The acquittal of five persons charged with the murder of a Tamil legislator in Sri Lanka has renewed scepticism over the credibility of the country’s justice system, particularly in cases involving extra-judicial killings implicating the armed forces.
Following an all-Sinhalese jury’s verdict, a Sri Lankan court on Saturday acquitted five men, including three Navy intelligence officers, accused of assassinating Nadaraja Raviraj in 2006. A Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian and lawyer, Raviraj had actively sought to engage the Sinhalese on the Tamil national question, addressing them in Sinhala. On 10 November 2006, he and his bodyguard were shot dead on a busy road in Colombo.
According to TNA parliamentarian and senior human rights lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran, Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Attorney-General’s Department found evidence pointing to the involvement of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) in Mr. Raviraj’s assassination. Additionally, the public prosecutor’s indictment accused some “persons unknown to the prosecution” of being involved in the murder.
“So it was obvious that a few junior-level naval officers had not done this on their own. They are as responsible for carrying out someone’s orders, but it is only one small part of the puzzle. This happened ten years ago and we are still waiting to find out who gave the orders,” Mr. Sumanthiran told The Hindu on Sunday.
Giving evidence during the investigation, a former police constable who turned state witness, claimed that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa “had arranged a payment of Rs. 50 million to the Karuna faction to murder the MP”, according to the state-run Daily News . Karuna Amman, or Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, broke away from the LTTE and was later appointed as Minister during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency.
The jury, however, deemed the available evidence insufficient to convict the accused.
The legal process in the murder probe appears fraught with discrepancies, observed lawyers. The case involved two offences — one, under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and another, a murder charge under the penal code. While the accused naval officers were remanded under the PTA that disallows bail, they were permitted a jury trial under provisions of the ordinary law, even though the PTA disallows trial by jury, said Mr. Sumanthiran. “Under the PTA, a jury cannot pronounce the verdict as has now been done. It is illegal,” said Mr. Sumanthiran, who appeared for Raviraj’s wife in this case. Some see the recent outcome as a reflection of an apparent ethnic bias against the Tamils in the justice system. “Every time there is a case involving a Tamil leader there is this “us [Sinhalese] versus others [Tamils]” factor that comes into play,” says senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera. “Merely appointing a Tamil as Chief Justice does not challenge the structural biases within the system,” he said, referring to incumbent Chief Justice Kanagasabapathy Sripavan, who was appointed after Sri Lanka’s national unity government came to power in 2015.