Mass graves in Tamileelam

Soon after the “Riviresa Operation” in 1995, Yaalppanam (Jaffna) was under the command of Brig. Sri Lal Weerasuriya, under whom two others Brigadiers, Janaka Perera and Karunatilake, were handling security in prescribed areas. The Chemmani area was under the command of Brig. Janaka Perera. There is absolutely no way that so many civilians could have been killed and buried without the knowledge of these officers.

Statement of  Copral Somaratne Rajapakse

The former soldier, first accused, Somaratne Rajapakse convicted on July 3, 1998 for the rape and murder of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, and the murder of her mother, brother, and neighbor said in open court that, “There are 300 to 400 bodies in this land, almost every evening, dead bodies were brought there and the soldiers were asked to bury them.”  “I was at the Ariyalai camp doing civil administration. At that time I worked under Captain Lalith Hewa. My job was to register family names and the names of youth. We would prepare two lists.

Once, Captain Lalith Hewa and Lieutenant Wijesiriwardene brought soldiers from another section to work under me. We were given a list of people who they said were Tiger suspects. I was asked to show the places where these suspects lived. Thereafter they conducted cordon-and-search operations.

Major Weerakkody and Major Gunasekera brought people before two Tiger informants and the informants were asked to point out who the Tiger suspects were. The ones they had identified were separated from the rest. About 50 people were identified and were photographed. At Ariyalai I can show how people were arrested killed and buried. At the beginning some people were arrested and brought to a camp and kept at the Jaya building. Some were kept at a school. The ones who ordered this were Captain Lalith Hewa, Lt. Wijesiriwardene and Lt. Thudugala.

They were also the ones involved in the arrest of the government servant Selvaratnam. He was brought to the camp. The next day his wife came and asked me whether I had seen him. I did not have the answer then. At that camp there was a building used to torture people. I can show it to you now. When I went to the camp, there were 25 people in that building. Selvaratnam was also there. His legs were tied. He pleaded with me saying he didn’t have any Tiger connections. I asked Captain Hewa to release him. He agreed. But that night they killed him.

The next day when I went back I saw 10 more dead bodies. When I was working at the Jaya building, another man,  Udayakumaran, was arrested. His family came and pleaded for his release. I went and asked Captain Jayawardena to do so. That afternoon he was taken to another camp. When I went there they got a radio message asking to release this man. He was hanging by his feet and his body was cut with blades. They couldn’t release him. He was killed later. I know the weapons they used for torture very well and I can show them to you in that building.

There was a day when I was asked to bring a “Manvetti” by Captain Lalith Hewa. When I got there, Captain Hewa was with a woman who had no clothes on. This woman and her husband had been brought to the camp earlier. Lalith Hewa raped the woman. Later, he attacked the woman and her husband with the mammoty I brought and he also used some rods. Both of them died. He tried to bury them there but couldn’t. Then the bodies were brought to Chemmani. I can show you where they are buried.

Witness protection

The Minnesota Protocol requires states to ensure that investigators involved in exhumations as well as any lawyers ‘whatever their relationship to the investigation’ are able to do their work without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.  There have been reports of those involved in exhumations receiving threats.

On 17 January 1995, during the exhumations at Sooriyakanda, the main lawyer for the opposition asked for a postponement of the hearings due to threats received by some witnesses and the fact that he had been shot at on his return home from court on 10 January.

Lance Corporal Somaratne Rajapakse, who in 1996 revealed the existence of mass graves at Chemmani, Yaalppanam (Jaffna), was himself threatened and beaten up. His wife received two letters signed by ‘some members of the army’, telling her to make sure he retracted his statement to the court.

Whilst in Welikada Prison Rajapaksa was asked by guards to sign a statement to the effect that he had been emotionally disturbed when he made the statement to the High Court about the mass graves and that it had been untrue. Rajapaksa refused to sign the statement and was attacked by prison guards on 23 August 1998, sustaining injuries to his mouth, below his left eye and to his chest. Later one of the attackers visited Rajapaksa in hospital and warned him not to talk about the attack “or you won’t be able to leave the prison alive”. Rajapaksa’s family also received threatening letters.


Another common tactic by senior government officials attempting to influence exhumation processes is to transfer magistrates, police officers or other officials. As of 2023 in the Mannar exhumation no less than seven magistrates have been involved in hearing the case. A few were transferred as part of the normal roster, but others were reportedly transferred due to political pressure. In some instances, court cases themselves have been transferred, especially if they concerned incidents in the north and east. In mid-2000, for instance, the Chemmani case was transferred to the Colombo Magistrate’s court after army officers argued that they feared for their lives if they had to appear in Yaalppanam (Jaffna) Magistrate’s Court.

 The petitioners feared of travelling to Colombo since in order to secure clearance to travel they had to reveal to the military that the purpose of their journey was to give evidence against the army. The JMO who dealt with the Mannar site in 2018 was transferred to Colombo in 2019. There was no identification of bodies from the mass grave discovered in Mannar in 2018.

The JMO who carried out that exhumation in 2013 was moved to Anuradhapura and later to Matale where he could not finalise analysis of the collected remains. In the Matale case, Judge Chathurika Silva was transferred of the case after she ordered the CID to place notices in all three languages in newspapers to identify families of the missing.

