COMMISSION OF INQUIRY HOLDS INAUGURAL
SESSION AS IT BEGINS INVESTIGATIONS
The killings of the 17 ACF aid workers
in Muttur, the first investigation by COI
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI)
appointed by Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in
November 2006, to investigate and inquire into human rights abuses,
which allegedly took place in Sri Lanka since August 1, 2005,
held its inaugural session on May 14, 2007. The Chairman of the
COI, Justice Nissanka Udalagama, who addressed the audience at
the inauguration, said that the primary purpose of the COI is
to collect sufficient evidence to launch prosecutions against
persons allegedly responsible for perpetrating serious human rights
violations in 15 specific incidents the COI has to investigate.
Justice Udalagama said that a unique feature
of the COI is that its work is observed by a group of international
experts referred to as the International Independent Group of
Eminent Persons (IIGEP). The function of the IIGEP is to observe
and report whether the investigations and inquiries conducted
by the COI are in accordance with international norms and standards.
Even though the COI was appointed in November 2006, the IIGEP
was established in February 2007, thus, it took several months
for the COI and the IIGEP to develop a common understanding that
would help their respective mandates.
Furthermore, the COI needed time to develop its
rules of procedure, organizational structures and other internal
mechanisms. Justice Udalagama said he believed that such methodical
internal organization and development is part of internationally
accepted best practices, and it made sense to get the internal
systems in place before rushing into investigations.
According to Justice Udalagama, foremost among
the initiatives taken by the COI, was the establishment of a Victim
and Witness Assistance and Protection Unit, and a scheme to provide
assistance and protection to all victims and witnesses. This is
seen as a pioneering development, particularly due the absence
of subject-specific legislation in Sri Lanka.
Having considered all the cases lined up for
investigation, the COI has decided to begin with the investigation
into the killings of 17 workers of Action Contre La Faim (ACF)
in Muttur, in the east, in early August 2006. Having examined
the notes of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the
Investigation Supervision Committee of the COI developed a plan
of investigation and has instructed its Investigation Unit to
conduct fresh investigations into the incident. Justice Udalagama
said that Clause 8 of the Rules of Procedure of the Investigation
Unit empowers the COI to directly interview witnesses and record
their statements. Therefore, the COI has decided to interview
and record the statements of several police officers involved
in investigating into the killings of the 17 aid workers. The
sessions to be held on the May 14th and 15th were to be a part
of an investigation. Therefore, the sessions where police officers
were to be interviewed and their statements recorded were not
open to the public.
A Counsel from the Panel of Counsel from the
Official Bar, Deputy Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda, outlined
the nature of this first case being investigated by the COI, and
described the general scope of the interview.
Mr. Kodagoda said that according to available
material, the LTTE attacked the town of Muttur in the east on
August 2, 2006. The attacks had been initially launched form the
direction of Sampoor, in the eastern neighborhood of Muttur. Sri
Lankan security forces resisted this attack, and as the attack
intensified military reinforcements had been sent. According to
available material, the attack had continued up to August 5th
or 6th, 2006, and it had been around August 7, that a semblance
of normalcy returned to the area, with the security forces finally
establishing control over the town of Muttur. The confrontation
had led to deaths of unarmed civilians, security forces personnel
and LTTE combatants. There had been considerable internal displacement
and vast damage to property. ACF, a Paris-based, well-established
non-governmental organization, which had been present in Sri Lanka,
for a considerable period of time, had been providing humanitarian
assistance to civilians, especially those living in conflict areas.
While ACF Regional Office was in Trincomalee, the ACF Project
Office was in Muttur. On August 2, 17 workers from the ACF Regional
Office proceed to the Muttur office as routine transfer of personnel.
From August 2, personnel in the ACF Trincomalee office began receiving
information that Muttur was under attack. The workers in the Muttur
office were advised by the Trincomalee office to remain in the
Muttur office until safe passage could be provided. Around 10
a.m. on August 6, the ACF Trincomalee office had received an anonymous
telephone call that 17 persons had been killed and that their
bodies were seen in the Muttur ACF office compound. The inference
was that these were ACF aid workers. However, it was after 5 p.m.
on August 7th that ACF personnel from the Trincomalee office could
proceed to Muttur along with police officers. They found the bodies
of 17 ACF workers in the Muttur office.
Initial investigations into the incident were
conducted by the Trincomalee police. Thereafter the investigation
was taken over by the CID. A magisterial inquest was also conducted
into the deaths and post mortem examinations on the 17 bodies
were conducted by a Consultant Judicial Medical Officer. Ballistics
examinations were conducted by the Office of the Government Analyst.
The main police officers involved in the investigation
will be interviewed by the COI.
Embassy of Sri Lanka
16 May 2007