Published on 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.

Pre News refresh player

“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.

Instance of Article Default Video Player

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

Sri Lanka: civil war special report

Tweets by @millerc4

44 reader comments

  1. nancy says:

    I can’t imagine the sheer pain and agony this must be causing the mother and two sisters of this beautiful young woman. So terribly sad all around. I don’t imagine one ever stops feeling and living the pain and heals.

  2. Vani says:

    What a cruel world we live in. Feeling helpless and crying with them.

  3. Scrivanamoth says:

    How gory can it get? Help bring on the war crime trial in a land all too prone to war crimes under cover of the torrid PTA. The real face of racist state terrorism becomes at once so evident. To give cover is to aid and abet!

  4. J Murphy says:

    Did I not hear on the news that the family were ‘smuggled in’ that it was they said ?

    How did that happen ?

  5. Shan says:

    Boycott CHOGM 2013…

  6. tash says:

    After all this David Cameron entering Srilanka?? Power possessed world, where is the moral obligation.

  7. Fake says:

    Meanwhile many thousand nameless mopthers cry for the child soldiers these terrorists forcibly recruited and many millions of mothers in SL are glad the brutal terrorists are wiped out of Sri Lanka

    1. Melanie Prendiville says:

      All the other Nationalities – Dutch/Portuguese – Malay and Moors Muslims live and speak the
      Singhalese language in that beautiful Island – The Illegals that Jonathan Miller and the BBC
      Journalists talk to in the North of Sri Lanka are Greedy Illegals who have come into Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu – and refuse to integrate – speak the language and be friendly because they came to the Island to get work on the Tea and Rubber Plantations – They should be sent back to Tamil Nadu – and India should take responsibilityl for these unfriendly difficult people who have done nothing else but cause trouble and accuse them of unbelievable lies. The Sri-Lankans have been terrorised by the Tamil Insurgents from 1956 – they are now the Tigers. I witnessed the first terrorist attack in May 1956 as a 11year old at the Army Married Quarters – Echelon Square Colombo when the tamils threw hand gas bombs at us.They have blown up buses and trains and the people in the South – mostly the Dutch and portuguese burghers are petrified of the Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankans have had enough – They should be sent back to India where they will not be tolerated. There are approx 10million Singhalese and they are the Majority people – it is their Country – this tiny 1% of Illegals want to take over the Country. Cameron and Hague must not go to the North and listen to the Lying Tigers. Talk to the other minority groups who live on that Island and love the Singhalese people who are kind.

      1. Anon says:

        There are minority groups all over the world who live in constant oppression. It is up to them to fight for their rights, because no one else has the simple morality to fight for their human rights. I agree that the Tamil Tigers may have done some bad things, but this still does not justify the murder of 40 000 innocent Tamils living in the North.

      2. Vrkas Muragedera says:

        Melanie Melanie,’= Aren’t you confusing the Upcountry Indian Tamil estate workers with the Ceylon Tamils? If you don’t know best to keep shut!

      3. Muthiah says:

        Melanie you language shows your basic education shut up

      4. Suvin says:

        IF u see the LTTE’s terrorism means why cant u show that video to the world?
        The cruel srilankans made all the innocent Tamilians as Tigers.
        If u have evidence prove it damit..

        Truth alone Triumphs..

        The same.. what happened to Tamilians will be boomerang on the Dog M.R

      5. Samar says:

        You can’t justify that the army did it so did the LTTE. While taking out LTTE was good, the sacrifice for that was another 40000 lives.

      6. Anon says:

        I don’t think you know much about the LTTE or Singhalese so mate I insist that it’s about time you shut up. Singhalese are flipping cruel, LTTE fought for their country.

      7. ally says:

        Send them back.. Don’t torture them, don’t capture them… But you cowards… so that’s the problem. Hitler is the most disgusting politician, and so are you all.

  8. Shiva says:

    The Western governments that rushed to bombed Libya and was ready to attack Syria but failed to prevent the genocide of the Eelam Tamils. India is a total failure as it former PM Rajiv Gandhi who signed a deal in 1987 but failed to monitor and force the Sri Lankan regime to implement for the last 26 years. Now after almost five years after the genocide, the western leaders have failed miserably to bring the perpetrators to the ICC to deliver Justice. It is time for an forceful investigation as the regime is unlikely to allow an investigation and continue to bully, intimidate, threat, attack and humiliate the diplomats, leaders, human rights groups, dissidents, NGOs and media personnel.

