Four Sri Lanka activist organizations accused former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday of obstructing police investigations into mass graves discovered in an area where he served as a military officer during a Marxist rebellion in 1989. Activist groups the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), the Center for Human Rights and Development, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, and Families of the Disappeared said in their report that Rajapaksa tampered with police records, thereby impeding the identification of victims and the return of their remains to their families.
The report alleges that Rajapaksa impeded the exhumations of mass graves, citing his actions as an instance of political interference. It specifically claims that Rajapaksa, who held a prominent position in defense, issued an order to destroy police records older than five years in Matale, where the mass graves were unearthed in 2013. During the intense Marxist rebellion, Rajapaksa fought against insurgents in that very area.
The report urges the implementation of measures against Rajapaksa and senior police officials, who activists accuse of obstructing investigations into the mass graves. It proposes the adoption of specific legislation and policies to proficiently handle mass graves and exhumations, encompassing aspects such as identification, preservation, and investigation. Moreover, the report recommends the enhancement of forensic capacities within the country, the establishment of an independent public prosecution service to ensure fair handling of prosecutions arising from exhumations, and the creation of a specialized unit devoted to investigating potential mass graves.
Executive Director of the ITJP Yasmin Sooka told JURIST:
The mass graves report makes the point that impunity in Sri Lanka for serious violations amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity go back to the JVP mass atrocity period when Gotabaya was the district official in charge of Matale. In the years since then, neither he [n]or any of the officials complicit in war crimes perpetrated during the JVP period and at the end of the war have been held accountable. It is highly unlikely that the current government will ever hold Gotabaya Rajapak[s]a accountable for his role either in Matale or during the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, as well as the ongoing violations, as the current government owes its existence and support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Over the past three decades, 20 exhumations have revealed numerous human remains within mass graves, indicating the possibility that there are still tens of thousands of bodies yet to be discovered.
Sri Lanka holds the unfortunate distinction of being the nation with the second-highest number of enforced disappearances. According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, up to 100,000 disappearances have been reported in Sri Lanka since the 1980s, with the majority of these incidents occurring during the nation’s civil war.
The Sri Lankan government has also been subject to criticism for its handling of the armed conflict’s aftermath. In 2020, Rajapaksa pardoned a Sri Lankan soldier who was convicted of killing eight Tamil people, including four children. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the decision “reprehensible.”