it.
Locals pointed out that the nearest LTTE encampment in Kanjikudichcharu was more than 25 miles away and the LTTE had not been responsible for abductions or killings around Pottuvil in more than 10 years. To commit a crime in Shastriveli at 5.30 PM, the LTTE would either need to travel by day or arrive earlier and hide in those parts. Either way, it would have been risky for them. And escape would have been difficult.
Meera Mohideen, the injured man, was sent by ambulance with written instructions from District Medical Officer, Pottuvil, to have him admitted to hospital in Kalmunai. Kalmunai has Ashraff Memorial Hospital and the older base hospital in the Tamil division, both of which were well equipped after the 2004 tsunami. The ambulance had gone past the STF check point in Karaitivu and was in Maliyakkadu on the outskirts of Kalmunai, when the Police there stopped the ambulance and ordered the patient taken to Amparai Hospital. The people in Pottuvil understood that the order for this transfer had come from ASP Jamaldeen of the Kalmunai police. This change was something the victims’ families would have been extremely anxious over since Amparai is a Sinhalese town where the STF has its regional HQ and the STF was being accused of the crime. Moreover, the Muslims felt home at Kalmunai that was within easy access of Pottuvil. The move had nothing to do with the interests of the patient to whom it meant a further delay and mental unease.
Soon the story was leaked to the Press on the 19th itself that Meera Mohideen had told the special police investigation team, whose formation the Government had announced, that the LTTE had carried out the killings, having come armed with ‘guns, sickles, knives and axes’. The SLMM tried to see the survivor but was turned away by the Police. A Muslim rights group contacted the family of the victim, who said that the victim was in too poor a state to make a statement to the Police team and was practically devoid of speech. He could only grunt incoherently. This was also the Police’s rationale for turning away the SLMM and members of the family. It was on the 22nd that the SLMM was allowed to see him. Meanwhile government spokesmen, including Muslim minister Fowzie, blamed the LTTE for the killings.
About 50 Muslims had been killed in Mutur by government shelling in early August and 80 had had limbs amputated in Trincomalee and Kantalai hospitals. Up to then they had received only promises. Tamil victims have not even been acknowledged. But soon after the Pottuvil incident, on the 20th itself, Minister Fowzie rushed to Pottuvil to give Rs.1 lakh each to the families of the 10 who were killed. The wife of the injured man, who is ill and without means remarked that they would want her husband to die for her to get anything. It was three days later, on the 23rd, that a delegation of government ministers, a JVP and a JHU MP visited Mutur to make good an omission. However, they offered only Rs.15, 000 each to the families of those killed by government shelling, which was angrily rejected.
Again on 22nd September, the STF security given to SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem, who persisted in demanding an international inquiry, was outrageously taken away.
Except for angry denials, vague allegations against timber racketeers backed by the LTTE (Island 26th September) and a disputable statement from Meera Mohideen not supported by a magistrate, the STF Chief, Mr. Lewke, is yet to provide any evidence to rebut the charges of locals against the STF. Two days later, while repeating almost the same things as Lewke, STF SSP Ranjith Perera added some spice in an interview published in the BBC Sinhalese Service. He claimed that the ten Muslim youth fell into an LTTE trap to discredit the STF, just when they were on an operation, about to over run an LTTE camp. This claim was in sharp contrast to their locally perceived lethargy soon after the incident.
On 29th September, Minister Athaullah went to Amparai Hospital and obtained a video testimony from Meera Mohideen, who was being held virtually incommunicado. The statement belongs in the category of confession under torture or worse. This interview pointing naturally to the LTTE was circulated on the internet by the Defence Ministry. Even for over five days after Athaullah had called, his family was not allowed to see him.
In Pottuvil, community leaders complained that for all his enthusiasm Athaullah never came to Pottuvil, either to commiserate with the victims or to show them the error of their ways, although it was barely 45 minutes away by vehicle.
A Muslim community leader told us that the Magistrate Manaf declined to go outside his jurisdiction and obtain a testimony from Mohideen at Amparai Hospital and told the Police that they could bring him to court in Akkaraipattu when he is fit. We understand that he has received other testimonies that point away from the Government’s version.