  9. Dr C P Thiagarajah says:

    A courageous journalist and a relentless fighter for justice. The ill-fayed Isai Priya and her families. Will the human kind stop the tyrants who carried out this murder let alone the genocide of 150000 Tamils.

    1. Dilshan says:

      Dear Dr. have you conveniently forgoton the thousands of ordinary Singhalese murdered by LTTE funded by your likes in other countries. If you got your free education in Sri Lanka dont forget that it was funded by 90% of other communities through tax. It was these Other 90% and your Own community that suffered here in Sri Lanka while the entire Tamil diaspora funded LTTE to create more mayhem.
      Issapriya is just one name amongst many thousands of Ordinary civilians with no connection to the LTTE who died.
      Why dont you also talk of innocent Tamils who were murdered by the LTTE in Jaffna for opposing them?

  10. punchinilame says:

    In a war-without-witnesses, mobile phones became a menance to the MoD
    which has slipped on this aspect. Now that digital photographic evidence is in
    hand, the culprits HAVE to be hauled up to account – the sooner the better.
    Waiting 30-40 yrs. for a verdict as in past international cases will not serve
    Justice.

  11. Raj.Nada.Ananth. says:

    Many Thanks,Jonathan Miller&Ch 4 News Team.

  12. Saraswathy says:

    Thanks to Channel-4 team for maintaining the focus on Issaipiriya relentlessly. Her case is all it is needed to pin down the war criminals even though the civilized people around the world mourn the killings of so many civilians – including children – by the reckless armed forces commanded by Gothabaya Rajapaksa. Another third world crook.

    While the heat is on the current Sri Lankan regime, Channle-4 should expose the burning of Jaffna library – a Tamil cultural treasure – by the monoethnic Singhala armed forces in the 70’s and plundering and murder of Tamils using government provided voter-list in the 80’s. Both incidents among many others constitute intentions of genocide, eventually culminating in acts of genocide.

    Governing structure of then Ceylon, left over by the British in 1948, is beyond repair. Consecutive Sinhala leadership has proven time and again their incapacity to include Tamils in the governance of the island. One of the presidents, J. R. Jeyawardena said in 1983 as Tamils civilians were being massacred, “more I starve Tamils happier the Sinhalese people become.” Isn’t it time to put a stop the forced merger of Tamils with Sinhalese.

    It is time for Tamil and Sinhalese to live with a protective fence in between, and world powers should facilitate the birth of Tamil Eelam for the sake of safety of Tamils. Why wait for another massacre?

  13. Dr B Alakakone says:

    Shocking and more embarrassing for all the sinhalese people around the world.

  14. Harischandra says:

    crime is crime anywhere in the world.But why dont show us what LTTE has done

    1. Michael says:

      Exactly. The tigers were real angels, who dispatched any of the tamils who opposed their cause, straight to heaven, and also sent a former Indian PM, plus hundreds of Tamil Civil Servants and Policemen, to solidify their cause that there aren’t enough Tamils in the Govt service. Starting from Alfred Duraiyappa ..

  15. Doc Oc says:

    As a Srilankan, I am ashamed of this brutal murders. There needs to be a credible investigation, and the authorities needs to be held accountable. Come on the UN.. get your act together!!!

  16. Vel says:

    Dear Jonathan Miller & Team, Thanks a lot for bringing the truth to the world.Please continue your hard work. As a srilankan tamil I still cannot believe the world did not bother to save the INNOCENT CIVILIANS from Ltte and Srilankan Government.We were treated as if there is no value for human being.

    1. Dilshan says:

      Dear Vel you are right. For 30 years we watched the BBC and other Chanel4 gloryfying the LTTE, They never disclosed the funding of the LTTE by forced contribution from each tamil family in Sri Lanka and outside Sri Lanka.

      The government of Sri Lanka is voted in and has changed many times during the 30 years. But did the LTTE change one dictator who killed all his own tamils? anyone who was opposed?

      Prabhakara may have started out as a freedom fighter but ended up a despot. Just like in cambodia.

      he will be hated by most Tamils once economic freedom is given to the people in the North.

