- 278 skeletons unearthed at Mannar mass grave
- Samples to be sent abroad for carbon testing, OMP to provide financial aid
- Preliminary combined excavation report to be presented to court
The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has recommended measures to secure the chain of custody of samples selected for radio carbon dating from the Mannar mass grave, and will provide further financial aid to carry out these tasks, it said in a statement yesterday.
OMP Commissioners Mirak Raheem and K. Venthan were present as observers. Lawyers representing families of the disappeared and a member from the Citizens’ Committee were also present as observers at the mass grave.
The Consultant Judicial Medical Officer, District General Hospital Mannar Dr. Rajapaksha said that after 118 days of excavation, they have unearthed 278 skeletons, including remains of men, women, and children.
“There are some damages to the bones, but it is only upon further investigation that we can determine if these are ante mortem or post mortem injuries, and whether it relates to the cause of death. Our task is to gather evidence to determine the cause of death, time since death, the contributing circumstances and the specific identity of the individuals in this site, and also determine if all the skeletons are from the same historical period or different periods, while ensuring the integrity of the site and chain of custody of remains and other evidence,” he added.
The process of selecting samples at the mass grave located at the Sathosa building in the Mannar town was carried out by Consultant Judicial Medical Officers, the Post Graduate institute of Archaeology from the University of Kelaniya, the Police, and the Government Analysts Department.
Radio carbon dating calculates the amount of Carbon-14 in bone and teeth samples and establishes the approximate time when an animal or plant was alive. It is a form of testing used in archaeology and forensic science for dating human remains.
The samples from the Mannar mass gravesite will be sent to a laboratory abroad which specialises in the bomb pulse Carbon-14 technique. In cases where the skeletons belonged to persons that died after World War II, bomb pulse Carbon-14 dating can provide a narrower range of time periods in which the deaths occurred.
Dr. Rajapaksha heads the investigation team and is assisted by Professor Raj Somadeva who leads the archaeological team. Six samples were selected to represent the different areas and vertical layers of the site. Human remains had been excavated from the site as complete skeletons and as comingled bones. From complete skeletons, a tooth and a section of the femur bone were selected.
The samples were extracted, cleaned, dried, sealed, and labelled over the course of three days.
Following the samples being tested at a laboratory and the results being submitted, a preliminary combined excavation report including the test results and other findings will be submitted by the investigation team to the Magistrate’s Court.
The OMP was established under the Office on Missing Persons (Establishment, Administration and Discharge of Functions) Act No. 14 of 2016, and has a primary mandate to search for and trace missing persons. The OMP’s application to act as an observer was accepted by the Mannar Magistrate on 4 June, and it has been observing the process of excavation since.
The OMP will provide financial assistance to carry out carbon dating as part of its continued support of the investigation. The OMP emphasised the need to ensure representatives of families of the disappeared and missing at the time of selecting samples to ensure accountability and transparency of the process.
Furthermore, the OMP recommended measures to secure the chain of custody of samples. OMP Chairperson Saliya Pieris stated: “The OMP remains committed to establishing the truth about circumstances in which persons went missing and their fate. It is imperative for the OMP to assist the investigation of the remains excavated at the Mannar mass grave.”
Since July, the OMP has been supporting the costs of food and lodgings of the excavation team and has provided additional funds for covers to protect the grave site from the monsoon rain.
“We have sought to impress on the authorities the need to maintain high standards and ensure public confidence and trust in the investigation process,” Pieris further added.