Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Top U.S. envoy visits Jaffna

PTI | The Hindu

Top U.S. envoy Robert Blake on Tuesday visited Sri Lanka’s former war zone to take stock of the situation, even as international pressure mounted on the country for a credible probe into alleged war crimes.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, Mr. Blake’s Jaffna tour came after his talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance on Monday.

Mr. Blake’s visit to Sri Lanka comes as pressure mounts at a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during the LTTE conflict.

"He met students and community leaders in addition to government officials to check first hand on the progress of normalisation of civilian life in Jaffna after the end of decades old fighting.

Officials said Mr. Blake at his meeting with Mr. Rajapaksa had inquired about the concerns raised over the increased military presence in Jaffna.

Mr. Rajapaksa had played down concerns saying that the military’s presence in Jaffna was only up to the level of requirement and there was no excess deployment.

© The Hindu

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sri Lanka doctors 'complicit in torture'

BBC Sinhala

Doctors in five countries including Sri Lanka are complicit in torture by failing to report torture when they treat torture victims, says the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

In a detailed report, the BMJ says medical professionals in UK, US, Italy, Israel and Sri Lanka are complicit in torture by failing to blow the whistle.

The report by Medact, a UK based health charity stress the importantance of training doctors on what constitutes torture and support to blow the whistle when they witness it.

The report coincides with the publication of the report into torture of an Iraqi worker allegedly by British soldiers.

Climate of impunity

"The climate of impunity that may have been created, lack of support that may be given, really need to be discussed," said Marion Birch, director of Medact.

The report outlines specific examples where doctors have breached Geneva conventions and medical ethics.

In Sri Lanka, doctors treating torture victims "have to carry out consultations in the presence of police, which breaches the medical confidentiality and can intimidate the doctor," says the report.

The report states that in 2007, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in the UK (MFCVT) reviewed 130 cases from Sri Lanka, referred to the Foundation in the previous year.

Twenty-four women and 22 men who sought help from the Foundation reported having being raped, states the British Medical Journal (BMJ) quoting MFCVT report.

Sixty eight torture methods

BMJ says that one piece of work by P.Perera, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Forensic Medicine, University of Kelaniya who examined the medical records of 100 victims of torture between 1998 and 2001 held by the Judicial Medical Officer’s Office in Colombo had identified sixty-eight different methods of torture.

While British doctors working in immigrant detention centres seems to fail to examine the immigrants properly, doctors in Israel have "consistently failed to oppose and accurately report" torture, according to the report.

In Italy, says the BMJ, doctors and nurses at the prison where G8 protesters were held in 2001 were accused of "actively participating in mistreatment of detainees."

Injuries not reported

BMJ report states that British doctors working at immigrant detention centres fail to examine properly or report injuries asylum seekers have received before arriving in the UK.

"This can lead not only to their not receiving treatment they need but also to a lack of evidence supporting the case for asylum for those who have been tortured or abused elsewhere.

US doctors have been found to have falsified death certificates for detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, psychologists helped develop interrogation techniques at Guantanamo prison, and doctors neglected or concealed evidence of intentional harm inflicted on detainees.

In Italy, says the BMJ, doctors and nurses at the prison where G8 protesters were held in 2001 were accused of "actively participating in mistreatment of detainees."

© BBC Sinhala

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

'Sri Lanka recalls war crimes accused diplomat'

PTI | Zee News

Sri Lanka on Wednesday recalled its deputy ambassador to Germany and Switzerland, Jaghat Dias, a former general that rights groups have accused of war crimes, Swiss media said.

The Sankt-Galler Zeitung newspaper and ATS news agency said the information was provided by diplomatic sources, but the missions in Berlin and Geneva did not comment.

Two rights groups last month filed a criminal complaint with Swiss authorities against Dias for alleged war crimes.

The Swiss attorney general's office confirmed it received the complaint filed by the Society for Threatened Peoples and TRIAL (Track Impunity Always) and was examining the case.

