UK: Stronger witness protection needed to ensure accountability for war crimes

Amnesty International today 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 combat.

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.

Background 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.


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