Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sri Lanka faces pressure on war crimes claim

By Ben Doherty, Josephine Tovey, Dan Oakes | The Sydney Morning Herald

As the leaders of the 54 countries of the Commonwealth prepare to meet in Perth next week, pressure is mounting on Sri Lanka over allegations of war crimes committed at the end of its civil war in 2009.

The Herald revealed yesterday that a brief before the Australian Federal Police recommends that Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Australia, former navy admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, be investigated for alleged war crimes. It has been alleged naval ships fired on unarmed civilians as they fled fighting. Mr Samarasinghe denies the allegations.

The brief, compiled by the International Commission of Jurists' Australian section, argues Australia has an obligation, under international law, to investigate the allegations and, where appropriate, lay charges.

Already, the dual Sri Lankan-Australian citizen Palitha Kohona, a former Australian diplomat and now Sri Lanka's representative to the United Nations, is being investigated by the federal police over allegations he was involved in a botched surrender deal. He, also, denies any wrongdoing.

The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, is also named in the ICJA brief.

As commander-in-chief of Sri Lanka's armed forces, the brief argues, he held ultimate command responsibility for the actions of the military.

A UN report this year found up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war against the separatist Tamil Tigers, and found government troops bombed no-fire zones, hospitals and food supply lines.

The president of the ICJA, John Dowd, said those responsible for war crimes should not be allowed to go unpunished.

He called on Australia and other Commonwealth countries not to allow the 2013 CHOGM meeting to take place in Sri Lanka unless the country implemented the UN's recommendation to establish a war crimes tribunal. ''We cannot … as a member of the Commonwealth, stand by and allow another Commonwealth country to ignore matters as serious as genocide and war crimes,'' he said.

Yesterday the Greens called on the Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, to push for members of the Sri Lankan government to be brought before the International Criminal Court - despite the fact Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the court - and for the Australian government to ban Sri Lankans from attending CHOGM.

But a spokeswoman for Mr Rudd said it would be inappropriate to comment on the ICJA brief as it was being considered by the federal police. She said there was ''an expectation that Sri Lanka will be the subject of discussion by Commonwealth members'' at the CHOGM meeting.

The opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, demanded that Mr Rudd reveal whether the government knew about the allegations against Mr Samarasinghe before it accepted him as high commissioner.

An official from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet confirmed during a Senate hearing yesterday that the Prime Minister had been given ''advice'' about Mr Samarasinghe's appointment, but was unable to say what that advice was or when it was given.

Mr Samarasinghe was a senior officer in command of the navy's northern and eastern areas during the final years of the war. It has been alleged in Australia, and to Sri Lanka's reconciliation commission, that the navy fired on unarmed civilians fleeing the conflict. Mr Samarasinghe is not directly implicated in shelling attacks, but held a ''command responsibility'' over subordinates.

Mr Samarasinghe denies the allegations: ''There is no truth whatsoever of allegations of misconduct or illegal behaviour.

''The Sri Lanka Navy did not fire at civilians during any stage.''

© The Sydney Morning Herald

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