Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A War Without Witnesses?

By Janith Aranze | The Sunday Leader

It has long been said that the Government of Sri Lanka tried to fight ‘a war without witnesses’ when they ended the country’s 30 year old civil war. However, Channel 4 has produced a chilling one hour video, which shows government troops executing Tamil prisoners and the terrible crimes carried out by the LTTE in the last stages of the conflict. The video, which is one of the most definitive pieces of evidence to emerge since the war ended, has caused shockwaves within the international community.

The film titled Killing Fields is a documentary showcasing the final weeks of the thirty year long civil war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The film was shown to the United Nations Human Rights Council, on Friday June 3, and is due to air on Channel 4 on June 14. When The Sunday Leader spoke to Channel 4, they said the film is ‘of great public interest’. “Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch approached us about screening it at the UN. We agreed as we believe the new prima facie evidence of war crimes featured in the film is of great public interest and as such it deserves a global platform” Marion Bentley, Channel 4 Publicity Manager, told The Sunday Leader.

The film includes interviews with eye-witnesses, new photographic stills, official Sri Lankan army video footage and satellite imagery. New video footage shows the extra-judicial killing of prisoners; the aftermath of targeted shelling of civilian camps and women’s bodies being stripped of their cloths and dumped into trucks by soldiers. There is also an interview with a woman who, with a group of civilians handed herself and her daughter over to government forces. She claims that they were both raped, and that she witnessed others being raped as well whilst hearing screaming and shots being fired. The film provides testimonies from those who bore witness to the events that unfolded during the final stages of the conflict. It includes the story of a British Sri Lankan who found herself caught up with thousands of displaced people in the government designated ‘no-fire’ zone. She describes how she assisted in makeshift hospitals which should have been off limits from military attack. She believes it was deliberately shelled and she explains how each time they moved the hospital, they came under fire from heavy artillery.

Though the Government of Sri Lanka has questioned the authenticity of the video footage, Bentley insists the footage has been scrutinized at length. “The material featured has been treated to objective journalistic rigour. The videos have been scrutinised by well-respected independent experts in the disciplines of forensic pathology and video analysis who have told us they show no signs of manipulation and appear to depict genuine executions,” she said. Though Channel 4 has presented its evidence to the government, they are still to receive an official response from them. “We sent a substantial letter to the Government of Sri Lanka detailing the significant allegations we intend to broadcast about their actions or omissions. The Sri Lankan government has declined to respond to a single question,” Bentley said.
When The Sunday Leader spoke to Keheliya Rambukwella, Government Spokesman, he said he doubted the authenticity of the video. “When Channel 4 screened these images last year, we immediately rejected the allegations; technically we found them to be false. I have not yet seen the video, but I believe they are using the same footage from before. I don’t believe it has changed,” Rambukwella said. Though the government is refusing to acknowledge the new evidence that has emerged, there are those within Sri Lankan politics who believe their inaction is doing more harm then good.

“By remaining silent they are definitely damaging the country. They should either come out and prove that this footage is false or if it is proved to be true, the government should lead an investigation into the matter. We need to come clean in front of the world,” Mangala Samaraweera, UNP MP and a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, told The Sunday Leader. Samaraweera however refused to comment on the authenticity of the film. “I really cannot say if it is authentic or not. With regard to those who are found guilty of war crimes, unlike Gotabaya (Rajapaksa) I am not a judge, nor an executioner. They should be held up against international laws, first the video needs to be proven or disproven” he said.

M.A. Sumanthiran, Tamil National Alliance MP, reiterated his desire for war crimes claims to be investigated fully. “We have already come out and said that we welcome the recommendations of the UN Panel report. I have not yet seen this video but these claims need proper investigation,” he said.

Though the UN in Sri Lanka is refusing to comment on the video, UN special investigator into extrajudicial killings, Christof Heynes, believes the video should be taken extremely seriously. “It’s very rare that you have actual footage of people being killed, this is different from CCTV. This is trophy footage,” Heynes told The Associated Press. Though Heynes acknowledged to the UN HRC in Geneva this week that it is the duty of the State to conduct its own inquiries, and he would be prepared to collaborate fully with them.

If the UN Panel’s report was not enough pressure for the government, Killing Fields has only heightened the sense of urgency for accountability to be properly addressed in Sri Lankan. Marion Bentley says she hopes the international community will act upon the evidence the film presents. “It is our job as journalists to draw attention to evidence as serious as this. As with all our public interest journalism we would hope that the appropriate authorities follow up on our journalism,” she added. It appears the government has found out that in today’s modern world, fighting a war without witnesses is an impossible task.

© The Sunday Leader

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