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
Washington DC

16 May 2007

Home | Sri Lanka-US Relations | Trade | Investment | Travel | Consular | Press Releases |
Statements | Features | Reports & Publications | Archive | Contact I Ideas Line