Wednesday, March 17, 2010

UN Chief to go ahead with proposal for panel on Sri lanka

B. Muralidhar Reddy - The United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he is going ahead with his proposal for a panel of experts on Sri Lanka as part of an accountability process following the end of the civil war in island nation despite vehement objections from Colombo and defended it on the ground that the panel would not infringe on the country’s sovereignty.

A report posted on the UN News Centre web site quoted Mr. Ban Ki-Moon as telling reporters at his routine monthly news conference that the establishment of the panel is in line with a joint statement he issued with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his visit to the country last May.

Since the defeat of the LTTE, the government has been engaged in war of words with all those who have demanding a commission to investigate alleged human rights violations in the war and repeatedly pointed to the resolution by the Human Rights Commission lauding Sri Lanka on the issue.

After Mr. Rajapaksa personally spoke to Mr. Ban Ki-Moon describing the move on experts panel as 'uncalled for and unwarranted’, Sri Lanka had also reached out to several countries in a bid to stall the UN experts panel. Last week Chair of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement, Ambassador and Permanent Representative Maged A. Abdelaziz in his letter to Mr. Ban said: “The Non-Aligned Movement strongly condemns selective targeting of individual countries which it deems contrary to the Founding Principles of the Movement and the United Nations Charter.

In his latest interaction with the media at New York Mr. Ban Ki-Moon has been quoted as saying, “This joint statement contained a commitment related to ensuring an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws,” he said in response to questions from reporters at his monthly press conference at UN Headquarters in New York.

“The panel I am establishing will advise me on the standards, benchmarks and parameters, based on international experience, that must guide any accountability process such as the one mentioned in the joint statement. Now this panel will report to me directly and not to another body.”

Mr. Ban said a recent letter on the subject he received from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) indicated “there is a misunderstanding on the nature and purpose” of the experts’ panel.

“I am convinced that it is well within my power as Secretary-General of the United Nations to ask such a body to furnish me with their advice of this nature. This does not in any way infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.”

Last week the UN chief voiced concern about the lack of progress on political reconciliation, the treatment of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the setting up of an accountability process since he reached the joint statement with Mr. Rajapaksa.

Earlier this month Mr. Ban had what he described as “a frank and honest exchange of views” by telephone with Mr. Rajapaksa. Since the ballot was held the runner-up candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, has been arrested and faces trial.

B. Lynn Pascoe, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, is slated to soon head to Sri Lanka for talks with senior officials in the Government.

© The Hindu

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sri Lanka postpones court-martial against Fonseka

By Bharatha Mallawarachi - Judges presiding over the court-martial of Sri Lanka's former army chief indefinitely postponed a hearing into one of two allegations against him Wednesday, a defense attorney said.

Sarath Fonseka, who led Sri Lanka to victory in its decades-long civil war but then fell out of favor after unsuccessfully challenging President Mahinda Rajapaksa's re-election bid, is already facing charges he dabbled in opposition politics before retiring from the military last year.

Reporters are barred from the court-martial, which started Tuesday, but defense attorney Nuwan Bopage said the panel of three army officers on the bench postponed Wednesday's hearing and will ask Rajapaksa whether a new panel should be asked to hear the second charge.

The officers did not give a reason for their decision, he said.

The army said in a statement that the court-martial would reconvene for the sake of transparency and maintaining "an unprejudiced nature."

Fonseka appeared before the court-martial Tuesday on accusations he prepared the groundwork for his January presidential campaign, which he lost badly, while still in military uniform. The charge to be heard Wednesday related to accusations Fonseka breached procedure in purchasing military hardware.

Fonseka has questioned the impartiality of the judges, saying the panel included two men whom Fonseka had disciplined when he ran the army.

The panel's third member was a close relative of the current army commander who initiated the court-martial, Fonseka's lawyers said.

Government officials have accused Fonseka of plotting to assassinate Rajapaksa and capture power, but those are not among the official charges.

Fonseka's supporters say the government is punishing the retired general for challenging Rajapaksa and is attempting to cow the opposition before April 8 parliamentary elections. Despite his detention, Fonseka is running for a parliamentary seat.

Rajapaksa and Fonseka were once strong allies in their campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels and end their 25-year armed campaign for an independent state.

After routing the rebels last May, the leaders quickly turned on each other.

© Associated Press

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sri Lanka: Secret list reveals government's media hit list

A leaked list – believed to be compiled by the Sri Lankan intelligence unit – has revealed the names of 35 leading journalists and NGO officers of interest to the country’s secret services.

The list then grades each of them according to their importance to the intelligence services.

