By Easwaran Rutnam
A father seeking justice for his son, who was murdered in Trincomalee, is a heartbreaking story we’ve heard over and over again over the past 13 years.
However, even today, despite all the assurances given, justice still seems far, far away.
2 January marked the 13th anniversary of the murder of five boys in Trincomalee in an incident now labelled the “Trinco-5” murders.
Ever since the day he lost his son, Dr. Kasippillai Manoharan was pushing for answers. Ragihar was among five students killed in Trincomalee.
The killing was initially blamed on the LTTE, but it was later discovered that the Police Special Task Force (STF) was involved.
Dr. Manoharan, now living overseas after being offered protection, told The Sunday Morning that he will never give up his fight for justice.
The parents of all five boys fled overseas after facing death threats when they pushed for answers over the murders of their children.
However, Dr. Manoharan continued to fight even from overseas and has often attended UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva to push the Government to bring those responsible to book.
“The other families have been supporting me. I might even go to Geneva in March and make a statement. I am a retired man but I will not rest till the people behind this crime are charged,” he said.
Attempt to silence push for accountability
Dr. Manoharan’s fight has not been taken well, however, by the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Government or the Government which took office in 2015.
In an attempt to silence him, the Rajapaksa Government allegedly offered Dr. Manoharan a house in Bambalapitiya or Wellawatte while the current Government gave him other assurances.
However, Dr. Manoharan said he turned down all those offers and insisted that the case be heard before a hybrid court.
“The current Government promised me, when they met me in Geneva, that a hybrid court would be established. But later, they said the President and Attorney General said no to a hybrid court,” he said.
The current Government announced last year that using the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, Dr. Manoharan could provide evidence in the case before a local court through Skype.
“We could not proceed with the case as the main witness was overseas and was not in a position to support proceedings. The case is now progressing as new reforms have allowed the use of Skype evidence,” said the then Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka.
However, Dr. Manoharan told The Sunday Morning that he refused to give evidence via Skype and has instead asked that evidence be recorded using satellite technology.
Legislation must be amended
Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have taken a very close interest in the case.
AI said that a witness can only provide evidence to a diplomatic mission of Sri Lanka, which was unacceptable.
“Justice for the students murdered over 13 years ago still eludes their loved ones and given the difficulties in securing witness testimonies, the Trinco-5 case has seen little to no progress in the most recent past."
“The Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act was passed in 2015, and later amended in 2017, enabling witnesses to give evidence from outside Sri Lanka. However, the fact that a witness can only provide such evidence at a diplomatic mission of Sri Lanka means that a witness may face intimidation."
“The safety of a diplomatic mission is not sufficient for a victim to give evidence, especially in this case where levels of intimidation were so high,” Research, Campaigns, and Communications Assistant at Amnesty International Rehab Mahamoor told The Sunday Morning.
She recalled that Subramaniyam Sugirdharajan, a journalist who published photos showing the five students shot at point-blank range, was killed 22 days after the killing of the students.
As such, she said legislation must be amended, taking into account all concerns that victims may have to ensure that those like Dr. Manoharan have a genuine opportunity to provide evidence.
Dr. Manoharan was among the first to rush to the site where his son was killed and to the mortuary together with Sugirdharajan.
He described the chilling final phone text message he received from his son. His son told him that his friends were begging the Police not to shoot them.
“As I heard about what was happening I rushed to the scene. I was prevented from going to the site by the Police who said that the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) at the time, Kapila Jayasekara, was at the scene so no one could go to the scene of the crime. They said they will allow me to there after SSP Kapila Jayasekara leaves the area,” he said.
The cover up
However, Dr. Manoharan said that there was an attempt to cover up the entire incident as soon as it occurred by clearing key evidence at the scene of the crime.
An exploded grenade as well as some bullets went missing from the scene between the times the students were killed to when the Magistrate arrived to conduct an inquiry.
“There was very little for the Magistrate to see when he arrived. The Police accepted that there was an unexploded grenade and that they took it and detonated it. But they should have first shown it to the Magistrate who was conducting the magisterial inquiry at the site,” he said.
However, Dr. Manoharan said that he managed to collect some evidence related to the crime and has kept copies at several locations to be accessed, if need be, for an independent inquiry.
He said there is clear evidence of the STF’s involvement in the crime and that the Government could not deny that.
“I gave Human Rights Watch pictures of bullets and a pen obtained from the scene of the crime. The pen has an STF marking,” he said.