The two groups claimed that "there are numerous indications that war crimes were committed" by the 57th division commanded by Dias in the Sri Lankan army's final offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels.

"In particular, during this time, the troops of Jagath Dias carried out massive bombings of civilians and hospitals," they said.

Dias is the deputy ambassador at Sri Lanka's embassy in Berlin, which also handles diplomatic dealings with Switzerland and the Vatican.

© Zee News

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sri Lanka: Propaganda wars

By Sreenivasan Jain | NDTV

In Sri Lanka, the civil war of the last 20 years finally came to a brutal end in 2009, when the Sri Lankan Army defeated the LTTE. Though the military war is over, the propaganda war refuses to die out. The government claims it is rebuilding lives and trust, but persistent charges of war crimes, and denial of rights to its Tamil population continue to plague the regime. In any conflict, or post-conflict environment, newsgathering is a complex process. But we attempted to address some of the burning questions faced by Sri Lanka in the aftermath of war.

First, the terms of reportage: We travelled unsupervised in all the civilian areas in the Tamil area of the North of Lanka - Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, and Vavuniya. We were escorted by the army to the high security zones.

To begin from where it all ended - in a tiny strip of land along the island's northern coast, near the town of Mullaitivu, where the LTTE and the Army staged their final battle. The Army declared it a No Fire Zone in February 2009 and soon it was flooded with civilians trying to escape the onslaught of war. But the LTTE moved in, and the civilians were caught in a deadly crossfire between the Army and the LTTE. Much has been written about this, including a report commissioned by the UN Secretary General which says "The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones". It also indicts the LTTE saying "Despite grave danger in the conflict zone, the LTTE refused civilians permission to leave". And so it is what unfolded here which remains the main prism through which the world is judging the government's post war response.

This high security area has been sealed off to the media since the war but for the first time, the government, to demonstrate they had nothing to hide, allowed us access. We first glimpsed it by air, from the army helicopter, and then by land.

We entered through the tranquil Nandikadal lagoon, where Prabhakaran's body was found. And then into landscape of utter devastation: miles and miles of charred vehicles with which people rushed here, and beyond the shattered remains of the villages of Mulivaikal that fell in the zone.

A full scale investigation of war crimes is beyond the scope of this report but with the sheer scale of destruction it was evident that the blood of innocent has been spilled here, and that no side is blameless.

As if any further proof was needed, we would come across photographs taken by Mathi (name changed on request), someone who lived in the no fire zone, and who barely survived. The images are a powerful timeline of what occurred: people pouring in on vehicles, unabated shelling from both sides, and the nightmare that followed.

And we would also hear voices of survivors in our travels, like an old man in the Manik Farms refugee camp who said the firing was coming from all sides.

We were taken to another devastated town nearby - Puthukkudiyiruppu or PTK, another near deserted museum of war. The Army says the process of demining has to be completed before it can be rebuilt again. PTK is part of the same disturbing geography that finds mention in the report commissioned by the UN Secretary General.

The report says "PTK hospital was hit every day by rocket launchers and... artillery".

As with the No Fire Zone, here again, the Army says they had no option since the LTTE had moved in the hospital compound.

But while that may have been true, as we walked around the hospital, the extent of the shelling seemed unduly severe. Every single room of the building, including the Operating Theatre was in ruins.

Despite this overwhelming evidence both existing and what we witnessed, the Army continued to be ambivalent about civilian lives lost in the No Fire Zones.

The Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe described the reports of civilian deaths as 'some stories'. He said "People are saying various things. Of course we all to have understand war is war. When you fight a war either the enemy dies or you die. That's the game. The government policy had been throughout no casualties, zero casualties and I think that went on very well."

This ambivalence is what has led to the international community demanding answers from Sri Lanka.

