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Atrocities in Sri Lanka – 7.30 – ABC

[MISC, Tuesday, 14 June 2011 12:50 No Comment]

Fresh evidence has emerged of alleged war crimes during the Sri Lankan civil war. Sarah Dingle reports.

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: 7.30 has obtained exclusive material, allegedly showing evidence of war crimes at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, two years ago.

The photos and video are believed to have come from the mobile phone of a Sri Lankan soldier and were apparently taken as trophy shots.

The civil war lasted 25 years and ended with the Sri Lankan government declaring victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers. Momentum’s no building for a war crimes case, led by the International Commission of Jurists, relating to the way that conflict ended.

Sarah Dingle reports, and a warning that viewers may find some of the images in this story distressing.

SARAH DINGLE, REPORTER: The tropical island of Sri Lanka has some of the most beautiful beaches and jungles in Asia.

But this idyllic setting was shattered in 1983, when civil war erupted between the majority Sinhalese population and the ethnic Tamil minority. In late 2008 this came to a head with the Sri Lankan army trapping the Tamil Tigers, also known as the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), into a shrinking area in the northeast, known to some as the cage, along with more than 300,000 civilians.

GORDON WEISS, FORMER UN SPOKESMAN: The problem was not that the army of Sri Lanka had decided to regain its sovereign territory and to take on the Tamil Tigers, whose brutality was a matter of record, the problem was the manner in which they carried out the final phase of the war and the sheer number, the sheer proportion, of civilians who were killed during these final assaults.

SARAH DINGLE: Australian, Gordon Weiss, was the UN’s spokesman in Sri Lanka. One of his colleagues led the UN’s last food convoy into the cage, where it became trapped amid government shelling.

GORDON WEISS: You saw the bodies of family with whom he had been talking the previous night. He saw the corpse of a baby up in the tree. He saw the corpses of other people smouldering.

SARAH DINGLE: A UN panel report into the final stages of the war says the government repeatedly shelled hospitals and its own no-fire zones where it had encouraged civilians to gather. It finds both sides potentially guilty of war crimes, but accuses the Sri Lankan government of responsibility for the majority of civilian deaths, which numbered up to 40,000 people.

FATHER PANCRAS JORDAN, DOMINICAN PRIEST: There had been people without limbs, people who had lost their legs and arms and things like that.

SARAH DINGLE: Father Pancras Jordan is a Dominican priest of Tamil Origin, based in Brisbane. He went back to Sri Lanka in the final months of the war, visiting hospitals, to search for friends among the survivors fleeing the war zone.

Father Jordan says atrocities were committed by both sides, but the vast majority of deaths were caused by the Sri Lankan government’s shelling.

FATHER PANCRAS JORDAN: Well, really I had visited so many wards in hospital and they told me the story how people have been dying because of the bombing every day, day and night.

SARAH DINGLE: More than two years later, 7.30 has obtained images purporting to show the closed final conflict zone.

GORDON WEISS: All these soldiers had mobile telephones and all of them took trophy photographs. More of these trophy photographs began emerging, you know, in the months and years since the end of the war.

SARAH DINGLE: And do photos such as these warrant investigation, to your mind? Are they proof of war crimes?

GORDON WEISS: To my mind they are strongly indicative of war crimes having taken place.

SARAH DINGLE: The hundreds of photos 7.30 has obtained came from a former driver for the International Red Cross. Why says they were taken from the mobile phone of a Sri Lankan soldier.

Many are too distressing to be shown, as they depict the shattered bodies of men, women and children. One common pattern is that the female bodies of either Tamil Tiger fighters or civilians have been stripped. It’s unclear whether these were assaults before death or occurred afterwards as trophy photographs.

7.30 also obtained this video, which appears to be a man being tortured by soldiers.

In what appear to be later photos he is shown apparently dead in a ditch, covered in blood.

JOHN DOWD, INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION OF JURISTS: There is enough there to make a decision to hold a war crimes tribunal now.

Then you’ll see this, which is that same truck and bodies.

SARAH DINGLE: The Australian president of the International Commission of Jurists, John Dowd, has been painstakingly building his own collection of evidence of potential war crimes for months.

JOHN DOWD: There were people here being slaughtered, with the eyes of the world knowing.

The purposes of collecting evidence is: a) to intimidate those who might yet commit offences on people still held in custody; and secondly to take statements that can be tendered and used in a war crimes tribunal, if it is set up.

PROFESSOR RAJIVA WIJESINGHE, SRI LANKAN MP: Given the situation that the LTTE was putting its weapons very near these hospitals and firing at us from them, you can hardly expect the government not to fire back when they were being attacked.

SARAH DINGLE: During the final stages of the war, Sri Lankan MP, Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, was part of the secretariat organsing the peace process.

7.30 asked Professor Wijesinghe for his response to some of the material.

RAJIVA WIJESINGHE: Well it’s very difficult to investigate photographs without any date or time. I mean they were of someone who seemed as though he was being tortured, and that I think if we had any date or time attached to it, we should look at it.

I did notice in that some of the pictures the people around him were wearing rubber slippers and I would wonder if those military people.

SARAH DINGLE: Professor Wijesinghe estimates the number of civilians killed in the final months of the war was between and two and 3,000. He says the Tamil Tigers, or the LTTE, were responsible for many of these deaths.

RAJIVA WIJESINGHE: There were several levels of civilians who were killed. Some of them were put deliberately in the way of the forces by the LTTE.

But then there were the people conscripted. I mean don’t forget that right through the LTTE was conscripting one person per family.

SARAH DINGLE: The UN report calls for an immediate Sri Lankan government war crimes investigation and also an independent international inquiry.

Despite no action, John Dowd says the International Commission of Jurists will submit a case for a war crimes tribunal to the UN.

JOHN DOWD: Sri Lanka is a rogue state in that it has for decades suppressed adverse news, it denies anything being wrong despite clear evidence that serious humanitarian disasters and war crimes were committed. The world should see that those crimes are brought to justice.

RAJIVA WIJESINGHE: One of the biggest problems Sri Lanka faces is to try to understand why we are being persecuted for having got rid of one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. Why we are being persecuted for having rescued 300,000 people who were being held as hostages.

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