      1. Tiger says:

        Hey Dilshan,

        You are talking about LTTE getting funding from other countries. Go and watch the post war interview from Gotabaya Rajapaksha. That barbarian litterally said that Sri Lanka won the war by obtaining help from 20 big countries around the world. Meaning to say, if you Sri Lanka military is gentlemen enough to take this war by their owm, Eelam would have born 10-15 years ago. Get your facts right before posting something stupid. Getting help from 20 countries and using banned weaponaries on its own citizen is an act of coward. So just shut the hell up.

  17. jaffna says:

    after watching terriffic videos of isapriya i feel much worser than pakistan. what a cruel armies are they should happen to their own sisters and mother . the incident never happen to anyone in the world .i feel sad and i salute to isapriya

  18. Rajan says:

    The worse thing is that the sinhalese mass do not know what happened to the Tamils during the War. They only watch and listen to constantly lying Sinhala and English media and brain washed by the Mantra of lies and twisted stories. Some on in this column wrote that the tamils came from Tamil Nadu, India. Actually the Notorious Sinhala Thug Vijayan was sent with his 700 thuggery friends to Sri Lanka.He did not even know his own country history because only read their twited stories.

    If no one was killed by the Sri Lankan fire power so, why they bought billions worth of weapons from many countries? Was it to chase the birds in fields and to protect the crops from wild animals? They do not need artillery, shells and bombarding planes? So what did they show to the sinhalese mass during the war with their Tanks and artilleries? Did they use their war ships and naval boats to transport Bulls and sheep?

    40,000 Tamils massacred in weeks and people out of North East did not know it! This is the way their media functioned and functioning.If any journalist talked about it he or she is branded as ‘Traitor’. Why 220 pages of propaganda hand book ‘ Corrupted Journalism’ given to those foreign dignitaries when they came to CHOGM?

    How many more will be killed after the foreign media leaves the country, specially those who spoke to the foreign media like channel 4 and BBC?

    How long they are going play the game of ‘Closed eyed cats’? We hope Mahinda Rajapakse and his canibal brother Gothabaya will be at ICC one day. Some dictators are punished after 30 Years. We pray these murderers must live until then in good health and sound mind. Age and insanity must not be Excuses for not to be the court!! Justice must do its home work.

  19. Halifax says:

    Isapriya was a Lt. Col. of LTTE who was killed by the LTTE for trying to escape from them. This is what happened to all who tried to escape from LTTE hold. If LTTE can kill innocent tamil people who were trapped in that “No fire Zone”, can any one argue that LTTE cannot do it to one of their own Colonels.

    1. Anon says:

      She was seen alive in government custody and then dead a few hours later. Clearly her sexual assault and death was at the hands of the SL Army Forces. Did you even READ the article?

    2. truth says:

      Sinhalese propaganda….when will these people wake up?

    3. Siva says:

      Halifax
      Do you have any evidence for that?I feel sorry for your ignorance.

    4. GANESH says:

      My dear citizen of srilankan borther, kindly watch the live of isaipriya alive.

      which is released recently.

      just think about your mother and sister like isaipriya victim of your srilankan army.

      i hope you are buddist follower 100 percent you can understand the truth.

  20. Michael says:

    many a tamil mother and father are happy that they don’t have to send their kids for fighting a lost cause ..

    oh, wait, how many did those “SUPPORTERS” from Tamil Nadu fight and die ?

    The war started with a cause, but half way through it became a lost cause. and the Tigers mercilessly sent children as cannon fodder while the leaders and powers-be stayed behind. Children who had been given Cyanide and taught to commit suicide if they are caught..

    BTW, Isaiypriya was a fighter, i.e. she killed people

    Don’t glorify the deadly Tamil Tigers, who went on to kill even those who opposed them, including hundreds TAMIL POLICEMEN who surrendered, but executed, as they were SL Govt servants .. and so were the thousands of Muslims who were chased out of their traditional homelands

    Go do some research first, PLEASE ..

    Stuff you dont’ hear from C4. Well, I strongly believe C4 is being paid by Tamil Tiger supporters, to make noise of the faults of the govt, and hide the truth – that both sides killed people innocently

  21. withan says:

    Channel4 tries their best to show some thing special. Though they failed they are being paid enough money. That is why they create films. Unfortunately them majority know the truth and decide the weight of this films and reports. I like to invite to channel4 to make another film which some one haven’t seen. That film should be included facts below. Thousands of real videos and photos are available for you.

