On Friday 2 November, a too often ignored war in south Asia came to London. In a joint operation that day, the UK’s Border and Immigration Agency and the Metropolitan Police arrested a Sri Lankan Tamil man on immigration offences in London. The man in question, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, commonly known in Sri Lanka by his non de guerre ‘Colonel’ Karuna, a recently deposed warlord from that country’s war-ravaged eastern region.
According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Karuna has longstanding involvement in torture, extrajudicial killings, attacks against Tamil-speaking Muslims, and the recruitment of child soldiers in Sri Lanka, all of which are crimes under international law.
Before he split with his eastern followers from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in early March 2004, Karuna was one of the most senior members of that separatist organisation. While the Tamil Tigers have always been able to use the long-standing wellspring of antigovernment resentment amongst Tamils to recruit fighters, LTTE leaders have never had any qualms about using force to compel recruits. Karuna was no different in this regard. One of his responsibilities was to maintain the recruitment of cadres for the LTTE from the eastern Batticaloa region, since recruits from his part of the country had a reputation as some of the most reliable and battle ready cadres the LTTE had.
While he was not initially successful following the split with the LTTE, having been routed in a military campaign by the LTTE against him over the Easter weekend of 2004, by late 2005, Karuna convinced the Sri Lankan government to fully back him and his band of Tamil cadres as part of its counterinsurgency strategy against the Tigers.
Child soldier recruitment
Then, in November 2005, following the election of current President Mahinda Rajapakse, the Sri Lankan army and the Karuna faction went on a war footing following a series of provocations by the LTTE. As a result, by mid-2006 Karuna was back in the game of child soldier recruitment with a vengeance. The difference this time, his Tamil-based group were aided and abetted by the Sri Lankan government, as I saw for myself during a research mission with Human Rights Watch in Eastern Sri Lanka in October 2006. (See ‘Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group’ http://hrw.org/reports/2007/srilanka0107/ )
While traveling through the East that month, my colleagues and I spoke to dozens of local Tamil and Muslim civilians caught in the fighting between the LTTE and the government forces and its paramilitary ally, the Karuna faction. Karuna and his people came up in almost every interview that we conducted. The scale of his operations had gone viral since I had last been in Sri Lanka the previous November. According to what we were told and verified, it included extortion, kidnapping, assassinations and other forms of extra-judicial killings, illegal detention, and child soldier recruitment.
The complicity between Karuna and the Sri Lankan armed forces was so blatant that when we asked a woman near Batticaloa town how her 14 year old son and his friends could have been taken through all the checkpoints to the Karuna faction office in Batticaloa without being questioned by the security forces, she looked at us as if we were stupid and said rhetorically, ‘They [the security forces and Karuna’s people] are all working together, no?’
A fair trial?
The UK government is now in a quandary about what to do with him. While there has been much fine talk about the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the emerging universality of international law, the rhetoric often doesn’t meet up with reality because the international infrastructure and legal norms are still very much a work in progress. The UK’s adherence to the existing international human rights conventions, while better than many countries, needs to improve dramatically in cases like Karuna.
Many perpetrators from the world’s war zones are inevitably going to show up from time to time in London. The UK government needs to be fully on board with the conventions against the recruitment of child soldiers, torture and the jurisdiction of the ICC, to name just a few. It’s simply not acceptable to just be a signatory to such documents. The government also needs to make all such conventions and international courts applicable to UK law both on paper and in practice.
Instead of suggesting, as it did to the BBC a few days ago, that Karuna could possibly be sent back to Sri Lanka because he apparently came here illegally. The government and the judicial system in this country should take a more nuanced and humane stance to the situation that they find themselves.
When the BBC uncovered the fact that Faryadi Zardad, an Afghan warlord, was living in the UK in March 2001, the case was examined by Scotland Yard’s antiterrorism branch. Charges were laid and Zardad was found guilty in a UK court of a campaign of hostage-taking and kidnapping in Afghanistan in July 2005.
Karuna has a long-list of offences that he could potentially be charged with and held accountable for in a UK court. Anyone who tells you that he would receive a fair trial in Sri Lanka, now that he is no longer useful for the government there, is simply not believable.
Andrew Kendle has been a consultant on Sri Lankan issues for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He worked for Peace Brigades International in Sri Lanka in 1994-1996
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