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Independent body needed to investigate Sri Lankan abuses – Amnesty

[Reuters, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 12:40 No Comment]

An independent international commission must be set up to investigate human rights violations in Sri Lanka over the last 20 years, as successive governments have failed to account for abuses such as torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings during its civil war, Amnesty International said.

Sri Lanka last month declared victory over rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a conflict which lasted over a quarter of a century and saw tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands of people uprooted from their homes and forced to live in displacement camps.

Human rights groups have been particularly critical of the last months of the war, where they say both the government and Tigers showed a wanton disregard for human life with between 10,000 and 20,000 people killed during this period alone.

The military has been accused of continuously using heavy artillery to shell a tiny strip of land where Tigers were trapped along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, while rebels were accused of holding civilians hostage and using them as human shields. Both parties have rejected the charges.

However, the government remains under pressure to recognize calls both domestically and internationally for accountability and transparency, with the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying earlier this month that any credible accusation of human rights violations should be investigated.

But according to a report published last week by the London-based human rights group, serious human rights violations have been occurring in the Indian Ocean Island for many years.

"As the Sri Lankan people contend with the most recent abuses committed by both sides of the recent conflict, particularly during the last few months of the fighting, the reality is that they have been haunted by injustice and impunity for years," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.

FLAWED JUSTICE

The report titled "Twenty Years of Make-Believe: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry" said that over the last 20 years, there have been assassinations of public figures, killings of aid workers and other civilians, and enforced disappearances.

It cited various examples of violations including the massacre of 17 aid workers from Action Contre la Faim (ACF) in the town of Muttur in 2006. Fifteen bodies were discovered lying face-down on the front lawn of the charity’s office, with bullet wounds to head and neck, indicating that they have been shot at close range, execution style. Two more staff members were found in a car nearby, possibly trying to escape.

The report also mentions the case of a lawyer tortured to death in police custody as well as the mass "disappearance" of 159 people from a camp for displaced people.

Ad hoc commissions of inquiry established by the government over the last two decades have lacked any real credibility and delayed criminal investigations, said the study.

Authorities had failed to protect victims and witnesses, said Amnesty, adding that state agents had even intervened directly in some cases to eliminate witnesses through bribes, threats, harassment, intimidation and violence, including murder, to discourage police investigations.

The study added that the country’s "glacially slow" criminal justice system – which is subjected to political pressure – is so degraded that the vast majority of human rights violations over the past 20 years have never been investigated, let alone heard in court.

"The Sri Lankan authorities have had little success in providing accountability for abuses against civilians committed by the LTTE; they are even less likely to effectively investigate and prosecute their own forces for violations of human rights and humanitarian law," said Zarifi.

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