Video stirs call for Sri Lanka war crimes probe

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A video purportedly showing troops shooting blindfolded, naked Tamils in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war has revived calls for a war crimes investigation and cast a shadow over the upcoming presidential elections.

The controversy heated up after a top U.N. human rights investigator said the footage – reportedly shot by a soldier with a mobile phone – appeared to be authentic.

Sri Lankan officials said Friday the video was a fabrication, rejected any war crimes probe and said the U.N. investigator, Philip Alston, was prejudiced against the country.

“We believe his conclusions are highly subjective and biased,” Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said. “We believe he is on a crusade of his own to force a war-crime inquiry against Sri Lanka.”

The revived focus on possible abuses could complicate the island nation’s efforts to close the book on its quarter-century civil war with the Tamil Tiger rebels and attract the millions in international aid needed to fund its costly rebuilding plans.

U.N. reports say more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the months leading up to the government’s victory over the rebels in May. Human rights groups accused the military of shelling hospitals and heavily populated civilian areas during the fighting, and the rebels of holding the local population as human shields. A U.S. State Department report has accused both sides of possible war crimes.

The government barred journalists and nearly all aid groups from the northern war zone.

In August, the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka released video footage that appeared to show soldiers summarily executing unarmed, naked Tamils, including two blindfolded men shot in the head at close range. The group said it was shot by a Sri Lankan soldier in January 2009 using a mobile phone.

On Thursday, Alston, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s investigator on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, said reports by three U.S.-based independent forensic experts “strongly suggest that the video is authentic.”

Rupert Colville, spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, told reporters in Geneva on Friday that Alston’s report added to a series of troubling allegations regarding the conduct of the war.

“We believe a full and impartial investigation is critical if we’re to confront all the very big question marks that hang over this war,” he said. “Obviously if the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Sri Lankan government has done nothing wrong, it will have nothing to fear from an international investigation.”

However, there may not be much international appetite into launching an investigation. The U.N. Human Rights Council last year rejected such calls and instead praised the government for crushing the rebels.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama also rejected the calls for a war crimes probe and accused Alston of timing his comments to interfere with upcoming presidential elections.

The revived allegations could complicate the hard-fought presidential campaign between the main architects of the war: President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his recently retired army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Political analyst Jehan Perera said the latest salvo could cause a dilemma for Tamil parties that have pressed for a war crimes probe but also endorsed Fonseka – who led the army in its final battles – in his opposition bid for the presidency.

The rebels fought since 1983 for an independent homeland for minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the war.

Perera said some sort of investigation was crucial to reconciliation in the scarred country, though he preferred a credible national probe to an international one.

“The issue of what happened in the war has to be dealt with. It can’t be ignored,” he said.


Bradley S. Klapper contributed to this report from Geneva.


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