By Camelia Nathaniel/Daily News
Mannar, February 22: The report on the radiocarbon dating test on samples of skeletal remains from the mass grave in Mannar has been handed over to the Magistrate’s Court by the Specialist Judicial Medical Officer, Saminda Rajapaksa. But the Mannar Magistrate T. Sarawanarajah told the court that because the courts had still not received the report officially, a specific statement on it could not be made.
This was revealed when the case filed at the Mannar Magistrate’s Court by the relatives of missing persons was taken up on February 20.
The Magistrate noted that although Specialist JMO Saminda Rajapaksa had submitted the report to the courts, a complete report had still not been officially received.
He said only the doctor had received the report and a hard copy is scheduled to be given to the court. Once it is received, the relevant parties would be notified, he added.
Hence the case filed by the relatives of the missing regarding the Mannar mass grave was postponed to February 25.
Mannar Mass Grave excavations
With the discovery of several bone fragments during construction of the Mannar Sathosa Complex on March25, 2018, further excavations at the site commenced on May 16, 2018. Professor Raj Somadeva of the Kelaniya University and Mannar JMO Saminda Rajapaksa were appointed to direct the excavation process.
By February 18, 2019, the team had engaged in excavations at the Mannar mass grave site for 146 working days. So far, the excavation team has recovered 316 complete skeletal structures. 307 of them have been handed over to the Mannar Courts.
Among these skeletal structures that were handed over to the courts, 26 skeletons have been identified as those of children.
Meanwhile, 12 skeletal parts were excavated on 19th and 20th of December 2018 in the presence of a team of specialist Judicial Medical Officers, Government Analysts and State Attorneys. These were to be sent for carbon dating to a lab in Florida, USA. In the first stage, six skeletal parts were handed over to the Florida lab on January 25, 2019.
History of Site
The Mannar mass grave site had been used as a public cemetery from 1944. During the period from 1970 to 1971 it had been used as a place for fishermen and cartmen to rest. In 1971 the Marketing Department stall was established at this location and people had started building shops behind this area (Periya Kade) around 1985.
Residents claim that even at that time skeletal parts were discovered, but they had buried them and constructed their stalls and shops.
Meanwhile, as the Marketing Department was suffering losses, it was closed down some time between 1989 and 1990. Then in 1991 the People’s Bank branch in Sinnakadai area was shifted to this location. But in 2010 it was shifted to its current location in Uppukulam. Thereafter, in 2011, the Sathosa complex was established. This is the site of the “mass grave” discovered recently.
Mysterious collection of blood and saliva samples
Meanwhile, some of the relatives of missing persons in Mannar said that a group had been collecting saliva and blood samples from the family members of the missing at the Mannar District Women’s Organization office in Elutur through the Women’s Organization President named Maha Lakshmi.
Relatives of those missing were taken secretly to their office in batches and their blood and saliva samples were collected where the saliva was tagged and stored in plastic pouches, while the tagged blood samples were stored in coolers. The relatives were told that the woman engaged in collecting the samples had received special training in Guatemala. However it is believed that no prior legal permission had been obtained for this purpose.
It is also believed that the blood and saliva samples that were collected were to be sent to the USA for DNA testing along with the bone samples excavated from the mass grave. This team had also collected copies of the birth certificates of the missing persons’ families from which the blood and saliva samples were obtained, including two photos of their missing relative and the date of the police complaint about the disappearance with written proof.
Three of these foreigners who had arrived from Guatemala had held a meeting with the families of the missing persons at the Women’s Organization in Eluthur, Mannar, between 8.30 to 01.30 pm on February 07th. The meeting was organized by the said Maha Lakshmi and the participants at this meeting had been shown a demonstration of how the DNA is matched.
The group of foreigners from Guatemala are said to be staying in the country for around one month and are expected to carry out the similar tests and educate people in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee and Baticaloa districts, according to reliable sources.
However, there were no official reports about this team. Officials deny any knowledge of this group or their activities.
Site visited by many diplomats and VIPs
Meanwhile, the Mannar mass grave site has drawn great attention both locally and internationally. Diplomats and other groups including the media, have visited the spot.
According to information gathered by Daily News the Canadian Ambassador, a Netherland Professor, a Northern Provincial Councilor, an American Embassy representative and his translator, seven persons from People’s Watch from Tamil Nadu, India, the German Ambassador and three journalists from Channel Four including Jonathan Miller, a Secretary from the British High Commission, a British politician and Human Rights activist, a British Religious Affairs Officer and three journalists and the Political Affairs Officer at the Canadian High Commission have made a beeline to the site.
But it is uncertain if all these visitors to the Mannar mass grave site were given approval by the authorities to inspect the site.
Further, the military had deployed members of the bomb disposal squad at the site. But on a request made to the courts by the Mannar Police Chief Inspector, an order was issued on December 11, 2018 to the 54 Division that it was not required to deploy army soldiers at the excavation site.
When the military was deployed at the site, they had systematically monitored those who had visited the site. But in accordance with the court directive, the military personnel were removed from the site. Currently, the Special Task Force and police have been deployed.
While so far no concrete evidence has been found to make any assertion regarding the skeletans found, many still point an accusing finger at the Sri Lankan military.
However, according to the military sources, no Sri Lankan army camps were located at this site though during the IPKF occupation, it is said that there was a camp there.
According to the observations of Prof. Raj Somadeva of Kelaniya University, who is conducting the excavations at the grave site, it has been established that this location had been used as a cemetery at some point in the past. But no definite verdict could be given without the carbon dating report which has now been done by Beta Analytic testing laboratory in Miami Florida, USA.
While some of the skeletal remains have been deposited in a systematic manner, there are others that have been erratically placed. However, Somadeva noted that no signs of gunshot injuries or any other signs to suggest that these people had been shot or massacred has been found yet.
Without proper investigation, which could take years, no conclusive decision could be made. Among the skeletons are those of women and children as well.
Speaking to Daily News the Chairman of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Saliya Pieris said the OMP is not involved with any team collecting saliva or blood samples. He said he was not aware of any such collection.
“Moreover, it is premature to go to that extent as there should be tests done on the bone samples in order to compare them with the DNA samples obtained .But so far no such tests have been done. My office and I are not involved in such tests,” he said.
Meanwhile, when contacted, a spokesman of the Defense Secretary’s office said that they were not aware of any foreign team collecting DNA samples nor had they given approval to any foreign or local team to conduct such tests.
However, according to reliable sources, intelligence units had been alerted to the presence of such a team from Guatemala collecting DNA samples from the families of the missing persons. Having investigated the matter had issued a report regarding their investigation to the higher authorities.
With the UN Human Rights Council session coming up in March, the focus on the Mannar grave site has increased. However, there should be a proper mechanism in place to monitor the excavations. Certain parties with vested interests should not be allowed to bring further disrepute to the country prior to the completion of the investigations.
(The featured image at the top shows bodies not arranged in any form. Photo: Camelia Nathaniel)