9 Nov 2013

Sri Lanka: Tamil family’s distress over footage of daughter

The family of a young Sri Lankan Tamil separatist woman killed by government forces four years ago had no idea that she had been captured alive until Channel 4 News broadcast the pictures last week. Our Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Jonathan Miller, met them.

Three women are sitting on a bench.  Two of them are staring into space, their demeanour: deadly serious and balefully sad. The other, older, her lined face wet with tears, sits there, sobbing. More than four years on from her violent death, they are mourning a daughter and a sister. A young woman, called Isaipriya, who was born the year Sri Lanka’s civil war began and died the very day it ended.

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“I really cannot watch the video,” says Vethavanjini, her mother. “I cannot bear to see her. I want to remember my daughter as she was.”  We told her she didn’t have to.

Vethavanjini leaves the room as her other two daughters gaze glumly at the grainy footage.  I need them to positively identify their sister. They’re the last pictures of Isaipriya alive, before her alleged sexual assault and murder on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast some time on Monday, 18th May 2009, at the hands of government forces.

“Yes,” they say.  “That’s definitely her.” Their eyes well up with tears. “And that is her voice.”

The three women – the two surviving sisters and their mother – have claimed asylum in the United Kingdom, having recently been smuggled into Britain. The mother and one daughter arrived here just last week.

The mobile phone footage depicts the capture by government forces of Isaipriya – 27-year-old sweetheart pin-up of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatists and newscaster on Tamil Tiger TV.  Sangeetha, the youngest of the sisters, was also with the Tamil Tigers, working in their administrative unit. All four women had been trapped on a tiny stretch of beach along with 100,000 civilians and the rump of the rebel army under relentless shellfire as government forces closed in.

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The Tamil Tigers – also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – were a brutal separatist army which recruited child soldiers, used suicide bombers, targeted civilians and were proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Britain. Isaipriya was a nom de guerre. Her real name was Shoba. She worked in the  Tigers’ propaganda wing.  As a well-known personality and singer, she was reportedly much-loved in her homeland.

In the “new” video, obtained by the director of the feature documentary “No Fire Zone,” Isaipriya is sitting in a swamp.  She is only partly clothed.  She looks dazed and confused. There’s no clue as to how on earth she got there and why she’s all alone.  Some speculate that she’d been trying to escape the bloody final showdown.  She’s helped to her feet and looks completely uninjured. This is an important observation, because she was not to remain so for long.

The soldiers think she’s the Tamil rebel leader’s daughter. She’s not, she says.  They find a length of white cloth to wrap around her. It’s the same cloth that shrouds her in a photograph Channel 4 News later obtained from a Sri Lankan soldier.  In his photograph, dated later that same day, 18th May, Isaipriya is dead. Her hands are tied behind her back.

It’s the same cloth that in another video is shown pulled up to reveal her naked body among a tangle of other dead Tamil women. Lawyers and forensic pathologists who have examined this footage say there’s no doubt she – and the others – have been sexually assaulted.

There’s also now a long and jagged cut across her face. That grim footage comprises part of the notorious ‘executions video’ which shows the shooting dead of naked, bound and blindfolded Tamil prisoners in “mopping up operations” by Sri Lankan soldiers.

You don’t need much of an imagination to figure out what’s happened.  And that’s what’s caused such pain to Isaipriya’s mother and two sisters.  Until Channel 4 News broadcast the pictures of Isaipriya last week, her family had had no idea that Isaipriya had actually been captured alive.

Even though Sri Lankan forces are accused of killing at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the 27-year-long war, the death of Isaipriya, a separatist militant, is important because it appears to have been an execution, and, as such, a violation of the laws of war.

The Sri Lankan government was swift to dismiss the latest video as “fake.” A military spokesman told the BBC it was “a complete fabrication,” and claimed that none of the 12,000 Tamil Tiger combatants who surrendered or were captured had been killed.

The regime has similarly dismissed as fake past video evidence broadcast by Channel 4 News. This includes the executions video, which has been independently authenticated by experts commissioned by the UN. 

The new video has also been verified by independent experts who concluded that the images of Isaipriya in the swamp had not been subject to any digital manipulation. Isaipriya’s positive identification by two members of her family serves to reinforce the evidence of a war crime.

After the end of the war, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence website claimed Lt. Col. Isaipriya had been killed in combat by the army’s 53 Division, along with 30 other identified LTTE leaders, on 18th May 2009. Now we know that wasn’t true.  Isaipriya was not killed in combat.

The Commander of 53 Division was Major General Kamal Gunaratne who was later rewarded with his appointment as Commander of Security Forces Headquarters in part of the now-occupied Tamil north of the island, based in Vavuniya. He was promoted to full General.

This video shows him assuming his new command in July 2009.  It is part of a series of videos on YouTube paying “Tribute to War Heroes.”  General Gunaratne hasn’t updated his Facebook page much since the war ended, but by July 2009 he had 652 Facebook “Likes”.  

Here, he addresses his “fans,” as he calls them, and tells them about the “warriors” who had been under his command.

As the General Officer Commanding of forces who, by their own admission, killed Isaipriya, international criminal lawyers say Maj-Gen Gunaratne would likely bear command responsibility for her apparent murder. 

Isaipriya’s mother, Vethavanjini, and her surviving sisters Dharmini and Sangeetha, do not deny Isaipriya’s role in the insurgency. Sangeetha had been the last of them to see Isaipriya alive.  It was 7.30pm, she said, two nights before Isaipriya was captured and killed. Sangeetha had just been seriously wounded when a government artillery shell exploded next to her in the area the regime called the “No Fire Zone”.

“I asked her to accompany me, because I had been so badly injured,” Sangeetha told me.  But, fearing the imminent advance of government forces, Isaipriya told Sangeetha to stay with their mother instead. “She left me, saying she was scared of the army.” Within hours, the army had indeed over-run the place in which the injured Sangeetha lay. Isaipriya’s fear of the Sri Lankan army would shortly be realised.

As she related her account, Sangeetha started weeping. Dharmini, her  eldest sister, took over. “She did not come because she was so scared of the army, but now I see her on the news entirely in the hands of the army…”

Dharmini’s voice tailed off and all three women broke down in tears again.  Four-and-a-half years on, and their experience is raw. What for lawyers is powerful evidence of a possible war crime is to them another painful chapter in a prolonged bereavement which is clearly proving hard to bear.

Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter: @millerC4

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