Tamils Exact Their Own Brand of Justice
The prosecutor wore a cheap black suit. The judge, sitting on a raised dais, stared down coldly. And in the stand marked “accused,” a young man and woman were careful not to look at one another as the charges were read.
“According to the constitution of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it is a serious offense to have sexual contact with another person while married,” the prosecutor said.
Then, he asked for their pleas.
“Guilty,” said the woman, Nirmala Manoharan, arms crossed protectively in front of her and fear written on her young face.
“Not guilty,” grumbled her alleged ex-lover, Vasanthan Koolkaiyah.
If convicted, they could serve up to a year in prison.
This is the law in the land of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist movement that has carved its own state from the bombed-out villages of northern Sri Lanka. Here, the penal code is tough and unforgiving. Adultery is illegal, and even premarital sex can mean trouble with the law.
Punishments are also harsher. Jail terms are longer than in government-controlled Sri Lanka, and the death penalty is legal.
At the root of Tiger law is a stew of Sri Lankan court precedents, a handful of European legal influences and a large dose of Tamil tradition.
“We are very concerned the law should be in accordance [with] our Tamil culture, and our Tamil race,” said C. Oppilan, chief justice of the Tiger court system.
Among those traditions: Sex is sacred.
“In our tradition, there’s only one law: one man for one woman, and one woman for one man,” said Kala Thiyagaragh, defense attorney for the women facing the adultery charge. Asked whether she believed her client was facing excessive prosecution, she shook her head: “This is a serious offense.”
Technically, there shouldn’t even be a Tiger court system.
On maps, this tropical island nation is only one country. But two decades of civil war, with the Tigers fighting for a homeland for the island’s minority Tamil people, created what is effectively an independent state.
Today, the south of this former British colony is government-controlled Sri Lanka, dominated by the Buddhist Sinhalese people. Much of the northeast is Tamil Eelam -- the Tiger-created homeland for Hindu Tamils. Here, jobs are nearly nonexistent and electricity even scarcer.
The guerrilla group, known for its suicide bombers and child soldiers, now also has everything from paper-shuffling bureaucrats to police officers running speed traps on the region’s only reasonably paved road.
A December 2001 cease-fire has brought the Tigers, to a degree, into the mainstream. While the peace process has stalled -- mired in disagreements over the fate of the war’s many displaced people, and the degree of autonomy the Tigers should have -- the guns have largely remained silent.
The Tigers have had their own court system for 10 years, beginning with semiformal panels that often judged cases in makeshift jungle bases.
These days, in Kilinochchi, the town that has become their de facto capital, the Tigers have a court building, judges, prosecutors, and black-robed defense attorneys who charge clients 350 rupees a day, or about $3.60. Outside town, a law school churns out graduates to keep the system running.
In many ways, it’s a system that works well. Trials move quickly, unlike government territory, where they can drag on for decades. Proceedings are held in the Tamil language, and corruption is unheard of.
What the judicial system doesn’t have is political autonomy.
“That’s the mortal flaw in the whole system. It is the court of one party, one organization,” said Jehan Perera, an analyst with the National Peace Council, an independent Sri Lankan think tank.
The system makes no attempt to separate the law from Tiger ideology, which is a rigid doctrine of Tamil nationalism, self-sacrifice and near-religious belief in the rebel group and its leader, the seldom-seen Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Open criticism of the Tigers is rare in their territory, and rights groups say dozens of their political opponents have been killed or kidnapped since the cease-fire began.
Reflecting the group’s fondness for secrecy, court officials refused to provide the prosecutor’s name in the adultery case. The chief justice also declined to reveal his given name, preferring the name he was given when he became a Tiger -- Oppilan.
In the courtroom, a photograph of Prabhakaran hangs behind the judge’s bench. Similar photos are in most every home and office in Tiger territory. He is referred to, with worshipful reverence, simply as “the leader.”
The court system is very much a part of that reverence.
“Our leader’s main interest is to reform the Tamil people,” said Thiyagaragh, the defense attorney. “It is under his acceptance that we work, and his acceptance that we hear cases.”
But despite the Tigers’ well-earned reputation for harshness, court officials and lawyers say their law is far from pitiless.
Thiyagaragh said the woman’s guilty plea in the adultery case, and a difficult home life with an allegedly abusive husband, would almost certainly spare her a prison term.
Her alleged ex-lover, though, might not get off so easily. With witnesses lined up who can testify to the affair, and his not-guilty plea, he’ll probably serve jail time, the lawyer said. “When Tamil culture is violated, it’s a severe punishment,” she said.