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Updated: November 7, 2009 11:10 IST

Rajapaksa appoints panel to probe alleged human rights violations

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. File photo
The Hindu Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. File photo

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Friday appointed a five-member “independent committee” to comprehensively study and formulate recommendations by December 31 for his consideration on 170 allegations of human rights violations during the last phase of the Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009) as recounted in the U.S. State Department Report to Congress on October 22.

The group was constituted a day after the U.S. House of Representatives in an unusual move approved a non-binding resolution urging Colombo to guarantee the safety and quick release of nearly 3,00,000 Tamils and other war-displaced people currently housed in Government-run camps in the north.

The 68 page State Department report contains details of alleged “atrocities” by both the military and Tigers during the final stages of the war in May and is prepared by the War Crimes office in the State Department. It lists incidents between May 2 and 18 that are based mostly on internal reports to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, satellite imagery, international relief organisations and the media accounts.

The report alleges that thousands of Tamil civilians were gunned down by Tiger cadres seeking to use them as human shields or killed in what it calls “indiscriminate government shelling.” Stephen Rapp, the U.S. Ambassador at large for war crimes issues has said that the Government of Sri Lanka should investigate the allegations.

In its immediate response to the report, Colombo had said that it “appears to be unsubstantiated and devoid of corroborative evidence.” Further, the Foreign Ministry had accused vested interests of endeavouring to bring the Government into disrepute, through “fabricated allegations and concocted stories.”

Sri Lanka’s Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe disclosed at a news conference here that the Presidential committee on the U.S. report titled "Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka" is chaired by D. S. Wijesinghe, President's Counsel.

The other members are two of President’s Counsels Nihal Jayamanna and C. R. De Silva and Former Attorney General, Manoramanadan, formerly Senior Legal Draftsman and s. Jesima Ismail, Former Vice Chancellor of the Eastern Province University and Principal of Muslim Ladies College.

The U.S. Statement Department October 22 report was at the direction of the Congress seeking details of incidents that may constitute violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity, and, to the extent practicable, identifying the parties responsible.

“Accountability is an essential component of national reconciliation. The United States looks to the Government of Sri Lanka to identify an appropriate and credible mechanism and initiate a process for accountability”, it had said.

It was on the basis of the State Department report that the U.S. authorities had summoned the Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka for questioning. The stand-off between Washington and Colombo over the subject ended on Tuesday with an announcement by the Foreign Ministry that General Fonseka had been allowed to return to Sri Lanka without being quizzed by any agency of the U.S. Government.

Gen. Fonseka led the war against the LTTE as the Army chief. Washington’s intention to question and use him as a possible source against Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa over charges of excesses by the security forces and the LTTE during the 34-month war led to considerable anxiety in government circles here.

Political and diplomatic observers here are intrigued over the whole drama as it unfolded. Gen. Fonseka is a U.S. Green Card holder and his daughters are in the state of Oklahoma. Support is growing from the Sri Lanka opposition for him as a possible consensus Presidential candidate if an election is called by Mr. Rajapaksa.

Gen. Fonseka, speaking at a function during his stay in the US had said that he would step out of uniform to bring the country back on track “if it continues to go on the wrong path even after defeating terrorism.”

On Wednesday by an overwhelming 421-1 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a non-binding resolution seeking among others handing hand over the operation of the IDP camps to civilians and allow day-to-day access to the camps for the Red Cross, non-governmental groups, and others who care for internally displaced people.

It also calls on the government to allow an independent assessment of charges of large numbers of deaths, rampant disease, poor sanitation and poor health care in the camps and a plan to remedy the issues.

It urged the government to establish "reasonable conditions" to allow non-Sri-Lanka agencies access to the inhabitants and to ensure reconstruction of areas devastated by the country's internal strife.

The resolution urges the Tamil people "to continue to be patient while the government re-establishes normalcy" and calls on the government to make headway on political reforms to address the Tamils' "political concerns."

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