LTTE and Tamil Nadu Fishermen

India, Sri Lankan Navy, LTTE and Tamil Nadu Fishermen

The Maria Episode and Investigation

Usha Ramanathan

TAMIL TRIBUNE, May 2007 (ID. 2007-05-01); Update: 2012-09
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OUTLINE

Abbreviations

1. Background

2. A Boat Named Maria

3. Reality Check: An Analysis of Police Conclusions

4. Eyewitness Identification

5. What is the Evidence Against LTTE?

6. What Could Have Happened?

7. Why Would India Frame LTTE?

Update (September 2012) - provides additional information

ABBREVIATIONS

AIADMK - All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagam

BJP - Bharatiya Janata Party

CPI - Communist Party of India

DMDK - Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam

DMK - Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

DPI - Dalit Panthers of India (known as "Viduthalai Siruththakal" in Tamil)

LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

MDMK - Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

PMKI - Pataali Makkal Katchi\

1. Background

Sri Lankan Navy has been shooting and killing Tamilnadu fishermen for over 15 years. In spite of repeated requests from Tamil Nadu chief ministers (M. Karunanidhi and J. Jeyalalithaa), Indian government had done nothing effective to put an end to it. In early 2007, as the number of killings increased, pressure mounted on the Indian government to do something the stop the killings. Tamilnadu chief minister repeatedly wrote to the Indian prime minister as usual. The main political parties (DMK, AIADMK, PMK, MDMK, Congress Party, BJP, DPI, DMDK and CPI) asked the Indian government to act. DMK and BJP held protest demonstrations demanding action. Fishermen also went on a one-day strike and fast. As the heat was on the Indian government to do something to stop the Sri Lankan Navy, India's Chief of the Naval Staff (Admiral Sureesh Mehta) and Naval Officer-in-Charge of Tamil Nadu area (P. E. Vanhaltren) issued statements that it was not the Sri Lankan Navy but may be the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Nadu fishermen fighting amongst themselves and killing each other. No one in Tamil Nadu believed those excuses. Demand for action against the Sri Lankan Navy continued. It was under these circumstances the episode of a boat named Maria occurred.

2. A Boat Named Maria

March 29, 2007:

Eight Tamil Nadu fishermen were in the sea on their boat Red Sun. Suddenly two boats came towards them. Each boat carried about eight men. One boat had the name Maria painted on it. The men shot at the Tamilnadu fishermen. Three fishermen fell into the sea and drowned (presumed dead). Two died of injuries. The three surviving fishermen brought the two bodies home. Survivors told that their attackers did not wear any uniform. Indian Navy and Coast Guard launched an extensive air and sea search for the boat Maria. More  ships were brought in to carry out the search for Maria. (It is noteworthy that, in the past 100 or so shootings where survivors accused the Sri Lankan Navy, no such extensive sea and air search operation was launched.) All newspapers in Tamil Nadu and a number of them in rest of India and Sri Lanka carried the news about the boat Maria and the extensive search operation by Indian Navy and Coast Guard.

April 11, 2007:

Indian Coast Guard found a boat with the name Maria painted on it off Tutucorin Coast, Tamil Nadu. According to Indian officials the boat carrying six Sri Lankan Tamils had some snag and six Tamil Nadu fishermen who saw them in the sea were helping them. A Coast Guard vessel saw this and detained the Sri Lankan Tamils and the boat. The six Sri Lankan Tamils in the boat were handed over to Tamil Nadu police. The fishermen who survived the March 29 shooting were shown the captured boat Maria and the six Sri Lankan Tamils. They told police that the boat was not the one that attacked them (although it had the name Maria painted on it) and also the six men were not their attackers. So the killings of March 29 cannot be pinned on the six Sri Lankan Tamils. So they were held for violation of Indian Passports Act (essentially, entering Indian territorial waters without permission). [Tutucorin is known as Thoothukudi in Tamil.]

April 23, 2007:

The case was transferred to Q Branch of Tamil Nadu Police. This is the branch that investigates cases associated with extremist activities (including LTTE activities). Under Q Branch interrogation, the six Sri Lankan Tamils allegedly told them that: (1) They were LTTE cadres of the sea wing (The Sea Tigers). (2) They were smuggling weapons and ammunition for LTTE. (3) The boat Maria was the same boat that attacked (shot and killed) the Tamil Nadu fishermen On March 29. (4) Some other LTTE cadres were smuggling weapons and ammunition using Maria on that day and they shot the fishermen suspecting them to be spying on them.

April 27-28, 2007:

Many newspapers in India and Sri Lanka carried headline news that LTTE was responsible for the killing of five Tamilnadu fishermen.

