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Australia mounts pressure on Sri Lanka over war crimes charges

[Reuters, Tuesday, 25 October 2011 07:08 No Comment]

Australia joined Canada on Tuesday calling for Sri Lanka to address allegations of human rights abuses during its war against Tamil Tiger separatists, adding pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa ahead of a Commonwealth leaders summit.

A Sri Lankan-born Australian has also filed court papers seeking war crime charges against Rajapaksa, who is due to arrive in Perth for the summit on Tuesday, and Australia police are separately examining whether Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, a former naval admiral, has a case to answer on war crimes.

Western nations are pushing Sri Lanka for an independent probe into allegations that thousands of civilians died in May 2009 as government troops closed in on the Tamil Tigers, a group on the terrorism lists of more than 30 countries.

Sri Lanka, which rejects the war crimes charges, has warned that the issue could split the Commonwealth summit of 50-plus leaders. Sri Lanka is due to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2013 and Canada has threatened to boycott the Sri Lanka summit.

"Australia and like-minded countries have been urging and will continue to urge Sri Lanka to address the serious allegations that have been made of human rights violations during the end stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said ahead of opening a pre-CHOGM business forum.

Protesters say they will target the Perth summit which starts on Friday and, among a number of demands, will single out "war criminals and parasites", including Sri Lanka’s president.

Australian Arunachalam Jegatheeswaran said on Tuesday that he had filed papers in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court to seek justice for civilians killed in aerial bombardments during the final months of the war.

Jegatheeswaran, a civil engineer, returned to Sri Lanka early in 2007 to work as a volunteer, staying with relatives in the Tamil stronghold of Kilinochchi. When the aid work was disrupted by the war, he volunteered to work in a camp for displaced people, but says he did not work for the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"We want an international war crimes investigation into Sri Lanka. We want the inquiry to look at both sides," he told Reuters.

A court hearing is set for Nov. 29, and Australian police and the country’s attorney-general would need to conclude there was enough evidence of criminality for the case to proceed.

"I am living testimony to what happened," Jegatheeswaran said in his court papers.

"I saw Sri Lankan planes directing bombs into towns and open areas where displaced people were congregated, including areas declared as no-fire zones. I saw many hundreds of civilians killed and injured by these attacks," he said.

Sri Lanka has said it was impossible to avoid all civilian casualties during the final offensive of the 25-year war against the Tamil Tigers.

But a U.N. advisory panel report says there is "credible evidence" both sides committed war crimes.

Australian National University international law professor Don Rothwell said the war crimes accusations against Rajapaksa and separate claims lodged with police last week against Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, former admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, could test the scope of diplomatic immunity.

[Full Coverage]

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