The Australian government came under pressure yesterday from rights groups and lawmakers to investigate Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia Thisara Samarasinghe, a former commander of the Sri Lankan navy, for war crimes, risking a diplomatic row ahead of a summit of leaders from 54 Commonwealth nations next week.
The International Commission of Jurists’ (ICJ) Australian section has handed police direct and credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lanka Navy during the last stages of the bloody civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, the Age newspaper said, citing unidentified sources.
Samarasinghe was the navy’s eastern and then northern areas commander, as well as chief of staff, in the last months of the war, during which naval ships allegedly fired on civilians as they fled the conflict, the paper quoted the ICJ as saying.
“The report ... is extremely serious,” said Senator Lee Rhiannon from Australia’s Greens Party, which backs Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government.
“With a delegation from Sri Lanka, headed up by their [Sri Lankan] President Mahinda Rajapaksa due to arrive shortly in Perth [for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting], the Australian government can no longer refuse to take action,” he said.
Samarasinghe told the Age that all of his and the navy’s actions in the final months of fighting were legal under the rules of conflict.
“There is no truth whatsoever of allegations of misconduct or illegal behavior. The Sri Lanka Navy did not fire at civilians during any stage and all action was taken to save the lives [of] civilians from the clutches of terrorists,” he said.
There was no evidence Samarasinghe was directly involved in or ordered shelling, the Age said, but the submission before Australian police stated that military superiors held “a command responsibility” for the actions of subordinates.
Amnesty International last month said between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians were killed in the war’s last months, but a national inquiry has failed so far to investigate war crimes by both the army and Tamil rebels.
Sri Lanka deflected a Western-led push for a war crimes investigation at recent UN Human Rights Council sessions. Western nations are still calling for an independent probe into the killing thousands of civilians in May 2009.
A UN advisory panel’s report has said there is “credible evidence” that both sides committed war crimes, which the government hotly contests.
Canada has publicly criticized Sri Lanka over its human rights record, setting the scene for a confrontation at the Commonwealth summit next week.
Rhiannon said Australia should follow the lead of the British and Canadian prime ministers, who have both spoken about Sri Lankan war crimes.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd would not immediately comment on the accusations as they were with police, but a spokeswoman for Rudd said Australia had already asked Sri Lanka to respond to the UN.
While Sri Lanka is not on the official agenda for the Commonwealth summit, Australia expects the issue to come up among leaders as Colombo is scheduled to host the Commonwealth meeting in 2013, she said.
“Australia takes allegations and investigations of war crimes seriously,” the spokeswoman said.
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