Saturday, December 17, 2011

'Civilans not targeted' says Sri Lanka report

Channel 4

A government-appointed panel finds the Sri Lankan military did not target civilians in the last stages of the civil war, but admits for the first time a "considerable" number were killed in crossfire.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by the Sri Lankan government last year, admitted that some isolated allegations of civilian abuses by security forces at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009 need to be investigated further.

But it found no evidence of the deliberate killing of civilians in "no fire zones" set up in the final months of the 26-year civil war.

The commission's report said: "On consideration of all facts and circumstances before it, the commission concludes that the security forces had not deliberately targeted the civilians in the NFZs, although civilian casualties had in fact occurred in the course of crossfire."

The commission gathered evidence from ethnic minority Tamils, government officials, politicians, civil and religious leaders and former rebels.

But international rights groups refused to testify before it, saying it was pro-government, did not have a mandate to investigate abuses, and did not meet international standards.

The findings clash with a report earlier this year by a UN panel of experts that found the killing of up to 40,000 civilians in the final days of the war, amounting to "credible allegations" that war crimes had been committed.

'Sri Lanka's Killing Fields'

The commission went on to respond to footage broadcast by Channel 4 over the last two and a half years allegedly showing government troops committing human rights abuses.

The Sri Lankan government has consistently denied war crimes and has criticised Channel 4's footage as fake.

Acknowledging that the UN considered the footage real, the report said: "Both rapporteurs contend that despite certain unexplained technical
ambiguities including the contradictions brought up by the government experts, the videos can be considered as authentic."

But the commission's own "independent advice from Dr Chathura de Silva and Professor Yfantisand" raised "troubling technical and forensic questions
of a serious nature that cast significant doubts about the authenticity of this video and the credibility and reliability of its content."

As a result, the LLRC recommended that the government independently investigate the video footage.

Killing Fields

In June Channel 4 broadcast a one-hour film, the Sri Lanka Killing Fields, which showed unedited the graphic videos obtained by Channel 4 News as well as new videos which had emerged. The film, which was cited as “featuring damning new evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity” caused huge controversy and was broadcast around the world.

It included footage of apparent extra-judicial massacres of prisoners by Sri Lankan government forces, the aftermath of targeted shelling of civilian hospitals and the bodies of female Tamil fighters who appear to have been sexually assaulted.

The film does not only focus on the Sri Lankan government troops - it also examines atrocities carried out by the Tamil Tigers, including the use of human shields, and footage depicting the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a government centre for the displaced.

Sri Lanka's Killing Fields was shown to the United Nations Human Rights Council at the end of May ahead of the panel of experts report that was released in September.

The panel concluded that "most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling". It alleges Sri Lankan troops shelled civilians in a no-fire zone and targeted hospitals in their push to finish off the Tamil Tigers.

A Channel 4 News investigation by Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller talked to two key witnesses who claimed not only were war crimes committed, but also that they were ordered "from the top."

One of these eyewitnesses, an army officer, accuses Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa - the president's brother - of ordering Brigadier Shavendra Silva to execute Tamil rebel leaders, whose safe surrender had been guaranteed by the president.

The other new witness, who was also operating with Brigadier Shavendra Silva's 58 Division on the front line during the final assault, claims the Brigadier was ordered by the defence secretary "to finish the job by whatever means necessary."

© Channel 4

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Rights groups criticize Sri Lanka war report

Photo courtesy: CHR - Sri Lanka

AFP | Yahoo! News

International human rights groups criticized a Sri Lankan report Friday on the island's civil war and called for more accountability after the commission cleared the military of key charges.

The Sri Lankan government commission, in a 400-page report, concluded that the military did not deliberately target civilians during the final stages of the conflict as forces wiped out the Tamil Tiger rebel leadership.

Human Rights Watch renewed calls for an independent review. Sri Lanka has said that its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) will suffice and narrowly avoided censure at the UN Human Rights Council in September.

"Governments and UN bodies have held back for the past 18 months to allow the Sri Lankan commission to make progress on accountability," said Brad Adams, Asia director at the New York-based rights group.

"The commission's failure to provide a roadmap for investigating and prosecuting wartime perpetrators shows the dire need for an independent, international commission," he said in a statement.

Amnesty International said that the commission acknowledged problems in Sri Lanka but ignored "serious evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of the laws of war."

"There is a clear sign of the bias we had feared and already detected in the LLRC's composition and conduct," said the London-based group's Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi.