Dr. Manoharan said that Sarath Fonseka, who was the Army Commander at the time of the incident, personally assured him that the Army was not involved in the crime.
“Fonseka even told me to come and meet him. He said he would give me all the protection I needed. But then, before I could go meet him, he was injured in a bomb attack at the Army Headquarters and was in hospital for several weeks, and he and I had no contact since then,” Dr. Manoharan said.
According to a US State Department cable from October, 2006 released several years later by WikiLeaks, Minister at the time, Basil Rajapaksa admitted to the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka that the security forces were responsible for the killings.
However, he insisted that there was no evidence to convict them. “We know the STF did it, but the bullet and gun evidence shows that they did not,” Basil Rajapaksa was quoted as saying. “They must have separate guns when they want to kill someone.”
The Trinco-5 case received renewed attention when it was included in the mandate for a presidential commission established in 2006 to investigate 16 prominent human rights cases. Dr. Manoharan then testified on video.
He has now asked for a journal entry of the progress made in the case so far.
He has also held talks with the diplomatic community, including a US senator, which has assured him of their support in his fight for justice.
Dr. Manoharan, even today, moves about in the foreign country he lives in with a picture on his mobile phone of his son’s dead body with a gunshot wound taken in the mortuary.
He shows the picture to anyone who questions his fight for justice and asks if they will sit back and relax if their children were to face the same fate as Ragihar.
Human Rights Watch recalls the incident
On 2 January, 2006 at about 7.30 p.m., seven youths, all 20-year-old graduates of Sri Koneswara Hindu College, chatted among themselves near the seafront in Trincomalee. According to eyewitness accounts, a grenade thrown at the youths from a green three-wheeler (or motor trishaw) exploded and injured three of them.
Soon thereafter, 10-15 uniformed officers, allegedly with the elite Police Special Task Force (STF), arrived in jeeps. The officers put the wounded youth into their jeeps, beat them with rifle butts, and then pushed them onto the road. The officers then allegedly shot the young men, killing five and wounding two.
The Army Commander in Trincomalee initially reported to the media that seven members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were killed or injured when grenades they were carrying exploded accidentally. The LTTE was responsible for numerous attacks on military personnel and civilians in the Trincomalee area.
A government post mortem later determined that the five died from gunshot wounds. Three were shot in the head, while two died from shots to the chest and abdomen, apparently received while trying to flee.
In July, 2013, the 12 STF officers were arrested over the incident. The former Head of the STF in Trincomalee, who Sri Lankan human rights monitors traced back to the murder scene, was not among them. After three months, no proceedings were initiated against the 12, so they were released.
Civil society is pushing for accountability: Fr. V. Yogeswaran
Fr. V. Yogeswaran – a Jesuit priest who runs a local NGO in Trincomalee that documents human rights violations – was closely following the Trinco-5 case.
He told The Sunday Morning that civil society members held memorial events in Trincomalee for the five boys every year since they were killed.
Father Yogeswaran said that local civil society was pushing for accountability over the incident. He said that some youth in Trincomalee, as well as some Tamil political parties, were joining civil society to push for accountability.
“As we know, many of these cases are not being moved up at all. The investigation over the 11 abducted youth is showing some progress now but investigations into all other major cases seem to have stalled,” he said.
Fr. Yogeswaran said that the question everyone keeps asking is “what steps need to be taken to ensure the Government actively pursues investigations into incidents like the Trinco-5 case”.
“In 2015, I think most people had high expectations. But only a few people realised, based on history, that we were going to be cheated again,” he said.
Fr. Yogeswaran also said that religious leaders must play a bigger role to push for accountability.
Complications when security forces investigated: Ruwan Wijewardene
State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene insisted that the current Government didn’t brush aside investigations into the Trinco-5 murders or any other high profile crime.
Wijewardena told The Sunday Morning that some investigations take time, especially if the allegations involve the security forces.
“There are complications that arise from these things. We have to manoeuvre through these things to complete the investigations. On the Government, I can say we are definitely pursuing these investigations,” he said.
Wijewardene said that he can understand the frustration some families may have with the pace of the investigations.
However, he said it was better to conduct a comprehensive investigation and bring the perpetrators to book than conduct an ad-hoc probe and later be forced to free the accused for lack of evidence.
“Sometimes the perpetrators can go free if the investigation is not done properly. So that is why I think it takes a long time for the investigations to be completed,” he said.
The Minister asserted that the Government was giving priority to the investigations and he hoped the families of the victims would receive some form of redress soon.