Mohideen merely told Athaullah that the five or so assailants were dressed in khaki-like wear and spoke good Tamil. He was practically led by the questioner to identify them with the LTTE. Of course many Panama Sinhalese were intermarried among Tamils and spoke excellent Tamil. The man whose burial just before provoked the latest tension, was a Tamil married to a Sinhalese.
An earlier development with a hint of Athaullah’s involvement was the claim by the Defence Ministry on 23rd September that several community organisations in the Eastern Province had expressed in writing to Defence Secretary Gothabhaya Rajapakse their conviction that the LTTE was responsible for the massacre of innocent Muslim civilians in Pottuvil. The only organisations named in this connection were the Akkaraipattu Pradesha Fish Vendor's United Credit Co-op Society Ltd, Akkaraipattu Traders Association and the Akkaraipattu Jummah Grand Mosque. All were from Athaullah’s neighbourhood. It would have been far more dignified for the Government to agree to the UN inquiry requested by Hakeem.
Reports from Akkaraipattu say that these organisations, cited for propaganda purposes by the Defence Ministry, have at least partially dissociated themselves from its claim in a leaflet issued subsequently. The Amparai District Federation of Mosques went to Pottuvil on a fact-finding mission. Community leaders there challenged Moulavi Haniff from Akkaraipattu on the statement the Defence Ministry claimed to have received from his mosque. Haniff reportedly remained silent. Other sources of standing said that Haniff was then away in Malaysia and accused ASP Jamaldeen of Kalmunai of going to these societies (including to the secretary of the mosque) and importuning them to come out with their letterheads and the statements credited to them.
Many concerned persons have pointed out that if it were the truth the Government wanted, it should not have used Athaullah in this questionable manner. The most straightforward thing would have been to send a group of respected Muslims to satisfy themselves that Mohideen was not under duress and then talk to him.
Moreover, Mohideen’s personal circumstances speak of his utter helplessness. He and his family were tsunami victims. They were very poor and living in a hut with materials like a sari substituting for walls. His wife was very ill.
3.2 Saga of the Principal Witness: Medical and Police Ethics
Mohideen had narrowly survived his assailants, cut on his neck. He was redirected to a hospital not of his family’s choice, kept incommunicado and videoed for propaganda by a visiting minister. A feature in the Daily News of 4th October, while containing disputable claims, gave some hope that he would be home again: “P.K.T.L. Jayasinghe, the Medical Superintendent of Ampara Hospital, said, Careem Meera Mohideen was recovering fast from his knife injuries and they allowed the Police, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and the CID to record statements from Careem. "We allowed his family members to visit him at the ICU. Our only concern is about his health and security. There is no other reason for us to prevent people speaking to him”, Jayasinghe said. According to Dr. Jayasinghe…no operations could be carried out to insert respiratory tube since there were deep cuts in his neck. "He will be discharged from the hospital by next week once his cut injuries are healed…He is in good mental condition and can identify the people visiting him”, Dr. Jayasinghe added.”
The Amparai Medical Superintendent’s claim was contradicted in an affidavit sent to the President on the same day, 4th October (Thinakkural, 10th October). Mohideen’s only daughter stated in her affidavit that try as they did, neither she nor her husband had been allowed to see Mohideen, violating her fundamental rights. She suspected some improper motives.
On 4th October or in the days following, Meera Mohideen was moved to a paying ward in Colombo Hospital for unknown reasons despite the Medical Superintendent in Amparai saying that he would be discharged in a few days and was fast recovering. According to sources close to his family, Mohideen became insistent that he wanted to go home and the doctors found it difficult to keep him in Colombo. His son-in-law was summoned from Pottuvil, who pacified Mohideen and persuaded him to stay longer.
