Tamil Rehabilitation Organization and its U.S. Branch Shut Down

by Sam Kim, 12/4/2007

On Nov. 15, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, Inc. (TRO) as a supporter of the group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, charging that TRO was a fundraising front. TRO's offices in 18 countries, including one in Cumberland, MD, were also designated. The designations, authorized by Executive Order 13224, prohibit Americans from engaging in financial transactions with designated groups and freeze any assets the groups may have under U.S. jurisdiction. TRO says that the freeze on its assets will prevent 300,000 people from receiving assistance, terribly impacting the Tamil people, and will cause further suffering to vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, any efforts to have its U.S. designation removed are unlikely to be successful, since to date, the courts have upheld Treasury's authority to designate other groups even when the designation is based on secret evidence and where the group is not afforded due process.Treasury's press release stated, "In the United States, TRO has raised funds on behalf of the LTTE through a network of individual representatives. According to sources within the organization, TRO is the preferred conduit of funds from the United States to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. TRO also has facilitated LTTE procurement operations in the United States. Those operations included the purchase of munitions, equipment, communication devices, and other technology for the LTTE." According to Treasury, because of the humanitarian fundraising after the 2004 tsunami, LTTE was able to use the aid from TRO to strengthen its military operations.

Subsequently, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), in Announcement 2007-113, said it suspended the tax-exempt status of the charity located in Cumberland, MD, because of the charity's ties to terrorism. The group was recognized in the U.S. for twelve years. TRO's mission, according to its USA website, is to "bring relief to the people of North-eastern Sri Lanka by facilitating the provision of food, clothing and shelter and Provide help via self development programs amongst the people of North-eastern Sri Lanka."

Robert Blake, the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, held a press conference after the group was designated, during which Deepam TV, a European Tamil television outlet, asked how much money was frozen. In response, Blake said that information could not be released. However, the TRO's latest IRS Form 990 reported that the group raised over $1.6 million in 2006.

On Nov. 22, the government of Sri Lanka banned TRO. Reuters quoted cabinet spokesman and minister Anura Priyadarsana Yapa as saying, "We have found this organization is funding the LTTE, so now we have decided to proscribe TRO in Sri Lanka at yesterday's cabinet meeting."

In response to the actions, TRO issued a press release stating, "TRO wishes to state categorically that all funds received are utilized according to the wishes of the donor, in line with the stated mission of TRO, to assist the tsunami and war affected populations of the NorthEast. None of these funds are, or have ever been found to have been, misappropriated for use by any other organization or used inappropriately by TRO itself." TRO-USA plans to appeal to Treasury to review the decision and remove the designation.

The U.S. branch charity's president, N.A. Ranjithan, defended the work of the organization. In an editorial in the Cumberland Times-News on Nov. 29, "Sri Lankan charity president responds to story", Ranjithan said, "TRO in Sri Lanka assists TRO-USA in appraising projects and programs needed and in implementing such agreed operations. TRO-USA itself monitors all programs so financed including field visits by myself and other representatives from the U.S.A., until the outbreak of intensified war in April 2006 made travel in affected areas virtually impossible. ... As a charity registered in the U.S.A., TRO has diligently and faithfully been complying with the laws and all regulations related to registered charities. TRO-USA reiterates that it is NOT a 'front to facilitate fundraising for the Libertarian Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).'"

The TRO received international media attention after its involvement in the relief effort in Tamil areas after the 2004 Asian tsunami. UNICEF worked with TRO to carry out the Action Plan for Children Affected by War, a signed human rights agreement between the LTTE and the government to help children affected by the conflict in the North and East Sri Lanka. According to Human Rights Watch, UNICEF had no choice but to work with TRO. "The TRO is not going away. A representative of UNICEF's Kilinochchi office, which administers the center, said, 'If it hadn't been with the TRO, the transit center would have been impossible. The TRO has a strong presence in the North-East. They have trust from the LTTE, so there are advantages to working with the TRO.'" This highlights the difficulty of providing aid in such a volatile area.

The TRO was the subject of a UK Charity Commission Inquiry from 2000 to 2005, after the commission received allegations that the charity was supporting terrorist activity by transferring funds to Sri Lanka in support of LTTE. The Commission found that "the Trustees had not been able to account satisfactorily for the application of charitable funds of the Charity and also concluded that the trustees were not administering the charity to an acceptable standard." The commission determined that the group's recordkeeping was adequate and did not provide funds to the LTTE. "However, the results of the review suggested that the TRO SL [Sri Lanka] liaised with the LTTE in determining where funds could be applied. It also found that once funds had been received by TRO SL, they were used for a variety of projects which appeared to be generally humanitarian, but not necessarily charitable in English law nor in line with the Charity's objects." The organization is no longer registered in the UK.