But one of the country's most powerful men, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa says Sri Lanka's post war priorities are different. He said "these are allegations without any basis. You can't make these allegations. Imagine what are the more important things for the people of this country. The people of these areas have suffered, these are the more important things. I don't think anybody is interested in us digging up the past. Why should we? "

Forget the past, says the government and instead focus on the successes of refugee rehabilitation, like the winding up the last internal refugee camp at Manik Farms in Vavuniya district.

When we arrived at Manik Farms, we were first given a presentation by the Army, which runs the camp. They claim to have rehabilitated most of the 3,00,000 internally displaced refugees back to their home districts of Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Batticoloa among others, a significant claim in the raging propaganda war.

But for the 7000-odd refugees left in Manik Farms, it is hard to forget the past. They are from the worst affected areas in and around Mullaitivu and PTK. It has been two years since the war ended and the physical wounds have healed but the painful memories are still raw.

One woman told us "In 2009 my four storied house was demolished by Army personnel. They pulled us out from there. I suffered a lot to reach this place with my family. I had to take my daughter to Mulivaikal as she was injured during shelling."

Another said," My two sons have been detained for the past 3 years. There is no one from my family to earn. I have no one to help. Please release my sons. They are detained in Senapuram. They are in no way related to the LTTE, but the Sri Lankan army still arrested them on suspicion."

But what we would hear again and again is a desire to return home.

One woman said, "We have been in this camp for the past 2 years and 5 months. They told us they will take us back but they didn't. Even if they shift us they will take us to Thimili and not to the place we belong. The Army says there are mines all over our place. We don't believe that."

Her daughter added," We don't feel secure in this camp, we want the Army to escort us to the place where we belong. We own small pieces of land and if the Army allows us we would like to go back and stay there."

Camp life is not easy. The tin roofed huts can turn into ovens in summer. And to find a normal rhythm for children has been hard. But yet there has also been a sense of normal rhythms of life. One man says, "We work as masons, carpenters, and drive cars. That kind of work."
Contrary to the propaganda that these camps are being run as detention centers , there was a freedom to come and go, as long as they carried a permission slip from the camp officials.

But that propaganda has contributed to the premature emptying of these camps, sending people back to homes not fully rebuilt.

We found this again and again, as we travelled outwards from Manik Farms to judge the government's claims on the ground.

On the outskirts of Mullaitivu, in a cluster of homes built after the tsunami, we found a family that had been sent back from Manik Farms, living in a temporary shack, next to their home until the roof was rebuilt.

But there was also resilience - their neighbors, a family of fisher folk, seemed unconcerned - at least they were back after almost a year in a refugee camp, rebuilding their home.

In the village of Vattakachchi, in rural Kilinochchi we found bag loads of gravel being unloaded inside the home of a man who runs a bicycle shop.

The owner says his house fell into ruin while he was in Manik Farms, but he has taken a bank loan to rebuild it himself - perhaps even turn it into a hotel.

Nearby in another home, the man of the house was unwell, the women said they have taken over the rebuilding.

But for the poor in the same village, the hardship is always greater, like a woman we met who says she comes from a less affluent village in a forested area of Ramnathapuram, which is still in ruins. And so since she was sent back from Manik Farms, she now lives with her children in the broken home of an acquaintance.

Speaking to us from the framed window of a room without a roof, she said, "It's tough to manage. I don't have a job. Earlier I had a man. Now I don't. I was working in a shop. Things have been hard since my husband left me and married someone else."

From the poor, we would hear again and again about an Indian veetu or Indian house, a reference to India's offer to build 50,000 low cost homes in the North and East. The construction was contracted to private developers, who would hand over the homes to the government.

But despite that announcement made in June last year, only a few hundred are ready.

We came across one such cluster of 50 houses outside the town of Pallai, an hour's drive from Jaffna. They were simple, airy well lit homes, with a toilet and bath outside. The quality of construction seemed reasonably good. The only problem is the pace of the work.
India says that they will expedite this by getting the Cabinet to clear the entire project which will come at a cost of roughly of Rs. 1,000 crores. They are planning to alter the model, where the construction cost will be remitted directly to the beneficiary who will construct the home themselves.

