Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tamils shot by army after attempting to ‘escape’ from internment camp

Sri Lankan troops opened fire on dozens of Tamil civilians as they allegedly tried to escape from internment camps where they and 280,000 others have been held since the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May.

Police said that three of the civilians suffered gunshot wounds, but a pro-Tiger website put the number at six, and said that they had been out collecting firewood rather than attempting to escape.

The army said that the civilians had pelted soldiers with stones as they tried to break free from the Manik Farm camp in the northern district of Vavuniya on Saturday.

“The army fired in self defence,” said Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, an army spokesman. He said that 19 of the civilians had been arrested.

The incident is one of the first undisputed examples of the Sri Lankan Army firing on civilians in the camps. It highlights the controversial status of the camps, which the Government calls “welfare villages”, and appears to violate a pledge by the army not to shoot if prisoners tried to escape.

Brigadier S. Perera, who is in charge of the camps in Vavuniya, told reporters during a recent visit that guards would “tackle to the ground” anyone trying to escape instead of firing on them with live rounds.

It was impossible to contact people inside the camps or witnesses in the surrounding area as the Government has banned independent journalists from visiting except under tight supervision by the army.

A pro-Tiger website claimed that the guards opened fire on a group of prisoners who had gone to collect firewood in the area surrounding the camp. Tamilnet said that they were forced to hunt outside the camp because of a shortage of firewood, salt and other basic necessities.

The incident is likely to increase pressure on the Sri Lankan Government from human rights groups and Western countries to free the remaining prisoners in the camps.

Critics say that their detention is an illegal form of collective punishment and warn that imminent monsoon rains could create health crises in the low-lying and congested camps.

The Government says that it cannot release them all until it has finished screening them to weed out former Tigers and cleared mines and other unexploded ordnance from their villages.

President Rajapaksa promised a visiting UN envoy this month that they would all be allowed home by the end of January.

Repeated pledges to that effect have been undermined recently by revelations that of 10,000 prisoners recently released, many were transferred to other camps in their home districts for further screening.

Human Rights Watch, the US-based group, urged world leaders at the UN General Assembly and the G20 summit last week to press Sri Lanka to release everyone in the camps immediately.

“The civilians locked up in these detention camps have a right to liberty now, not when the Government gets around to it,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.

“Sadly, the Sri Lankan Government has a track record of lying, deceiving and breaking promises to civilians displaced by the conflict,” he said. “The UN, donors and bilateral partners should demand immediate, concrete progress and not let themselves be fooled again by empty Government promises.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the fate of an estimated 10,000 former Tigers still being held in custody after the end of the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war, which claimed 80,000-100,000 lives.

The Government said yesterday that it was seeking advice from the United States on how to deal with the detained former Tigers.

Gamini Godakanda, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, said that Mohan Peiris, the Attorney-General, and the ministry secretary, Suhada Gamlath, had left for the US to study how it handled terrorist suspects.

They are expected to meet officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the Justice Department, he said.

© Times Online

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