A remarkable piece of information from these sources is that when the son-in-law raised Athaullah's interview with Mohideen, he just could not remember giving the interview. He had been put through a propaganda exercise in Amparai Hospital when evidently he was not in a fit condition for it. The problem in Colombo Hospital appeared to be that the Amparai Police had put him there and the Hospital was waiting for the Police to initiate his discharge. The son-in-law had previously been complaining aloud that Mohideen should be allowed to speak the truth and was angry at what Athaullah had done.
After the Government and most of the media went to excesses in touting Meera Mohideen as their principal card to discredit alleged local malice against the STF, he for the same reason became an embarrassment. What now to do with the man? For a humble tsunami victim who received enormous unsolicited publicity for two weeks after the incident, there has barely been any mention of him in the media since 4th October.
Meanwhile the case has acquired such high stakes that a number of claims in the media turn out to be defective upon examination. The Nation had reported on 24th September: The doctor at the Pottuvil Hospital who first received the injured man told The Nation that he spoke to the survivor, Meera Mohideen who was brought in with a severe cut in his throat. “The man only spoke a few words but he told me that the killers spoke fluent Tamil,” says Dr A.M.M. Issadeen who also carried out the post-mortems on the deceased. According to Dr. Issadeen, the killings had taken place between 11 and 12 midnight on Sunday, September 17.
Close relatives of Dr. Issadeen who checked with him said that he denied telling the Press anything of that kind. He saw that Mohideen was in a poor condition and needed surgery, and dispatched him to Kalmunai immediately. Others who saw Mohideen on that day said that he could only grunt incoherently and communicate with signs. Dr. Issadeen, his relatives said, had not seen the press report. They added that he had telephoned Jamaldeen, ASP Kalmunai, the same day and challenged him over his highhandedness in defying his instructions and moving the patient to Amparai, and told him that he should bear the consequences. Jamaldeen reportedly replied that the decision was not his, but the order to switch hospitals had come from the DIG in charge of Amparai.
Taurine Justice: Another ruse used by the State to divert attention from the real issue of murder was to make out that accusing the STF of the killings was a move by timber racketeers, who in connivance with the LTTE were out to blunt the fervour with which the STF and Police had been protecting the environment. Timber thieves are routinely produced in the Pottuvil magistrate’s court, and 28th September was such a calling date. After the Police confiscate the timber, the person responsible is produced before the magistrate. This time SP Amparai G.B. Peramanne put on an extraordinary show. Journalists with cameras were summoned for a grand denoument. Instead of producing just the 28 accused, the Police reportedly ordered them to load the confiscated timber that was with the Police into their bullock carts and paraded them before cameras as the bulls and their owners, with the timber, presented themselves before the seat of justice.
3.3 Local Nuances in the Pottuvil Massacre
We learnt through authoritative local sources that on the 18th Muslim labourers who worked for a contractor at Ratthal Tank were puzzled that the Sinhalese labourers had not turned up for work. At 5.30, some persons went to the work site in a tractor to take them home. These sources said that according to some persons who have since gone back on their earlier claim, they saw the STF arrest 11 of the labourers, who were then tied, blindfolded and handed over to some other men. The labourers were apparently killed after their abductors had been under the influence of liquor for a considerable length of time. According to local sources, witnesses saw five Sinhalese persons coming back to the village late in the night. They were, the sources said, persons who go along with the STF OIC as translators.
Further testimony discrediting government claims of LTTE involvement was given by some Muslims who were in the vicinity of the scene of abduction an hour earlier, about 4.30 PM. They had been stopped by Sinhalese home guards, who questioned them and allowed them to leave. This also raises the question whether some particular Muslims were targeted for any reason. Whatever was true or false in Meera Mohideen’s testimony given to Athaullah, the bit about the abductors asking for identity cards is striking. We may have to wait for months, as in several other current cases, for the full truth to seep through. A large number of local Muslims who are familiar with the nuances are in no doubt that the STF is complicit in the crime and the Government’s actions remove all doubts on this score.