 The new judge refused to accept additional affidavits and referred those affidavits to the presidential Commission of Inquiry. In 1994, the Magistrate of Minuwangoda, Palitha Bandaranayake, who had taken a personal interest in pursuing the Walpita farm mass grave investigation, was transferred, and the case was moved to Negombo and later abandoned.

 Under Sri Lankan law, all JMOs (except the Chief JMO Colombo) are transferable every four years. When a JMO who started an exhumation process is transferred, it is difficult for his or her replacement to take over. To tackle this, a post called JMO Anthropology was created in early 2018 at the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. It was anticipated that orders would be directed to this official when mass graves were found and that they would then float a team that included JMOs around the area of discovery. At the time of writing, there are no ongoing exhumations, though there is some sampling of recovered remains being done at the forensic laboratory at Colombo University.

Names of the massgraves 

  1. PLACE: Duraiyappah stadium, Yaalppanam (1999)

 BACKGROUND: As workers sank the foundations for new changing rooms at the Duraiyappah sports stadium in Yaalppanam, their spades struck bones.Remains to be clarified. It was suspected that those skeletons were those of inhabitants of Yaalppanam  killed and buried during the occupation of the Northern Province by the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987.

CURRENT STATUS: There were three days of exhumations. On the first occasion 8 skeletons were found, on the next sixteen, and on the third, twenty five.

2. PLACE: Chemmani, Yaalppanam district  (1999)


BACKGROUND: The location of these mass graves came to light in 1996 during the trial against five soldiers, including Lance Corporal Somaratne Rajapaksa, accused of the rape and killing of schoolgirl Krishanthi Kumarasamy, her mother, brother and neighbour. During the trial, Rajapaksa claimed as many as 400 bodies had been buried at the location where her body was exhumed.

CURRENT STATUS: In 1998, a five-member committee identified the members of the forces responsible for 15 disappearances. Four army officers were arrested. The Committee’s report was never published. Exhumations were conducted under the JMO Niriella Chandrasiri, Senior Professor of Forensic Medicine, University of Ruhuna.

Part of the exhumations at Chemmani were observed by international forensic experts and Amnesty International staff. They did not participate in the exhumations. Bone samples were sent for DNA testing to the Hyderabad Forensic Laboratory in India and then to the UK for DNA testing. Despite initial arrests of a handful of soldiers and police, no indictments were filed. Under the orders of the AGO, the suspects were released on bail in July 2000. Later on, the case was transferred to the Colombo magistrate’s court after the army officers argued that they feared for their lives if they had to appear in the Yaalppanam (Jaffna) magistrate’s court. In January 2006 the case came to an end when police told the Colombo Magistrate that they were unable to proceed in the absence of instructions from the Attorney General, despite having handed over the findings of their investigations.

Subsequently, key suspects in this case have been promoted. Captain C J T K Lalith Hewa became a Senior Lieutenant Colonel in charge of an Army Holiday House in Panadura. Captain T D Sasika Perera became a Senior Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Mannar Army Camp, and later was attached to the Kalawewa Army Camp. Lieutenant Sachindra Wijesiriwardana was a Junior Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Mullaitivu Army Camp, and then attached to the Army Headquarters in Panagoda. Lieutenant A Yatagama has retired from service.

Others reportedly named by Somaratne Rajapakse as having been involved were never charged. They include: Jayatilleke, Nazaar, Samarawickrema, Probationary Private Perera, soldier J M Jayasinghe, Lieutenant Thudugala, Lieutenant Udayakumara, Major Karunasekara, Captain Jayawardena, Corporal Bandara, Probationary Private Nishantha, Probationary Private Alwis (dead), Probationary Private Muthubanda, Sergeant Silva, and three police officers (Constable Priyadarshana, Officer Abdul Hamid, and Officer Samarasinghe). Somaratna Rajapakse continues to serve a life sentence for the rape and killing of Krishanthy Kumarasamy.

3. PLACE: Mirusuvil, Yaalppanam (Jaffna) – 2000

NUMBER OF REMAINS DISCOVERED: Eight bodies of internally displaced people, including three children. One of them was a 5-year-old, whose body showed signs of torture.

BACKGROUND: The exhumation took place on 25 December 2000, a week after the victims disappeared.

CURRENT STATUS: The case took 15 years to conclude. It was originally filed at the Chavakachcheri Magistrate’s Court and subsequently 14 army personnel were taken into custody. Later, the case was transferred to the Anuradhapura Magistrate’s Court at the request of suspects to the Attorney General’s Department as they feared it would be a threat to their lives. Later the Chief Justice appointed a trial-at-bar at the High Court, Colombo. There were numerous postponements.

 In 2015, after a lengthy court process, Sunil Ratnayake, a member of the military’s elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), had been sentenced to death while four other accused were cleared of all charges. The sentence was upheld on appeal in 2015. Just five years after the sentence, in 2020, Ratnayake received a presidential pardon from then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In 2021 the US barred Ratnayake from visiting the USA. In early 2023, Canada did the same.

(Sources: JDS and Tamilnet)


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