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Tamil Tigers: Terrorists or Freedom Fighters – Dutch court to decide

[MISC, Wednesday, 14 September 2011 11:32 No Comment]

(RNW) Five Sri Lankan men go on trial tomorrow in The Hague accused of supporting the separatist Tamil Tigers, or LTTE. But their possible convictions are the tip of the iceberg in a case which will be interpreted in Sri Lanka as a decision on who is right and wrong in the country’s 30 year civil war.

By Richard Walker

As a bloody 3-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’s 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.

Terror organisation
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, has recently applied to the European Court of Justice to have the LTTE removed from the EU’s list of banned terror 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?” she said.

The court will have to define whether what the LTTE does and did is terrorism under Dutch criminal law, and argues the defence, whether being on a politically drawn up EU list is enough to convict.

Show me the money
According to the Dutch police report, each Dutch Tamil family was expected to ‘donate’ €2000 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 terror 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 terror campaign 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.

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