3. Reality Check: An Analysis of Police Conclusions

Let us start with the assumption that it was LTTE cadres who attacked Tamil Nadu fishermen on March 29 and they were in a boat painted with the name Maria. Almost all major newspapers in Tamil Nadu, rest of India and Sri Lanka carried the news that a boat named Maria was responsible for killing Tamil Nadu fishermen and an extensive Indian Navy and Coast Guard sea and air search for Maria was underway. So LTTE knew that Maria was suspect and there was a search for it. Will they send the same boat to carry on weapons smuggling in an area not far from where they know air and sea search operations are going on? Will they not at the least remove the name Maria and paint another name on it? What the police say does not pass the reality check. What they say cannot be true. It smells of framing the LTTE to absolve the Sri Lankan Navy. It can only be that the Indian government is framing the LTTE and absolving the Sri Lankan Navy, in order to remove the pressure from Tamil Nadu to act against Sri Lankan Navy for shooting and killing its fishermen.

4. Eyewitness Identification

The most important piece of evidence that clears LTTE of the killings is the statement by fishermen who survived the March 29 shooting. They were shown the boat and the six Sri Lankan Tamils detained on April 11. They told police that it was not the boat that attacked them on March 29. So, on what evidence, did police reach the conclusion that LTTE was responsible for the killing?

5. What is the Evidence Against LTTE?

Given the survivors' statement that the detained boat was not the one that attacked them, what is the basis for the police to say that it was the same boat that attacked and killed the fishermen on March 29? Police has only two pieces of evidence: (1) The name Maria is painted on the boat, (2) The six Sri Lankan Tamils in the boat tell police under interrogation that this was the boat that carried the men who killed the fishermen.

Let us look at these two pieces of evidence with a critical eye: (1) Boats do not have unique names; a number of boats can have the same name. Anyone can paint any name on a boat. (2) Experts say that you can make prisoners say anything you want them to say under torture. Prisoners can also be induced to say things in exchange for lenient sentences and better prison conditions. All that the prisoners could say is that they heard that some LTTE cadres killed Tamil Nadu fishermen. They did not see it themselves. This is what is called hearsay evidence. That is, somebody heard something about a crime and they have no first hand knowledge of the crime (they were not there, they did not see it). Dictionary definition for hearsay is "unverified information acquired from another".

In short, no impartial judge would ever convict someone of murder on the basis of statements made by a group of prisoners and a name painted on a boat, in spite of survivors' testimony that the boat that attacked them was not the same.

6. What Could Have Happened?

March 29 survivors' identification of the boat as one painted with the name Maria gives Indian government an opportunity to frame LTTE and absolve Sri Lanka Navy. India paints the name Maria on a boat, puts six Sri Lankan Tamils in its custody and asks them to sail into the sea. (There are many Sri Lankan Tamils in Indian custody.) Then the Indian Coast Guard arrests them in the presence of some Tamil Nadu fishermen who happened to be around that location at that time. The six Sri Lankan Tamils were asked to say that LTTE was responsible for the March 29 killings, in exchange for better prison conditions or reduced sentences for whatever reasons they were under custody. Or, they were tortured to say so.

However, India encountered a hurdle. The surviving fishermen of the March 29 shooting said that the boat detained on April 11 was not the boat that attacked them. This is the only solid evidence in this case but it is brushed aside because it does not support Indian attempt to pin the killings on LTTE and absolve the Sri Lankan Navy.

This is likely what India did. Even if what I say here in this section (Section 6) was not the scenario, one thing is certain. It did not happen as the police say, because of reasons discussed in Section 3, 4 and 5.

7. Why Would India Frame LTTE?

Why would India frame LTTE for the killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen? By putting the blame on someone other than the Sri Lankan Navy, Indian government hopes that the government, politicians and people of Tamil Nadu would no longer demand that India act sternly against the Sri Lankan Navy--something that the Indian government has been refusing to do for over 15 years of killings [Reference 1]. Why else would the Indian government disbelieve over 100 independent, separate eyewitness reports of surviving fishermen saying that the Sri Lankan Navy was shooting at them, and believe the statement of a group of six prisoners pointing to someone else? Why else would police ignore the one piece of hard evidence in the case--survivor's statement that the boat in Indian custody was not the boat that attacked them?

Update (September 2012)

More than five years have passed since the above article was published. This writer has not seen any news report that the arrested suspects were brought before court or convicted. In the opinion of this writer, the arrests served a useful purpose for the Indian government; deflect attention from the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian government nothing effective to stop it. If they were, in fact, guilty why were they not convicted?

This is not the first time that the Indian government tried to deflect attention away from the Sri Lankan Navy to others. Read what happened in 1997 in Reference 2. Then also India tried to pint the finger at LTTE.

LTTE lost the war in 2009 and there was no longer the Sea Tigers (LTTE naval wing). Even after the demise of the LTTE navy, when pressured to act against the Sri Lankan Navy, India tries to find other scapegoats [Reference 3].


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REFERENCES

1. Collection of Articles Killings of Tamil Nadu Fishermen in the Sea

2. Gujral and the Fishermen (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, December 1997 (15 KB)

3. Who is Killing Tamil Nadu Fishermen and Where? (Sri Lanka and India) (by Usha Ramanathan), TAMIL TRIBUNE, May 2012 (16 KB)

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