In the end, it was impossible for us to come away with simple conclusions on the government's claims on resettlement.

But activists assisting the government's refugee re-housing plans say that a combination of people's resilience, the efforts of a host of international and local donor agencies, and the government have ensured that this is one aspect of post -war efforts which have met with some successes.

Much more, of course, needs to be done.

SC Chandrahasan of the Colombo and Chennai based, Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR) told us that, 'There has been a lot of progress made. People have gone back to their areas. People left over in Manik Farm are free to go back, but they have a difficulty in getting back to their own land. They are where the government needs to do more, apart from the material things, is that land should be made available to the poorest of the poor."

As part of the governments focus on the economic hardware of rehabilitation, we saw everywhere mammoth construction activity - roads, buildings, bridges.
And if there is one city that is a model of the government's vision for the Tamil areas it is Kilinochchi.

Once capital of the LTTE's so called Eelam, or separate Tamil homeland, today Kilinochchi is booming - the government says it's all set to receive the benefits of the Southern Lanka.
We saw just on one road, three new banks and a food mall. I remembered visiting this, nine years ago when it was under LTTE control, and coming across the rundown Bank of Tamil Eelam.

When we asked people to compare life today, to life under the LTTE, a man who is a Justice of Peace, and a chicken farmer told us that, "It is better now. There is no LTTE and no guns. If not I would be dead by now. We don't have a problem now. You are talking to us, we don't know who you are, you are interviewing me and I am responding."

In the same market, we ran into an unlikely sight - a businessman from southern Sri Lanka, a car parts salesman.

He shares, "Last four years, we couldn't come here. Only since the last two years we're coming here. Now the area is getting business, people are coming back and resettling. So now we're getting business. Even now the people aren't getting much income. In the future it will be smoother."

But as we would discover, he wasn't the only visitor from the South.

We ran into a group of Sinhala schoolboys in the shattered town of PTK out on a school tour of the North, part of a bizarre phenomenon of war tourism.

They were heading towards Prabhakaran's bunker deep in the jungles near Mullaitivu.
Here we would find other tourists, all Sinhala, wandering through the LTTE chief's secret tunnels, taking in the armored doors and escape routes.

While no tears are shed for Prabhakaran, these are uneasy encounters between the two cultures, Tamil and Sinhala.

And yet in this unlikely setting we came across a Sinhala family who spoke from the heart. A woman, a government employee told us, "When Prabhakaran was alive people were living with fear. They didn't know at what moment they might get killed. I wonder if people, not only in Sri Lanka but those living in other countries, feel the same way about what happened here."

Sincere emotions, except just minutes away there are Tamils of these war torn areas, the sight of tourists wandering through their ruined towns is like rubbing salt in their wounds.
Another landmark on the somewhat surreal war tourism trail is a Sri Lankan Army memorial built in the middle of Kilinochchi.

We met a group of young boys from Negombo, near Colombo.

They said, somewhat in jest that they are on their way to Jaffna, and that if they find a good Tamil girl, they will marry her.

Again, the sentiment may be genuine, but it was too much of a sense of victor and vanquished.

Many say that the path to genuine reconciliation will only be achieved through a political solution.

But the government seems uninterested.

They had ten rounds of talks with Sri Lanka's Tamil parties, but it ended in a deadlock.

The Tamil parties want the government to honor its commitment to devolve power to the provincial councils, similar to state governments, specifically give them powers of land, police and revenues - promises that this government seems in no mood to keep.
The government says that the Tamil parties are divided.

The main party, the Tamil National Alliance is labeled as a proxy for the LTTE, a charge rubbished by Suresh Premachandran, a TNA MP. He said it is "bloody rubbish because you know the LTTE is finished since 2009. Now almost 2 years passed and we have faced several elections. All the elections we have had a landslide victory".