    1. LTTE got our tamil children by force and parents drank tears.
    2.They commanded our children to be suicide bombers.
    3.Tamil people lived together with sinhalese and muslims peacefully. Today no sinhalese and muslims in our villages. They lost their lands also.
    4. Sinhala and muslim villages blasted with their babies.
    5. Not only sinhala leaders but also tamils were kild by LTTE.
    6.Kept bombs throughout the country.
    7.Thousands of trains, buses, buildings were blasted by them.
    8. A full bus of buddist monks were cut off.
    9. Channel4 can make a separate film for Mr.Rajiv Gandi also.
    10. Though LTTE produced child shoulders no any son or daughter of LTTE leader there. They had a luxury life till the end and so far. Poor tamil children had to be in bankers when leaders children educate in abroad.
    Today our sad history use politicians and media for their future. We live today peacefully and have forgotten the past. Please don’t try to remind that terrorism.

    Don’t forget that suicide LTTE bombers acted various characters. They appeared as journalist also. When the bomb is in body the music instrument also played as role.

    That is why I asked you to make another film using real truth also.
    I have mentioned 0.00000009% of the result of terrorism and have rest in our memory. Thanks any one who gave us our lives.

  22. Harsha says:

    The article is shoddy with it’s facts. The article states that Major General Kamal Guneratne was promoted to full general after the war. That is false. He remains in the rank of a Major General. Also the article states that the North is occupied giving credence to the LTTE and their supporters claim that the North of Sri Lanka is a separate country from the rest of Sri Lanka. The North of Sri Lanka is an integral part of Sri Lanka as much as the south of Sri Lanka is and to refer to it as been occupied only serves the interests of those who wish to break up Sri Lanka. Channel 4 appears to be siding with those separatists. This goes to show that Channel 4 is not objective regarding Sri Lanka.

  23. Sue says:

    Melanie, I dont know if i should laugh or cry at your comment.If you dont know the basics its better to shut your mouth and keep quiet.Srilankan tamils have been leaving in srilanka for centuries for the same lenghth of time as the sinhalese.The indian tamils live in upcountry they were bought in by british to work in plantations.Both are totally different ethnic groups .

    For your information buddhism came from India and Sinhalese language is from Paali language which is an Indian language.
    Did you even study history at school are are you making these up to cover your racism?
    Unfortunately there are some others in your species who always get the facts wrong.

  24. Anjali says:

    LTTE killed tamil leaders, indian prime minister Rajiv Ghandhi. The war is end now. Forget the past and build up the future. Unpleasant things happen in any war. Even Britain had done killings in Ireland and Iraq. Channel 4 should not dig in to unpleasant past and encourage anger within ethnic communities. Stop this war now.

  25. S.Ananda says:

    Melanie – The attacks started due to the oppression….irrespective of your views on the Tamil Tigers, you cant still be that blind not to see what has happened between 2009 and now…innocent people are dying just remember that when u speak.

  26. dhananjaya says:

    LTTE Killed thousands of innocent shihaleas .tamills and muslims chanel 4 forgotten the truth .Chanel 4 is the replica of bloody partial journalism in the world

  27. Rajiv says:

    Clearly Gordon Campbell has double standards. Channel 4 has every right to make what ever documentary it wants however Sri Lanka has their own rights to challenge those views expressed by channel 4. Both parties have the right to put their view on the table and let people decide for their own. Ultimately the truth should prevail. Gordon claims that reconciliation has deteriorated in Sri Lanka over the past few years and I wonder where he get’s his facts from. I don’t remember any of these politicians caring or commenting about Sri Lankas civil war in the last 30 years. As long as the war loads make their weapon sales and politicians get their campaigns funded by the same war lords all was good and rosy. Money talks.. never mind that thousands of innocent lives will be spared but the loss of billions of revenue from NIL weapons sales appear to have upset a quite a few people. Karma will inevitably deliver justice to all these opportunistic criminals.

  28. Bryce says:

    Melanie, you obviously are very confused. Perhaps you should really sit through history class and actually listen!

Comments are closed.