Stronger witness protection needed to ensure accountability for war crimes

Amnesty International yesterday expressed disappointment at the deportation
from the UK of Sri Lankan national Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, known
as Karuna, who is alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes
against humanity in Sri Lanka. He was deported following his conviction
on immigration charges.

“The deportation of Karuna now means that the investigation by the UK
authorities into these allegations has come to an end. Karuna is
entitled to be presumed innocent, until and unless guilt can be proved
beyond reasonable doubt in a fair trial. We will, however, be writing
to the authorities of Sri Lanka to ask for an investigation to be
started there into these allegations,” said Amnesty International.

“We are also concerned that the investigation collapsed because the UK
government did not dedicate the necessary resources to it and did not
sufficiently reassure the victims or their relatives of their safety
under a witness protection programme.”

A number of non-governmental organizations had presented information to
the Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) relating to grave
allegations of human rights abuses committed by Karuna. These included
statements by victims and witnesses, and names of witnesses who were
prepared to provide relevant details about Karuna’s alleged
responsibility for or involvement in Sri Lanka in incidents of torture,
hostage-taking, and the recruitment and use of children as soldiers in

Amnesty International had also received testimonies from potential
witnesses, but they were unwilling to testify or present their
testimonies to the Metropolitan Police for fear of reprisals in the UK
and in Sri Lanka. The organization is aware of at least one witness in
Sri Lanka who provided information to the Metropolitan Police and who
is still in Sri Lanka, without having been given any protection in that
country, or having been given the choice of being relocated elsewhere.
Amnesty International is concerned that this witness may now face a
real risk of reprisals for having given information to the police
investigation into Karuna.

“We have expressed our concerns to the Metropolitan Police that not
enough may have been done to protect witnesses, and reassure potential
witnesses, as they conducted their investigation. We would like to see
the UK authorities introduce new measures in the future to try war
criminals and protect witnesses,” said Amnesty International.

Amnesty International calls on the UK authorities to establish
effective witness protection programmes for investigations into
allegations such as these, modelled on the witness protection
programmes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former
Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special
Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court. The
organization also calls on the UK authorities to set up an independent
and specialized police and prosecution unit with sufficient resources
to deal with crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes.

Karuna was a prominent leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE), an armed opposition group fighting for an independent Tamil
homeland in Sri Lanka. He left the LTTE to set up his own splinter
group, the Tamileel Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, or People’s Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (TMVP), which also has a political wing. Since
March 2004, the group appears to have been operating with the support
of the Sri Lankan Army to challenge the LTTE in eastern Sri Lanka.

He was residing in the United Kingdom when he was taken into custody
and charged by UK authorities in November 2007 in relation to
immigration offences, for which he was subsequently convicted.

Although the allegations against Karuna relate to actions in Sri Lanka,
the courts in the UK could have exercised jurisdiction over a number of
the offences he is alleged to have committed:

over acts of torture committed since March 2004 (the date
when Karuna became allied with government forces), in violation of
Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988; courts in the UK can try
any individual for this offence if committed by, or with the consent or
acquiescence of, a public official or person acting in an official
capacity, no matter what the nationality of the perpetrator or where
the alleged offence was committed: it is an offence of so-called
‘universal jurisdiction’;

acts of hostage taking committed since 1982, in violation of Section 1
(1) of the Taking of Hostages Act 1982: again, this is an offence of
universal jurisdiction, for which the courts in the UK can try someone
of any nationality, no matter where the offence was committed;

war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since September 2001,
in violation of the International Criminal Court Act 2001: by virtue of
s.51(2)(b) of that Act, the courts in the UK can try someone for a war
crime or crime against humanity committed outside the UK, provided that
the person is either a UK national, a UK resident or a person subject
to UK service jurisdiction, such as serving members of the UK armed
forces. To the best of Amnesty International’s knowledge, Karuna was
resident in the UK, for the purposes of this Act, at the time of his
arrest in November 2007.

Amnesty International wrote to the Metropolitan Police raising concerns
about the investigation on 14 May and again on 4 June 2008 but has not
yet received any replies to these letters.