Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sri Lanka steps up death video rebuttal

The Sri Lankan government has stepped up its campaign to discredit footage claiming to show Tamils being executed by Sri Lankan soldiers, which was broadcast by Channel 4 News last month.

The footage, obtained by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), apparently shows government troops summarily executing Tamil fighters by shooting them in the head. JDS says the footage was filmed in January by another soldier using a mobile phone. Jonathan Miller's report contains extremely disturbing images.

In an interview on the BBC's Today programme on 11 September, Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, the top civil servant in the Sri Lankan ministry of disaster management and human rights, said the apparent execution video was "lies". He accused Channel 4 News of broadcasting the material without bothering to check it.

JDS insists the video clip was taken during the war when independent local media was prevented from covering the conflict. "This videoclip shows the reality of the behaviour of the government forces during the war which the government called a 'humanitarian operation' to rescue the Tamils," they say.

The Sri Lankan government launched a large-scale military offensive in January of this year, capturing the Tamil Tiger held town of Kilinochchi. The army then steadily pushed the rebels into a small area of the north east, but the international media were prevented by the Sri Lankan government from covering the conflict zone.

The pictures in the accompanying report, broadcast on 25 August 2009, apparently show government troops executing Tamils. A naked man is seen blindfolded and bound, being kicked in the head by a soldier before being shot.

As further gunshots are heard, the camera turns to show eight other bound bodies, all but one of which are naked. There is no indication of the ethnicity of the dead men, but the group which obtained the pictures claim the victims are Tamils. The killers are speaking Sinhala and they appear to be wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms.

It is not possible for Channel 4 News to authenticate independently the pictures. JDS is not a Tamil liberation group, but an organisation made up of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, including Sinhalese and Tamils.

On Monday 7 September, the Sri Lankan government held a press conference to refute the footage. A spokesmen said they had analysed the footage and determined it had been faked in a way that was typical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sri Lanka’s human rights minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said four investigations by military and civilian experts from Sri Lanka showed the footage was staged and had had its sound manipulated.

However, in the course of previous week UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon discussed the video with Samarasinghe, the US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice expressed "grave concern" about the "disturbing" images, and UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, called for a probe.

Andy Duncan, Channel 4's chief executive, stands by the decision to broadcast the report, saying it "made clear throughout the report that we could not verify its authenticity or veracity".

"In that context, we believed it was important that this footage was placed into the public domain," he said.

Channel 4 News today learned that a US Senate committee has asked the state department's war crimes unit to investigate crimes against humanity and identify the perpetrators.

We understand the Americans are examining photographic evidence of the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka. And their investigation could affect American military aid to the island.

© Channel 4

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