Amnesty International fears that the leak was a deliberate move by the government to intimidate and harass journalists in the country.

Mike Blakemore, Media Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“Such a blatant leak can have only one purpose and that is to intimidate those individuals on the list and deter anyone from speaking to them.

“Journalists are often at the forefront of protecting and defending individuals’ human rights. It is their bravery that can help expose abuses and bring them to an end.

“Sri Lanka needs to respect media freedom and allow human rights defenders to go about their work freely and without harassment.”

Amnesty International is calling on all its supporters to write to the Sri Lankan authorities expressing their concern for the safety and well-being of the 35 people on the list.

Two human rights defenders, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and J C Weliamuna, are at particular risk.

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Sri Lankan NGO, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, and J C Weliamuna, Sri Lanka director of international NGO Transparency International, have both been threatened previously and are graded as being of great interest to the intelligence services on the list. Other colleagues from their organisations are also named.


In September 2008, a grenade was thrown at the house of J C Weliamuna, damaging property but causing no injuries. That attack was thought to be in retaliation for his legal representation of clients in human rights cases where the Defence Ministry was implicated. Despite demands from local and international human rights groups, there was no credible inquiry into this attack.

An article on 20 February in the national daily newspaper, Sri Lanka Guardian, reporting on a meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a group of ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party lawyers, singled out J C Weliamuna, specifically, saying “something must be done about him”.

Meanwhile, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu received a death threat via an anonymous letter posted to his home in August 2009.

At least 14 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since the beginning of 2006. Others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured and allegedly disappeared while in the custody of security forces. More than 20 journalists have left the country in response to death threats. None of these attacks has been properly investigated or prosecuted.

Sri Lankan journalists have given Amnesty a list of 56 of their colleagues who face serious threats, including some working for the government-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, as well as the Independent Television Network, Lak Hada and the Lake House Group.

© Amnesty International

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

EU in talks with Sri Lanka on maintaining trade privileges

The European Union wants to work with Colombo to avoid the withdrawal of Sri Lanka's trade privileges with the bloc, under threat due to rights concerns, an official said Tuesday.

"The Commission remains committed to work with Sri Lanka to see whether the conditions for a reversal" of a decision last month to suspend the trade privileges "are in place", said EU Commission trade spokesman John Clancy.

For that to happen there must first be "significant improvements on the effective implementation of the human rights conventions," he added.

European Union nations decided last month to withdraw preferential trade benefits from Sri Lanka due to "significant shortcomings" on human rights issues, the EU Commission announced.

However the suspension of the GSP+ (Generalised System of Preferences plus) benefits will not take effect for six months giving Sri Lanka time to address the problems identified.

The European Union's GSP+ scheme gives 16 poor nations preferential access to the trading bloc in return for following strict commitments on a wide variety of social and rights issues.

Sri Lanka's hawkish government has faced almost constant criticism over the past several years because of the way it conducted a war against Tamil Tiger rebels.

Government forces have been accused of a host of rights violations including the indiscriminate killing of thousands of Tamil civilians, the murder of aid workers and the execution of surrendering rebels.

Sri Lanka has criticised the decision by European Union nations to withdraw the trade benefits, with the foreign ministry in Colombo complaining that Europe was setting "unattainable targets" for the island.

Sri Lanka gains about 150 million dollars annually due to preferential tariffs, according to trade estimates.

The island's clothing industry is the main beneficiary, using the tax breaks to sell to high street retailers in Europe.

A high-level Sri Lankan delegation, led by foreign secretary Romesh Jayasinghe, visited Brussels on Monday for a "preliminary exchange of views", Clancy said.

"The Sri Lankans and EU counterparts agreed to meet again" on the issue, he added.


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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sri Lanka : Intimidation of journalists close to General Fonseka worries RSF

Reporters Without Borders is very worried by attempts to intimidate at least four journalists linked to jailed opposition leader Sarath Fonseka, who are being threatened with prosecution. They have been summoned by the anti-terrorist police and they fear they could be arrested at any time for a period of 90 days, which is allowed by the law.

“We urge the authorities not to arrest these four journalists: Tissa Ravindra Perera, Ruwan Weerakoon, Prasanna Fonseka and his brother Mihiri Fonseka,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is very regrettable that the proceedings initiated against retired general Sarath Fonseka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leading opponent, are being accompanied by a witch-hunt against his relatives and supporters.”

The press freedom organisation added: “If these journalists, some of whom were able to benefit in the past from their proximity to Gen. Fonseka, are detained by the police and judicial authorities, it will be seen as yet another abuse of authority aimed at silencing opposition media figures.”

