Saturday, December 04, 2010

Tamil activists apply for arrest warrant for Sri Lankan general

By Owen Bowcott | The Guardian

Lawyers acting for Tamil activists are in court this morning applying for a war crimes arrest warrant against a Sri Lankan general visiting Britain.

Campaigners hope to persuade magistrates at Horseferry Road court in central London that the officer in charge of security for the aborted tour by President Mahinda Rajapaksa should be detained.

The president had been due to speak at the Oxford Union debating society last night but the address was cancelled at short notice after the threat of mass protests by Tamils in the city.

In the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, demonstrators led by the country's housing minister reportedly besieged the British embassy in protest at the cancellation of president Rajapaksa's speech.

Demonstrators carried placards declaring Tiger Puppets Go Home, Is British Law a Tiger Law and Go to Hell, according to the BBC.

Rajapaksa's government defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers last year amid international humanitarian demonstrations about the treatment of civilians trapped in the war zone.

The Sri Lankan government has since refused to allow any independent investigation of claims that up to 40,000 people were massacred at the end of the conflict.

Tamil campaigners believe Rajapaksa has been assured he will have immunity from any war crimes warrant obtained against him because he is a serving head of state. The activists have, therefore, targeted Major General Chagi Gallage, the head of presidential security during the visit to London. He was a commander of Sri Lankan frontline forces during the final military offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

Last night thousands of Tamil supporters gathered in Park Lane, central London, outside the Dorchester hotel, where Rajapaksa had been staying. Lines of police held them back amid heavy snow.

At a press conference earlier, in the Sri Lankan embassy, also in central London, the country's external affairs minister, Professor GL Peiris, had condemned the Oxford Union decision as a sign of Britain's moral weakness.

He said: "His excellency the president has been prevented from expressing his point of view ... and that is totally incompatible with the core values of the British political system. The decision was made by brute force. In a democracy you should not cave in to pressure of this kind. The sole reason for cancelling was sufficient pressure. I would submit that there's growing repercussions for the fabric of society.

"If [President Rajapaksa] had been able to deliver his speech to the Oxford Union it would have been a message of reconciliation," he declared. "We want to reach out to all Sri Lankans, irrespective of what language they speak and what their religion might be."

Peiris added: "Only 10,000 [people] remain to be resettled [after the civil war] ... An economic renaissance is taking place. We need an effective mechanism to encourage people to put behind them a conflict that endured for 25 years."

The press conference was co-ordinated by the public relations firm Bell Pottinger, which has been retained for the president's visit.

The only UK government minister Rajapaksa met was the defence secretary, Liam Fox. The minister has in the past declared on the register of MPs' interests trips to Sri Lanka paid for by the country's government.

A spokesman at the MoD said: "Dr Fox [has met] President Rajapaksa in a private capacity. This reflects Dr Fox's longstanding interest in Sri Lanka and his interest in, and commitment to, peace and reconciliation there."

The UK accepts universal jurisdiction for war crimes offences, meaning those accused of atrocities can be arrested in Britain wherever the offence was allegedly committed.

Private actions leading to the issuing of war crimes have deterred visits by Israeli officials. An arrest warrant was issued through the UK courts for the Israeli former foreign minister Tzipi Livni in December last year. It was later revoked.

As a result of these actions against visiting Israeli officials, the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, announced in the summer the legislation would be amended so that any prosecutions would require the assent of the director of public prosecutions.

Amnesty International this week condemned that decision. Its UK director, Kate Allen, said: "This sends exactly the wrong signal. It shows that the UK is soft on crime if those crimes are war crimes and torture. It risks introducing dangerous delays that could mean people suspected of the worst imaginable crimes are able to flee from justice."

© The Guardian

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