This feeling was reflected by a Muslim community leader, who said, “Although we would like to keep an open mind on this matter, the Government and its actions will not allow us to do so. Not only this, they add insult to injury by planting stories in the English and Sinhalese papers linking the entire Muslim community in the region with timber racketeers. They insult our intelligence by saying that these protests against an STF officer with a zeal for the environment have been organised by timber racketeers. Those killed had nothing to do with timber racketeering. They were very poor labourers working on an anicut. Timber racketeers cut across all communities and are a small minority. In this case the STF has had unfettered control over a large area for many years, which they feel belongs to them and they impose their own systems of patronage.”
3.4 Council of Muslim Clergy writes to the President
In a letter to the President in mid-October, the Council of Muslim Clergy in Pottuvil (Pottuvil Jamiyyathul Ulama) clarified matters relating to the propaganda campaign against Muslims of the area and strongly reaffirmed their position with regard to the killings and the demand for an inquiry.
They pointed out that in the four official meetings the people’s representatives held with representatives of the Government and the security forces after the incident, their demands were for the immediate transfer of the OIC STF, Shastriveli, and his team, an independent inquiry into the massacre of 10 civilians, a trial-at-bar hearing and security for Muslim farmers. They never asked for the removal of the STF from the area as is widely misrepresented. It was the STF Chief Nimal Lewke who threatened to pull out the STF from the entire Pottuvil area if Inspector Gunaratne were to be removed.
The clergy objected to the propaganda linking Pottuvil Muslims with the LTTE and the ‘malicious and unscrupulous campaign by the Government that the protest against the killings was instigated by the LTTE and illegal timber businessmen’ and likened it to an attempt ‘to bury an entire pumpkin in a plate of rice’.
The clergy found it ‘ridiculous and unbecoming to criticise and crucify’ SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem ‘just because he expressed the views of Pottuvil Muslims with regard to the massacre.’ They found intriguing the position of the STF Inspectors’ Union, which ‘has called for a full probe on Hakeem's comment rather than asking for a full probe on the massacre.’
They reiterated the position taken by the Muslim public on the massacre as remaining unchanged:-viz. ‘the massacre of 10 civilians wouldn't have taken place without the knowledge of the Sashtriveli O.I.C STF and his men. That is to say that they were directly or indirectly responsible. This contention is fully based on the circumstances that led to the brutal massacre of the 10 Muslim civilians.’ This, they affirm, is the basis under which the people asked for an international inquiry into the massacre.
3.5 The FR Petition against Rauf Hakeem
In a further development CI S.N. Gunaratne of the STF has filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court against SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem and the former IGP Chandra Fernando who transferred him. He alleges that at a meeting held with the villagers in the presence of former IGP Fernando and the STF Commandant, Rauf Hakeem had accused him of the massacre and had demanded that he be removed immediately. Rauf Hakeem moreover had allegedly accused CI Gunaratne of having gone berserk and shot people at random on 20th September at a demonstration against Gunaratne that became heated, where about 14 civilians were injured.
The case promises to be of interest because the success of the petition would depend largely on impunity and the fear among witnesses in the North-East to testify against the security forces. On the other hand public interest is clearly on Hakeem’s side. The Pottuvil clergy’s letter to the President says, “It is the cardinal duty of an MP to voice the concern of the public; furthermore, he never incited and instigated the protest against the killing as is claimed by the STF.”
The landmark October 11th unanimous decision by the Law Lords in Britain in the case of Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe removes from the Press the constant threat of libel as long as allegations against public figures are made responsibly and in the public interest. Article 10 of the European Convention played an important role in influencing the thinking of the judges. It provides for the freedom to ‘impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’, subject to some duties and responsibilities. Baroness Hale of Richmond said in the judgment, “The most important is article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, because we have not only an international but also a domestic obligation to comply with it.”
Also influencing the judgment was the consideration that one family controls Saudi Arabia with an iron fist, and in the public interest it is unfair to oblige a newspaper to observe more rigorous standards of verifying the allegations concerning intelligence commitments the Saudi Central Bank made to the United States.
If jurisprudence in Sri Lanka were guided by the ICCPR (especially Article 19), which now seems to have been placed in limbo by a Supreme Court judgment, the case for Hakeem would be clearer.