By Rob Taylor
COLOMBO, March 24 (Reuters) - Relatives of 17 aid workers massacred in Sri Lanka said on Monday they did not expect justice as a heated human rights inquiry began into their execution-style murders more than a year ago.
Ravi Shantha, the aunt of one of the Action Contre la Faim (ACF) aid workers killed in August 2006 in the northeastern town of Muttur, told a panel of judges appointed to investigate rights abuses in Sri Lanka that too much time had passed.
"I don’t trust that I will be given justice in this case," Shantha said to Reuters after giving evidence about the last known movements of her nephew Ambigavathy Jayaseelan.
"It’s almost two years. Nobody has talked about justice and I do not think I will able to get it, even after this," she said at the end of an emotional four hours in the witness box.
Nordic truce monitors have blamed the massacre, at the time the worst attack on aid workers since a 2003 bomb attack on the United Nations office in Baghdad, on state security forces.
A blast that wrecked two U.N. buildings in Algiers last December also killed 17 U.N. staff.
The government has accused ACF of being responsible for the massacre of their own local staff through "negligence" and "irresponsibility" in the midst of a 25-year civil war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.
The 17 mostly Tamil workers were shot in the head and were lying face down in the ACF compound. The military said they were trapped in fighting between troops and rebels.
Shantha told the hearing that her nephew, also her adopted son, joined the NGO because he could not get a government job, going to work by bicycle and "leaving again in a coffin".
She also told of threats after Jayaseelan’s death from a group of unidentified men dressed in civilian clothes.
"They warned us not to speak about this incident to anyone," she said, wiping away tears. Shantha, an ethnic Tamil, said she had not even been allowed to see Jayaseelan’s body before burial or file a police report.
Lawyer for the army, Gomin Dayasiri, pressed Shantha on foreign negligence and leapt on an admission by rights lawyer Desmond Fernando that he had secretly been told who carried out the massacre by Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.
"I would urge Mr Fernando to withdraw from the case and be called as a witness," Dayasiri angrily demanded, halting proceedings as a heated legal argument broke out.
International monitors recently told the government they were withdrawing from the inquiry because of official interference and lack of internationally acceptable standards.
Rights watchdogs have reported hundreds of abductions, disappearances and killings blamed on government security forces and Tamil separatists since the civil war, in which 70,000 people have died since 1983, resumed in 2006.
The U.S. State Department, in its recent annual rights report, said the Sri Lankan state’s respect for human rights continued to decline in 2007, citing reports of killings by government agents and collaboration between the state and paramilitaries accused of major abuses. (Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by )