Five Sri Lankan men accused of supporting the separatist Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, go on trial in The Hague on Thuraday. But their possible convictions are the tip of the iceberg in a case which will be interpreted in Sri Lanka as a decision about who is right and wrong in the country’s 30 year civil war.
By Richard Walker
As a bloody three-decade war raged in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, significant parts of the Tamil diaspora spread throughout the world kept themselves busy in supporting roles, one of the most important of which for the Tamil leadership was fund-raising. Only with millions of dollars flowing in from such groups could the LTTE keep itself adequately armed to fight Sri Lanka’s state military.
A Dutch police investigation team monitored Tamil meetings in the Netherlands. In its subsequent report, entitled Operation Koninck, it describes how certain Tamils raised funds for their ‘ultimate war’ with its goal of a free Tamil state in Sri Lanka known as Tamil Eelam. This remains no more than a dream following the death of the LTTE leader Villupilai Prabhakaran and the end of the military struggle in the spring of 2009. Operation Koninck eventually led to the arrest of several Dutch Tamils, five of whom are now being prosecuted in a specialist war crimes chamber in The Hague.
The indictees are accused of being members of a criminal organisation with terrorist intentions and of raising funds for it. The first part of the indictment comes down to what the LTTE is and does - the prosecution will have to prove that it tried to terrorise the population using bombs and murder.
The court though is not an international body like the International Criminal Court (ICC), it is a regular domestic Dutch criminal court – and its prosecutors are working under Dutch ‘Universal’ jurisdiction.
One of the accused is 46-year-old Srirangam R. from The Hague. He fled to The Netherlands over two decades ago and is believed to head the Dutch division of the Tamil Tigers.
Victor Koppe, Srirangam’s defence counsel, recently applied to the European Court of Justice to have the LTTE removed from the EU’s list of banned terrorist organisations. The link to the current case in The Hague is clear – lift the ban and the Dutch prosecution falls apart. The likelihood of this happening soon enough to impact on the current case is unclear.
It is difficult to prove that the LTTE is a terrorist organisation. Assisting Victor Koppe in the case is defence counsel Tamara Buruma who explains that “the first part (of the indictment) isn’t so much about the raising of the money but is actually about what the LTTE has been doing in Sri Lanka… that is why, for us, the main issue isn’t whether or not they have been giving money - it is actually the question: Is the LTTE a terrorist organisation or are they freedom fighters?”
The court will have to define whether what the LTTE does and did constitutes terrorism under Dutch criminal law and, argues the defence, whether being on a politically drawn-up EU list is sufficient grounds to convict.
Show me the money
According to the Dutch police report, each Dutch Tamil family was expected to give €2,000 per year to the cause, a fee which would grant them access to the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka. If they refused to pay there would be severe consequences for relatives still living in Sri Lanka, it claims.
The accused argue their donations were for humanitarian causes and not channelled directly to fund the Tamil organisation. Since the LTTE was the de facto administrator in the north and east of Sri Lanka for many years, it funded many things from sanitation and schooling to army training and bomb-making. Distinguishing what money paid for what will be problematic.
The defendants say that even if they had given money directly to the LTTE it is not a terrorist organisation anyway, it is a liberation movement.
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist
How to describe what the Tamil Tigers were and did lies at the core of Sri Lanka’s bloody internecine war. For the government of President of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the LTTE fought a merciless campaign of terror against the Sinhalese majority using every illegal means of warfare, from suicide bombings to child soldiers. For many Tamils, the LTTE was the nearest they ever came to a legitimate government of a Tamil homeland.
The first hearing of the case will take place tomorrow in The Hague. After that, the court has three weeks to decide whether the Tamil Tigers were terrorists or a force for liberation.