Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: The investigation and inquest into the killing of 17 aid workers in Muttur in Aug 2006

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Report by Michael Birnbaum QC, ICJ inquest observer

SUMMARY

In the first week of August 2006, 17 aid workers of Action Contre la Faim (ACF) were shot dead at close range in the grounds of the ACF office in Muttur, Sri Lanka. The killing took place in the aftermath of a battle for control of the town between the security forces of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In October 2006 the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) appointed Mr Michael Birnbaum QC as its observer of the inquest into the killings. He attended two inquest hearings in Kantale, on 22 November 2006 and 7 March 2007. While in Sri Lanka he met with both Magistrates who heard the inquest, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms, and the lawyer for the families of those killed, amongst others. He has also analysed court records, police reports and forensic reports.

Events in Muttur in the first week of August 2006

On the evening of 1-2 August 2006 the LTTE attacked Muttur and fairly rapidly took control of the town. The Sri Lankan security forces counter attacked. The town was shelled by both sides and a number of civilians died. A large number of civilians fled the town. 17 Sri Lankan staff of ACF were trapped in the town during the fighting. The ICRC and the Sri Lankan Army were informed of the presence of the ACF staff at the ACF compound in Muttur. Attempts to evacuate them failed. Reports that the ACF staff had been killed began to emerge mid morning on Saturday, 5 August. On 7 August ACF staff were finally able to reach Muttur after several attempts. They recovered the bodies of their colleagues and returned with them to Trincomalee hospital.

It remains unclear at what point the Sri Lankan security forces regained control of Muttur. On 4 August the Daily News reported the statement of the Spokesman for the Ministry of Defence that Muttur town was under the total control of the security forces. However, on 31 August he was quoted in the Daily Mirror as saying that the LTTE had been in control of the area on the morning of 4 August.

While the post mortem reports state that the victims were killed early on 4 August, the time of death remains controversial. There is also much controversy as to who was responsible for the killings. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has publicly stated that there are "very strong indications of the involvement of the security forces in the act despite their denial". On the other hand the GoSL accuse the LTTE of being responsible. The observer and the ICJ express no view as to who was responsible for the killings.