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Sri Lanka war probe credibility questioned

[AFP, Wednesday, 11 August 2010 10:29 No Comment]

OWcapA A government-appointed panel probing the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war began work in Colombo on Wednesday, but rights bodies and lawmakers in the United States accused it of lacking credibility.

The eight-member panel will hear testimony from witnesses on five separate days in the capital and for two days in Vavuniya, near the former war zone.

The panel has been asked to report to President Mahinda Rajapakse within six months on why a 2002 truce broke down and to suggest ways to ensure the island will not revert to conflict, an official close to the probe told AFP.

"They have also been asked to ensure restorative justice," the official said, asking not to be named. "We are not looking at punitive justice, but they will recommend compensation for those who have been wronged."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the panel was an attempt by Sri Lanka to deflect international calls for an independent investigation into war crimes alleged to have been committed by government troops.

"There had been previous commissions and they have not borne fruit," HRW’s South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly told AFP. "We are not convinced of the commitment of the government of Sri Lanka to ensure accountability."

She said Sri Lankan authorities hoped the panel would buy time until international concern over war crimes allegations had faded. Other rights bodies such as Amnesty International have also criticised the panel’s lack of independence.

US lawmakers in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for an independent probe saying the Sri Lankan panel "lacked the needed credibility."

The letter, released on Tuesday, was signed by 57 members of the US House of Representatives.

Sri Lanka has repeatedly rejected a separate United Nations probe into alleged rights abuses during the final stages of the war, which ended with government troops defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009.

The UN has said that at least 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the last four months of fighting, while rights groups have accused the government of deliberately shelling civilians.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in June set up a three-member panel to advise him on accountability on alleged abuses, but the Sri Lankan government has refused to cooperate with it.

Sri Lanka says that no civilians were killed as its forces defeated the rebels after decades of conflict, and that it would not allow the UN or any other independent body to probe war crimes allegations.

The head of the government’s then peace secretariat, Bernard Gunathilaka, was the first witness in Colombo and he outlined his role in the Norway-brokered 2002 truce.

"I am not going to say it was good or bad, but it (the truce) was a necessary thing at the time," Gunathilaka said.

[Full Coverage]

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