MANHATTAN (CN) – The former general commanding officer of the Sri Lankan army, a diplomat to United Nations, conspired to arrest, torture and kill members of the Tamil ethnic minority, including unarmed civilians, during a 26-year civil war, family members claim in federal court.
Sri Lanka, a small island nation off the coast of India, was host to a devastating conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that began when state-sponsored attacks killed 3,000 innocent Tamils in the so-called Black July of 1983, according to the complaint.
“In September 2008, Sri Lankan military and security forces began a brutal campaign against the northern region of the country … conduct[ing] ground, aerial and naval assaults against the predominantly civilian Tamil population,” the complaint states. “By the spring of 2009, Sri Lankan forces killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians and tortured and executed the surrendering militants.”
Vathsala Devi claims that her late husband, Thurairajasingham Devi aka Col. Ramesh, belonged to the separatist group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
When the military defeated the Tamil Tigers on May 18, 2009, however, the colonel had negotiated his surrender “by white flag” to Shavendra Silva, who at the time was commander of the Army’s 58th division.
“Silva intentionally and fraudulently invoked international humanitarian law protections to induce by deception the surrender of Thurairajasingham Devi, who came into custody of Silva and was then tortured and executed in violation of customary international law,” according to the complaint.
Devi’s widow says she only learned what happened to her husband when interrogation videos surfaced months later, in late fall 2009. “The videos depict uniformed members of the Sri Lankan military interviewing a prisoner who identifies himself as Col. Ramesh, Thurairajasingham Devi’s pseudonym,” the complaint states.
Before the video ends abruptly in the 34th second, interrogators are threatening to attackj Devi with a baton, according to the complaint.
“A photograph which surfaced on April 27, 2011 depicts the bloodied body of Thurairajasingham Devi, dressed in the same clothes as in the interrogation video,” his widow claims, adding that she and her three children had to flee to South Africa.
Civilians also suffered under the military’s brute force, according to the complaint. Co-plaintiff Seetharam Sivam says his father, Sinthar Sivam, was a retired postmaster, cooking lunch in his home when he was severely injured as the Sri Lankan Army led a shelling of their village in February 2009.
Though Sinthar Sivam survived the attack, he was killed in a new shelling two days later at the hospital where he was to have his leg amputated. Nine others also allegedly died in the attack.
Silva, a highly decorated military officer, currently serves as the Sri Lankan deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.
The United Nations and human rights groups have condemned the killings of Tamils, but Sri Lanka has never investigated nor prosecuted any individual for their actions.
Silva “failed or refused to take all measures to investigate and prevent these abuses, or to punish personnel under his command for committing such abuses,” according to the complaint.
Devi’s widow and Sivam’s son seek punitive damages against Silva, the only named defendant, for “torture; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;” and other crimes “in violation of the laws of the United States, the State of New York and international law.”
They are represented by Ali Beydoun, an attorney with the SPEAK Human Rights and Environmental Initiative in Washington, D.C.