The four journalists were questioned by members of the Terrorism Investigation Division this week. According to a Colombo-based reporter, they were questioned about their relations with Gen. Fonseka, who is facing a possible court martial. One of them, Weerakoon, who covers defence matters for the daily The Nation, has been hospitalised under police guard after suffering a heart attack apparently brought on by the pressure he has been under for several weeks.

Reporters Without Borders has been told by several sources that these journalists, some of whom have been in hiding since the presidential election in January, are physically and mentally exhausted. They were with Gen. Fonseka at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel when it was besieged by the army on the day after the election, in which Rajapaksa defeated Fonseka.

Gen. Fonseka allowed several of these journalists to cover the final stages of the military operations against the Tamil Tigers rebels in 2009, when he was still army commander. As a result, their reporting highlighted his successful handling of the war.

Reporters Without Borders also condemns the climate of intimidation resulting from the recent release of an alleged list of journalists and human rights activists to be kept under surveillance by the security services. According to a diplomatic source in Colombo, around 30 people are on the list including the representatives of Transparency International Sri Lanka and the Centre for Policy Alternatives, as well as Sinhalese and Tamil journalists.

“If the existence of such a list is confirmed, we urge the authorities to put a stop to these practices,” Reporters Without Borders said.

Finally, Reporters Without Borders calls on the police authorities to release the findings of their investigation into the disappearance of political reporter and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing in Colombo on 24 January.

© Reporters sans frontières

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sri Lankan war-refugees in India face struggle to return home

Many Sri Lankans who fled to India during their country's protracted civil war want to go home now the conflict is over, but hurdles lie ahead as preparations begin for their return, aid workers said on Tuesday.

Over 100,000 Sri Lankans are estimated to have sought refuge in southern India during the conflict between separatist rebels and the Sri Lankan army, which lasted a quarter of a century.

The civil war ended in May last year with government forces defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but the fighting has left much of the north of the Indian Ocean island in ruins, heavily mined and hundreds of thousands of civilians are internally displaced.

Tens of thousands of refugees, who belong to the minority Tamil ethnicity, have lived in camps across India's Tamil Nadu state for more than two decades and have assimilated into local communities. But many yearn to return and rebuild their lives in their homeland, aid workers say.

"The ultimate reason for being a refugee has diminished," said Christian Aid's Gordon Shannon. "Now, more than any other time during the 25-year-old war, is the most positive start preparations for the refugees to go back."

"Both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments are positive about their return, but there is a lot of preparatory work which needs to be done and it could take another one to two years before we see mass organised repatriations," he added.


According to Christian Aid, which has been supporting refugees living in 115 camps across Tamil Nadu for over 20 years, most fled the violence fearing for their lives with many losing loved ones during the fighting.

After travelling in fishing boats from northern parts of Sri Lanka such as Jaffna across the Palk Straits to Tamil Nadu, the refugees were accepted by the Indian authorities. India has been providing them with shelter, food, health and education services as well as financial allowances.

Over the years, children have been born in the camps, refugees have married one another and many have gained education qualifications and vocational skills in India.

Yet most do not have birth or marriage certificates while others do not have entitlement papers for the land they owned in Sri Lanka.

There are also around 30,000 refugees who are "stateless" with no citizenship documentation.

"The issue of documentation is very important and without this paperwork, they will be unlikely to return," Satchithananda Valan, project director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), told AlertNet by phone from Chennai, Tamil Nadu's capital.

Valan, whose organisation has been supporting water and sanitation projects in the camps, said both countries were working with the refugees on how to overcome these bureaucratic hurdles.


Aid workers emphasise that the return of refugees will be dependent on the situation on the ground and how effectively Sri Lankan authorities resettle nearly 300,000 internally displaced people in areas which had been under LTTE control for decades.

The government has so far resettled more than half of those who were uprooted from their homes during the war, but tens of thousands still remain in displacement camps.

Aid workers say many areas still remain heavily mined and scattered with unexploded ordnances. Those returning are also finding their homes, schools and health facilities in ruins with little power, telecommunications or clean water supply.

Most families also need support to help them rebuild their livelihoods - farming communities need functioning irrigation systems, livestock, seeds, fertilizers and tools while fishing communities will need boats and equipment which were destroyed during the conflict.

Markets and banking structures also need to be improved or re-established after decades of neglect.

But most importantly, there has to be a sense of security for those returning, aid workers say.

"The refugees are closely watching what is happening with those internally displaced people and if they feel secure and have been rehabilitated well with freedom of movement and their rights protected, many will return," said Christian Aid's Shannon.

© Reuters Alert Net

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