"It does however offer some interesting recommendations about how to improve the overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka that the government needs to take seriously.

"The Sri Lankan government must now address the findings included in this report," Zarifi added, calling for Colombo to report to the UN Human Rights Council in March on its progress.

The United Nations estimates some 100,000 people perished during the 37-year ethnic conflict.


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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sri Lanka war panel clears military of civilian deaths

AFP | The Nation

A Sri Lankan government commission's inquiry into the conduct of the island's civil war has cleared the military of deliberately targeting civilians in the final stages of the conflict.

In a 400-page report presented in parliament Friday, the commission said it was "satisfied" the military's strategy had given the "highest priority" to protecting the civilian population.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was created by President Mahinda Rajapakse in May 2010, a year after the military's victory over separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

Various foreign governments and rights groups have called for an independent probe into charges that the Sri Lankan army was responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in its final military offensive against the rebels. Sri Lanka narrowly avoided censure at the UN Human Rights Council in September, despite a UN expert report highlighting "credible" allegations of abuses by government troops.

Sri Lanka has resisted all calls for an independent probe, saying the LLRC investigation would suffice, even though the commission was not mandated to probe war crimes allegations.

"The movement of the security forces in conducting their operations was deliberately slow during the final stages of the conflict, thereby evidencing a carefully worked out strategy of avoiding civilian casualties or minimising them," the commission's report said.

It also blamed the Tamil Tigers for targeting and killing civilians who tried to flee to safety.

Widely criticised as biased by international rights groups, the LLRC submitted its report to President Rajapaksa on November 20. Since then the international community has pressed for its early public release.

The United Nations estimate some 100,000 people perished during the 37-year ethnic conflict.


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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sri Lanka: Old war torn areas still have military ghosts

Photo courtesy: Steve Chao | Al Jazeera

By Ranga Jayasuriya | Lakbima News

Past the Paranthan junction we drove towards Vishwamadu where returning civilians from the Manik Farm are struggling to restart their war battered lives from scratch. They live in squalid (tent) huts, cook in the open and are being overwhelmed by thousands of men in the uniform.

Name boards, one after the other stand welcoming the travellers to this less charted part of the Wanni: ‘Welcome to the area of Infantry Division,’ one greeted; ‘Area of the Artillery Brigade,’ another read. It appeared like we were in a military cantonment but in fact we were in the Wanni, dotted with camps.

The former war zone is rising from the ashes. The A35 Paranthan-Mullaitivu road is under construction and new buildings have come up next to the ruins of the war. Many more buildings are under construction. Children go to school, and newly opened shops which sell building material have a thriving business.

It seemed like a perfect take off for post war transformation except for one glitch–the all-encompassing presence of the military which appeared in no mood to let up its control.

The military is doubling up in the role of civil administration. This is in stark contrast to the standard way of the normalization process, in which the military gradually makes itself progressively redundant, allowing the civilian authorities to take control of civil administration.

The military is watching your every step

In the Vishwamadu junction, a young lieutenant ordered a street hawker who was selling clothes in the local bazaar to pack up and leave as the vendor did not have a permit from the local authorities to conduct business. That seemed acceptable (like in Colombo), except again, if only the orders had come from civilian authorities. But, for a man who sells his goods next to the ruins of shell wreaked buildings, such orders would be felt as sheer highhandedness. After all, there were only two hawkers in that part of the bazaar.

And the military is watching your every step. Having ordered the vendor to vacate the area, the young lieutenant turned to us. He spotted a couple of media personnel in our team taking pictures and videoing the town. When we identified ourselves as journalists, he asked for our media accreditation 11-1cards. Fair enough! But then went on to probe us checking on personal details.

“We will be reporting the details of people who visit our area to the Brigade Headquarters,” he said.

When journalists declined to give further details, he quizzed: “Why, would it be a problem to media freedom?” to which one scribe quipped that, “it would be more a problem with the overall democracy in the country than media freedom.” We left the scene, but on our return, a young man in civvies flagged our vehicle down at a military police checkpoint in Vishwamadu.

We were asked who took the pictures, referring to the previous incident and were told to get off the vehicle, at which point, a JVP MP, Ajith Kumara who was travelling with us fished out his Parliament ID and identified himself as a Member of Parliament. We were saved from further hassle.

But when visited the Manik farm IDP camp, even Ajith Kumara, who is a Member of the Parliament Consultative Committee on Rehabilitation, was barred from entering it.

