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Law Professor Dies in Terrorist Bomb Attack

Neelan played key role in Sri Lanka peace talks

By Geoffrey A. Fowler, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

Incoming Harvard Law School Visiting Professor Neelan Tiruchelvam was murdered yesterday, the victim of a suicide bombing in his native Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Neelan, a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament and Vice President of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), was known as a moderate peacemaker in the country's bloody 16-year-old ethnic war between the dominant Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamil minority.

Considered an expert on constitutional law, Neelan was scheduled to teach a law school course on Ethnicity, Constitutionalism and Human Rights and a seminar on Federalism, Diversity and Group Rights this fall. Neelan, who was a law school alum, also returned to Harvard as a Smith Visiting Fellow and a Lecturer on Law between 1986 and 1988.

"The Law School will miss a truly extraordinary teacher and alumnus. The world will miss a truly great human being," said Robert C. Clark, the school's dean, in a written statement.

Neelan was killed when a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his body leapt from a motorcycle onto Neelan's car in a busy intersection, according to the Daily News in Colombo. Police are still looking for the motorcycle driver.

Neelan died immediately, and two security personnel in the car were also seriously injured.

Police officials told the Daily News that they had on several occasions warned Neelan to change his daily route from home to office and back. They said Neelan was considered a potential target of another Tamil faction, the radical Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam, which is suspected in the killing. No one has officially claimed responsibility for the death.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga condemned the attack in a written statement.

"Savage assassinations of this type only help underline the fact that in order to obtain the true rights and freedoms of the Tamil people, it is necessary to have more leaders of the calibre of Dr. Thiuchelvam, who have respect for the rights of man," she wrote.

Neelan was actively lobbying for parliamentary support for President Kumaratunga's peace plan which he helped draft.

The peace plan--which advocated shifting of power to northern and eastern provinces where Tamils dominate--was strongly opposed by the more radical Tigers, who advocate a separate Tamil homeland.

Law Professor and Director of the Law School's Human Rights Program Henry Steiner said that Neelan was a moderate parliamentarian and human rights advocate in a conflict dominated by extremes.

"He has lived a life of high danger, but he refused to leave politics," Steiner said. "He was always accompanied by bodyguards."

"Part of the advantage of his coming here to Harvard for a semester was both to educate people here and to get some respite from this constant tension," Steiner said. "It is a terrible tragedy that right as he and his wife were about to get some relief, he was assassinated."

Steiner called Neelan a "major figure" in the world of human rights and said his death could destabilize Sri Lankan peace negotiations.

"God only knows what will happen," Steiner said. "It could lead to outrage [against the Tigers], but a group of hardcore supporters of the Tigers seem to be able to keep this going and seem unable to enter into serious dialogue."

And Robert Rotberg, who co-chaired a 1997 panel with Neelan, called his death a personal loss as well as a political one.

"Not only was he a decent person and a great thinker, but he was one of the wisest and most humane of the Sri Lankans capable of bridging the gap of militancy on both sides," said Robert Rotberg, a research associate at the Harvard Institute for International Development.

Rotberg said he recently finished working with Neelan on the book Creating Peace in Sri Lanka, based on their 1997 conference. Neelan's contribution to the book was a chapter called "The Devolution and the Elusive Quest for Peace in Sri Lanka."

Neelan, who headed the Colombo-based International Center for Ethnic Studies, wrote several other books, including 1997's Democracy and Human Rights.

Some estimate that as many as 58,000 people have been killed in the fighting between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, where the Tigers have been fighting government security forces since 1983.

The Tigers have been blamed for several other bomb attacks in Colombo, including one that killed President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and blew up the Central Bank building in 1996.

Neelan, 55, is survived by a wife and two sons. Steiner said a memorial will probably be held in mid-September

Neelan was actively lobbying for parliamentary support for President Kumaratunga's peace plan which he helped draft.

The peace plan--which advocated shifting of power to northern and eastern provinces where Tamils dominate--was strongly opposed by the more radical Tigers, who advocate a separate Tamil homeland.

Law Professor and Director of the Law School's Human Rights Program Henry Steiner said that Neelan was a moderate parliamentarian and human rights advocate in a conflict dominated by extremes.

"He has lived a life of high danger, but he refused to leave politics," Steiner said. "He was always accompanied by bodyguards."

"Part of the advantage of his coming here to Harvard for a semester was both to educate people here and to get some respite from this constant tension," Steiner said. "It is a terrible tragedy that right as he and his wife were about to get some relief, he was assassinated."

Steiner called Neelan a "major figure" in the world of human rights and said his death could destabilize Sri Lankan peace negotiations.

"God only knows what will happen," Steiner said. "It could lead to outrage [against the Tigers], but a group of hardcore supporters of the Tigers seem to be able to keep this going and seem unable to enter into serious dialogue."

And Robert Rotberg, who co-chaired a 1997 panel with Neelan, called his death a personal loss as well as a political one.

"Not only was he a decent person and a great thinker, but he was one of the wisest and most humane of the Sri Lankans capable of bridging the gap of militancy on both sides," said Robert Rotberg, a research associate at the Harvard Institute for International Development.

Rotberg said he recently finished working with Neelan on the book Creating Peace in Sri Lanka, based on their 1997 conference. Neelan's contribution to the book was a chapter called "The Devolution and the Elusive Quest for Peace in Sri Lanka."

Neelan, who headed the Colombo-based International Center for Ethnic Studies, wrote several other books, including 1997's Democracy and Human Rights.

Some estimate that as many as 58,000 people have been killed in the fighting between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, where the Tigers have been fighting government security forces since 1983.

The Tigers have been blamed for several other bomb attacks in Colombo, including one that killed President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and blew up the Central Bank building in 1996.

Neelan, 55, is survived by a wife and two sons. Steiner said a memorial will probably be held in mid-September

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