In turn the TNA calls men like Douglas Devananda, of the Eelam People's Democratic Party, who have joined the government and is a minister - a sellout.

Devananda in turn called the TNA - the Tiger National Agents! He said that he is no stooge and that 'the people voted for me. I am the only Tamil leader who got more preference than other Tamil leaders.'

For these parties, India has always been a fallback.

India on its part says it has pushed hard - a recent Parliament statement by the Foreign Minister asking the Sri Lankan government to expedite the devolution of powers, the same message conveyed privately to the Sri Lankan leadership at a number of different levels. But India also has to balance its support of rights for Tamils with the complex balance of power in the subcontinent.

This week, officials from the power ministry flew to Colombo to sign a 500 MW power project in Trincomalee on Sri Lanka's east coast, a joint venture between India's NTPC and the Ceylon Electricity Board.

India is also repairing the strategic Kankesanthurai (KKS) port in northern tip of Lanka, just a stone's throw from the Tamil Nadu coastline, an investment as much strategic as financial.
It is loudly whispered that the Indian projects in the North and East are a counterbalance to China's construction of a port and airport in Hambantota in the South, and a power plant in the Puttalam in the West.

But the greater worry is that for all the pressure India can bring to bear, the Rajapakse's, who were elected from Sri Lanka's Sinhala and deeply Buddhist south, are not at all keen on autonomy.

The President is more nuanced, his brother, Gotabaya, more direct. He has said more than once that devolution is not a priority.

He told us that "there are a lot of other issues that the people at the grassroots level are more interested in. Not so much autonomy and things like that. Because you see they were suffering for so many years. Now it's the time to give that opportunity to bring up their lifestyle."

We were witness to what could well be the defence ministries view of how to change lifestyles in post war Lanka. The general in charge of Kilinochchi, Major General Nandana Udawatta, gave us a detailed power point presentation of the army's activities from promoting fisheries, to distributing tractors, to building homes to screening the World Cup finals.

Sherine Xavier, a Jaffna and Colombo based legal activist says, "Why do you have to have such a large military presence? And also, on top of that, their involvement in civil administration is a question. I'm not saying that the military should be totally absent. We understand that but we won't accept it."

The summer holidays are over in a government school in Jaffna. It was shut for 15 years because of the war, and its proximity to the Palali Air Force Base. But more than 1400 children who attended it betrayed little sign of what it entailed to study in makeshift schools or not study at all. They were - like most young people - excited about their plans for future, telling us that they wanted to be doctors, accountants, teachers, lawyers.

They will grow up in a Lanka without a LTTE, no small thing, but as new freedoms are gained old ones must be preserved.

In the end it comes back to where we began, to the last no fire zone.

As the road through the wreckage winds towards the beach, we would discover the no fire zone's only remaining secret.

Like Prabhakaran's bunker, or the Kilinochchi war memorial, Sri Lanka's last no fire zone is a tourist spot.

You can grab a beer, get some food, and walk down to the beach to see the ship Farah, a Jordanian tanker hijacked by the LTTE in 2006.

The army says it is only open to Army families, but we saw enough people who looked like civilians - Sinhala civilians.

Just a few hundred yards away, the burnt stumps of trees, where 1000's of their fellow Sri Lankans died. Surely as a starting point it could be closed to tourists.

It will demonstrate that the government understands that while the economic hardware of progress connecting the North and South are important, no less important is justice and dignity.

(With inputs from Niha Masih)


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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

UN rights panel gets Sri Lanka "war crimes" report

By Louis Charbonneau | Reuters

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sent the top U.N. rights body a report saying there was evidence Sri Lankan forces committed war crimes when crushing separatist rebels in 2009, the U.N. said on Tuesday.