The previous day he had been assured by the Minister of Rehabilitation that he could visit the camp without any hindrance. When he arrived at the gate of the Manik Farm camp, he was told he had to obtain permission from the Ministry of Defence to visit the camp.

In spite of a flurry of phone calls to the Minister of Rehabilitation, good-hearted Gunaratna Weerakoon, who in fact called the officer in charge of the camp on behalf of the JVP MP, parliamentarian Ajith Kumara was declined permission. After several hours at the gate of the Manik Farm, we returned disappointed.

This correspondent had visited the camp on several occasions, the first visit being made in the very first months when the camp was teeming with 250,000 Tamil civilians. During subsequent visits, I observed that the conditions in the camp have gradually improved and congestion reduced as many thousands were finally allowed to return to their villages. The two remaining camps at the once sprawling Manik Farm complex now house just around 6000 civilians.

New barriers

However, the military centric ideology of the government, which dictated its conduct during the past two years, has not changed much. And such thinking had helped the government little in redeeming its image.

Why on earth should an elected parliamentarian, let along media personnel have to obtain clearance from the Ministry of Defence to visit a camp where fellow citizens of this country are held, is open to debate. The conduct of the government during the war and its handling of the IDPs have been questioned locally and internationally for understandable human rights concerns. Now when the government raises more barriers against outside scrutiny, it may not look good in the eyes of these outsiders.


Lalith Kumar who helped us as the translator in our discussions with Tamil families has been missing since Friday evening. He has left the residence of a friend in Jaffna on Friday evening to go to town. Since then, his whereabouts are not known and complaints have been lodged with the defence secretary and the Jaffna police, his colleagues said.

All is not lost, or is it?

Last Thursday was the third death anniversary of Govindan Thanchalai who died when a stray shell fell near him during the final phase of the war. His mother, Nagamma Govindan had utilized her meagre savings and a few thousand rupees borrowed from her neighbours to organize an almsgiving in order to invoke blessing on her dead son.

After Govindan was killed, the family fled their house in Darmapuram, Kilinochchi and moved further towards Vellamullivaikkal. At the bloody conclusion of the war, they were sent to Manik Farm where they languished for two years until they were allowed to return to their village in May this year. Now they live in a tarpaulin hut erected near the ruins of their old house. Nagamma’s youngest son attends Kilinocchi Roman Catholic School while her husband toils as a manual labourer everyday to make ends meet.

Nagamma lived all her life in the same land since she came to Darmapuram in 1958 with her late parents. After five decades, having lived and toiled in the land, and seen their house destroyed in the war, Nagamma and her husband are now struggling to prove their residency on their own land.

Those who returned to areas east of Kilinochchi are among the last batches of the IDPs to leave the Manik Farm. They were among the most traumatized during the war and continue to suffer even now.

Any plans for organized construction does not appear on the horizon.

Annapuram, (66) a frail Tamil woman had three of her children killed in the final months of the war. Languishing in a takaran (zinc) hut, she confides that she wishes that she too perished in the war.

Shanmugam Pechchalai, a strong willed grandmother is nursing the youngest girl child of her daughter and son-in-law, both of whom had perished in Mullivaikkal during the final months of the war.

However, young Siva Kumari Shiva Brinda suffers from post traumatic disorder; and she could not go to school. Pechchalai’s other three grandchildren are being raised at an orphanage in Vavuniya.

Pechchalai herself is nursing injuries sustained by a shell attack, but she is grateful to her Maker that she could survive to raise her granddaughter.

S. Thayabaran, the principal of Udayarkattu Maha Vidyalam says there are over 100 students who have lost either of their parents in the war. About 50 children have lost both their parents. Before the school was closed in 2008, and as people fled eastward to evade the approaching war, there had been 1400 students. Now, after its reopening in July this year, 1028 students have returned to school.

There are around 50-75 students who have been disabled during the war, says Thayabaran, who laments that he and his staff are unable to give special care to those children. He said none of the local or international agencies have come to help, and urges assistance for those children.

The family was entitled to food rations during the first six months after their resettlement, plus two payments of Rs.5000 and Rs.25,000, paid as a resettlement allowance by the government.

Now that the rations have ended, Nagamma is struggling to feed her family.
“There is hardly any work,” she says when asked about how much her husband could make for a living as a labourer.

Worst still, Nagamma fears the gloomy prospect of her family having to live in the tarpaulin tent for the rest of their lives. The title deed of their land had been destroyed during the war and the local authorities have announced that only those who have a valid deed would be entitled to a housing grant from the government.

© Lakbima News

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