An international human rights campaigner who had defied intimidation to canvass against LTTE child recruitment in Sri Lanka said this week that she felt gratified her work had helped to convict five Tamil Tiger operatives in Europe. The Court of Appeal in The Hague has sentenced the five men for their membership in, and fundraising activities [...]


The Hague sentences five Tigers for fundraising

By Namini Wijedasa

An international human rights campaigner who had defied intimidation to canvass against LTTE child recruitment in Sri Lanka said this week that she felt gratified her work had helped to convict five Tamil Tiger operatives in Europe. The Court of Appeal in The Hague has sentenced the five men for their membership in, and fundraising activities for, a terrorist organisation. In 2011, the District Court of the Hague court had found them guilty only of fundraising.

Jo Becker

In a judgment published in May 2015, however, the Court of Appeal decided that the LTTE existed “out of an international network of national associations” and was an organisation with “the intent of committing terrorist attacks, war crimes and crimes against humanity”—including child conscription. The agents have not been identified by name. They will now serve prison terms ranging from nineteen months to six years.

“Sometimes victories take time,” reflected Jo Becker, Advocacy Director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a dispatch on September 3, 2015. Evidence collated by Ms. Becker and two HRW colleagues had greatly contributed towards the fresh conviction.

“The use of child soldiers is continuing in over a dozen countries around the world,” she told the Sunday Times from New York, via Skype “It is important that the commanders who are responsible and those who support those groups realise that this is a war crime and they could be held accountable.”

“Regardless of the grievances or abuses that a group or community has experienced, there is no excuse for exploiting children in this fashion,” held Ms. Becker, who has written several reports on children recruitment around the world.  The Court of Appeal’s judgment is a powerful tool to help prevent the exploitation of children, Ms. Becker states: “The decision is also a reminder that the wheels of justice may turn slowly, but for grave international crimes, they don’t stop turning.”

Up until now, individual commanders have been convicted for the war crimes of recruiting and using child soldiers in some national courts and in international tribunals like the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court, Ms. Becker told the Sunday Times. “But to my knowledge this is the first time that individuals who raised money for an organisation committing the war crime of using child soldiers have been held accountable,” she said.

In November 2004, Ms. Becker and two colleagues released a publication titled “Living in Fear” that documented forced LTTE child conscription particularly during the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire. Another report, called “Funding the Final War”, was issued in 2006. It addressed LTTE intimidation and extortion in the Tamil diaspora.

Ms. Becker faced down threats to carry out research and advocacy. “I went to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2004 with two colleagues from Human Rights Watch,” she said. “It was during the ceasefire but the LTTE was recruiting aggressively, including large numbers of children. We interviewed several dozen children who had been recruited but released in the battle between Karuna and the Wanni faction.”“It was actually a large number of girls,” she recalled. “Many were teenagers. Some were quite young, 12 or 13 (years of age).” The researchers learnt how there was “unrelenting pressure” on Tamil families from the LTTE.

“Many families told you that the LTTE would come repeatedly to their homes,” Ms. Becker related. “First, they’d say ‘It was your duty as a Tamil to give a child to the cause’. Or, ‘If you consider yourself a Tamil, you have to give a child’. If it was not done voluntarily, the pressure would increase. They would come back and say ‘If you don’t give a child voluntarily, we will take one by force’ ”.

The research was conducted primarily in Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the Eastern Province. “There were cases of children literally abducted either from their homes in the middle of the night or as they were walking home after classes,” Ms. Becker said.
Their stories were documented and published in the HRW’s “Living in Fear” report. For instance, a 15-year-old girl was abducted along with 15 of her classmates as they walked to tuition. “Each of their families had been told they had to hand over a child, first through letters, then through visits from the LTTE,” Ms. Becker said. “They had refused. When the girls were abducted, they were told they had been taken because their families didn’t give a child voluntarily.”

“Sakuntala” (name changed in the report) told Ms. Becker that after receiving a letter demanding a child her family decided to leave the area. The LTTE then burned down their house, as well as those of other families that had refused to give up a child. The family returned five months later. Within a week, the Tigers were back, looking for the girl, aged 15. Her parents refused to give her up. But “Sakuntala” was so afraid they would take her sister that she agreed to go.

Several years later, in early 2011, Ms. Becker was contacted by a Dutch prosecutor. He said they were charging five individuals with fundraising for the LTTE. “They were aware of my research,” she said. “He indicated that they were not only prosecuting these five persons for fundraising but also charging them with actively supporting an organisation that was committing war crimes.”

This was unique. There had been previous trials and convictions of LTTE members who had been fundraising. But this was the first time anyone was trying to prosecute them for war crimes and human rights abuses. The defendants were living in the Netherlands. According to Pieter Rademakers, Legal Advisor at the Netherlands Public Prosecution Service, they occupied leading roles in the Dutch branch. One was found to be a key figure on an international level.

Their activities in the Netherlands mainly existed out of organising fundraising events for the armed struggle by, for example, organizing illegal lotteries, during which the contributors were “under very heavy pressure” to contribute, Mr. Rademakers states on his website. The five subsequently laundered the collected money and shipped it in a “more or less devious manner” to Sri Lanka.
The Court of Appeal heard over 50 witnesses including, according to Ms. Becker, 20 Dutch Tamils who agreed to testify about the LTTE’s fundraising activities. The defendants were collecting monies in the Netherlands as well as across Europe. One had gathered over Euros 100 million in five years. “I only found that out after I got involved in the case,” Ms Becker said. “I didn’t know that in the beginning.”

The investigating judge in the case visited Sri Lanka twice to interview witnesses. Ms Becker went to The Hague three times. She met the prosecutor and talked about her research, including studies into fundraising and extortion by the LTTE diaspora in Canada and Britain. “They had quite a bit of evidence on their own from witnesses in the Netherlands,” she remembers. “They were more interested in hearing my evidence about recruitment of children and child soldiers.” I She shared stories children had told me “of brutal military training and being given cyanide capsules with instructions that they should bite the capsule rather than allow themselves to be captured by the enemy”.

On one occasion, she testified before the investigating judge in the presence of the defendants’ attorney. The lawyer had filed a motion to compel her to reveal her sources; to say how she and her colleagues had made contact with child soldiers; to give out names of organisations they had worked with on the ground, and so on. “We had promised all of them confidentiality,” Ms. Becker said. “Thankfully, the judge recognised that.” She found the process fascinating. The first trial was completed in October 2011. All five were convicted of fundraising and sentenced to two to five years in prison. But they were not found guilty of the war crimes charge.

“I was disappointed but I wasn’t entirely surprised,” Ms. Becker said. It was only a few weeks ago that she learned that the case had been appealed and that a fresh conviction was served—this time embracing the charge supporting an organisation that was carrying out war crimes.

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