Ban sent the report of his own advisory panel, which was published in April, to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, as well as the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva late on Monday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

"While the Secretary-General had given time to the government of Sri Lanka to respond to the report, the government has declined to do so, and instead has produced its own reports on the situation in the north of Sri Lanka, which are being forwarded (too)," Nesirky said in a statement.

Asked what follow-up actions Ban would like to to see, Nesirky said: "This is a matter for the member states of the Human Rights Council to decide."

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed Ban's move, saying the 47-nation rights council should launch its own investigation into the final phase of the war.

"When a U.N. Panel of Experts report concludes up to 40,000 civilians died amid war crimes, the Human Rights Council should feel compelled to act," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director.

"The council should order a full international investigation -- anything less would be a shameful abdication of responsibility," Abrams said in a statement.

Ban's move could lead the European Union to put the issue of Sri Lanka's behavior in the final months of the Sri Lankan government's quarter-century war against Tamil Tiger separatist rebels on the Council's program of work, but no action was likely until next year, diplomats in Geneva said.

'Credible evidence'

After the report was issued in the spring, human rights groups urged Ban and the United Nations to follow up on the panel's findings. Nesirky said at the time that Ban lacked the authority to personally order a full investigation of the final phase of the war in late 2008 and early 2009. [ID:nN25207770]

The Human Rights Council, however, can order such a probe and has done so in relation to the recent violence in Syria and Israel's December 2008-January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip.

Sri Lanka's government set up its own investigation panel, which U.N. diplomats and rights groups have said would be neither independent nor credible.

The report of Ban's advisory panel said that as many as 40,000 civilians likely died in the government's final battles against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had holed up along a narrow strip of land in northeastern Sri Lanka with hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields.

It said there was "credible evidence" the Sri Lankan government was guilty of war crimes, an allegation the country's leadership has repeatedly rejected.

The U.N. report specifically accused the government of widespread shelling including targeting field hospitals, denying humanitarian aid, and committing rights violations against people inside and outside the conflict zone.

Ban's panel blamed both sides for deaths. But the elimination of the LTTE's leadership by the government and its definitive defeat of the insurgency in May 2009 meant that only government forces would be held to account in any inquiry.

© AlertNet

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

UN under pressure to re-examine Sri Lanka 'abuses'

BBC News

The UN Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, is under growing pressure to re-examine alleged violations of human rights which took place in Sri Lanka.

The alleged abuses took place in the final stages of the civil war in 2009.

A report commissioned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says that both sides committed violations.

An earlier council session on Sri Lanka stopped short of condemning violations and congratulated the government on bringing the civil war to an end.

That was a move that was harshly criticised by human rights groups.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says that Sri Lanka is not formally on the agenda of this Human Rights Council session.

But our correspondent says that if, as expected, Mr Ban's report lands on the desks of council member states in the next day or two, the pressure on them to act will be immense.

The report - compiled by a panel of UN human rights experts - documents widespread violations committed by both sides during the closing stages of Sri Lanka's conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Allegations of summary executions, the shelling of hospitals and the use of civilians as human shields would, if proved true, the report says, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Sri Lanka has reacted angrily to the possibility of being debated once again at the Human Rights Council - its government is particularly irritated that Ban Ki-moon's report recommends an independent investigation into the alleged violations, something the council could authorise.

Sri Lanka has set up its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to address grievances - but human rights groups say that body is biased in favour of the government and is deeply flawed.

Earlier on Monday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Navi Pillai said that anti-terror measures adopted by member states had frequently been designed "with insufficient regard for human rights".

She said that Sri Lanka was an example of states "undermining rights to combat terrorism... And fostering a culture of diffidence and discrimination".

In Sri Lanka, "the response of successive governments over the years has undermined independent institutions, human rights and the rule of law", she said.

But Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe - who is in Geneva on behalf of the Sri Lankan government - denounced the UNHCR as being "biased... and departing from well-established principles and procedures".

He said that the government had already taken measures to improve the rights situation.

© BBC News

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