Rights groups say new evidence suggests Sri Lanka war crimes against Tamil Tigers

Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have each released new evidence implicating the Sri Lanka government in war crimes during its offensive against the Tamil Tigers one year ago.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters
An army soldier guards a group of armored personnel carriers on the water front in Colombo Wednesday. Sri Lanka was supposed to mark the first anniversary of the end of its war against the Tamil Tigers with a large parade in Colombo, but had to postpone it indefinitely due to heavy rain.

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Two independent human rights groups published reports this week accusing the Sri Lanka government of war crimes during the final months of its war against the Tamil Tigers, which ended last May.

In its report published Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) offered a series of photos showing a man, identified as a member of the Tigers' political wing in the city of Jaffna, apparently being held by Sri Lankan forces. In the first two photos, he is bloodied but alive and tied to a tree, surrounded by what appear to be soldiers. In the subsequent photos, he is shown lying against a rock, apparently dead, with additional injuries to his head and torso.

HRW writes that while the photos do not prove that the man was summarily executed while in custody, "the available evidence indicates that a full investigation is warranted." HRW also cites several photos of dead female Tiger members, which raise concerns that the pictured women might have been abused or mutilated by government forces.

The HRW report comes days after the release of a similar report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG report, released Monday, says that evidence collected by the group "suggests that these months saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children, and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths."

The substantial body of evidence collected by Crisis Group since August 2009 offers a compelling case for investigation of the conduct of hostilities and the role of the military and political leadership on both sides. It consists of numerous eyewitness statements that Crisis Group has taken and considers to be reliable as well as hundreds of photographs, video, satellite images, electronic communications and documents from multiple credible sources.

The government's response to the accusations has been dismissive. Despite the reports, there is only celebrating in the Sri Lanka capital, Colombo, as the government celebrates the anniversary of its victory over the Tamil Tigers in a brutal offensive that ended a year ago.

The Globe and Mail reports that Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada called the claims in the ICG report "unsubstantiated." And Sri Lankan news site ColomboPage.com reports that Sarath Fonseka, the detained former general of the Sri Lankan military, denied any knowledge of the abuses cited in the ICG report.

[Mr. Fonseka] said he personally planned, supervised, and conducted the ground operations of the prolonged battle.

"To my knowledge, depending on what I know, and what happened on the ground there were no war crimes. I can give you that assurance," he told the foreign journalists. ...

"If somebody says intentional killings of civilians I will deny that," the former military chief stressed.

The BBC's Charles Haviland points out, however, that Mr. Fonseka's denial was only of his personal knowledge and planning of human rights violations, and that it was not a "blanket" denial of war crimes by the government.

In the run-up to the presidential poll in January, reports Reuters, Fonseka was quoted as saying "senior rebels who surrendered with white flags were gunned down on orders from above. He later denied the report and it was retracted."

The HRW report says that after the war ended, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the government would investigate any war crime allegations as part of a reconcilliation process, but that a year on, the government has yet to do so.

The Economist notes that Sri Lanka recently announced the formation of a "lessons learnt and reconciliation commission," but that "based on the experience of previous national commissions of inquiry, outsiders are unlikely to trust this one. Its terms of reference are anyway not to investigate alleged war crimes, but the whole period from February 2002, when the government and the Tigers signed an abortive ceasefire."


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